Erna Walsh, CEO of iconic furniture distributors KFive + Kinnarps, has come to own an incredibly valuable bank of design knowledge acquired over more than 2 decades cemented in the industry. Erna and the KFive team have established one of the most comprehensive collections of European brand partners in Australia and are routinely engaged on some of the most cutting-edge projects both locally and internationally. We were honoured to recently spend a few moments with Erna and spent the time chatting about how the global design industry has weathered some remarkable phases and trends in recent times to emerge decidedly more considered, sustainably minded, and with a huge regard for our own blossoming Australian furniture industry.
Open Journal: With your career spanning over 20 years, what are some of the evolutions and trends you have navigated in the furniture procurement and design industry’s over that time?
Erna Walsh: At the beginning of my career the furniture industry was very much driven by Italian product and design. It was a golden period of industrialization, particularly injection moulding. This allowed designers to introduce new shapes which could be produced to a high-quality level and in large quantity.
In the last 10 years, we have seen the rise (return) of Scandinavian design which focuses more on the use of natural materials and more subtle design.
We have also seen the gradual resurrection of Australian furniture design and manufacture which had suffered heavily during the 80’s and 90’s under the weight of imports from Asia.
Though smaller in scale this new industry is good news.
Open Journal: How has a growing global conscience when it comes to sustainability affected the furniture design industry? Have we, as a society, bridged some of the gaps between expectation and feasibility when it comes to opting for sustainable products over those that are less sustainable but perhaps more affordable?
Erna Walsh: The emphasis on sustainability is not as new as many people think. I can see that it began over 20 years ago particularity with our Scandinavian suppliers. What has happened is that sustainability is now seen as a necessity not just an option.
The cost differential has also reduced so the decision making to seek out sustainable products is not such a challenge.
There will always be those people who seek out the cheapest product regardless of the cost to the environment or the cheap labor employed to produce such items.
For most people, it is becoming clearer that we all as individuals have to be more discerning of the environmental impact of the products we buy. We will be OK but our children are aware that they will be facing the impact of our actions. I am not sure they are satisfied with our efforts to date!
Nikari Arkipelago. Designed by Kari Virtanen
Open Journal: Australia is fast moving closer to the “European model” of living. This means we are essentially seeing a larger portion of the urban population embracing smaller footprint living spaces [apartments] over the single family home, and seeking out medium/ high-density living that is part of a full amenity community with public green spaces, proximity to the high street etc. What advice do you have for apartment friendly furniture solutions?
Erna Walsh: Australia is a large country and we have a lot of space but like many other countries we see a combination of urban sprawl (the result of the great Australian dream) as well as increased density in our capital cities particularily on the east coast.
In these cities we need to be intelligent in how we make smaller spaces more livable. It may not be the first idea that comes to mind but we need to use items of furniture that are free from toxicity so we should look to purchase furniture items that use natural products like timber and natural fibres. Read the labels, avoid cheap fabrics which are quite likely to be toxic and highly flammable. Buy something that lasts and makes you feel happy each day. It’s possible with furniture!
To cope with a smaller space and to reduce clutter it’s a good idea to look at products that can be multipurpose. A table that can also be a desk, perhaps with some hidden way of dealing with the need to deliver power to the desk top when it’s a desk. A chair that has ergonomic qualities for working but still looks welcoming for a dinner with friends. A sofa that can be a sofa bed is a very old idea but still useful as are the many clever storage ideas that are now available.
Nikari April Tables By Alfredo Häberli
Open Journal: You are very well traveled! Drawing from your experience of other global housing models, how would you like to see residential development evolving in Australia?
Erna Walsh: There are many innovative architects working in Australia who are pushing the boundaries as they design apartment buildings.
They seek out natural light as much as possible, combine the great Australian patio with indoor-outdoor spaces. Protection when the sun is too strong, ways to catch and conserve light and water. They have also embraced the greening of the actual buildings with more vertical vegetation and refined the concept of the “village green”. Planning rules should support these steps and the basic concrete box “cheap” apartments should be banished!
We, the public, need to support the architects who embrace these ideas.
Open Journal: KFive sources furniture solutions globally. How does the Australian furniture design landscape differ from others?
Erna Walsh: As in many areas of activity including sport and science Australians contribute well above their numbers. We always have our heroes, from the Boyd’s and Featherstone’s to the Marc Newsons. What we are seeing now is the development of a strong locally based and design-driven industry. It’s not craft-based (although this still continues) it is commercially based and it is a welcome resurgence of furniture manufacturing in Australia.
Interview compiled by for Open Journal by Tiffany Jade.
Images courtesy of Kfive + Kinnarps.