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PDP Malaysia

A land of wonder

In 2015 I was contacted by Ms. Roberta Mutti, from Italian Consulting.

I was exactly in front of this when an unexpected call rang

I remember we were chatting, some days before while I was checking last prototypes to be exhibited by Fontana Arte at Milan Furniture Fair, about the fact I was quite tired of Italian industrial environment and how everything seemed so static. She told me she probably had something that would have suited my cravings, and that we would have got in contact again soon.

Indeed, while I was inside the messy building site of FontanaArte’s new booth, I got her call, explaining me better: the program was set to happen in Malaysia, with the patronage of an important government agency dealing with timber and industry promotion.

Among the many fascinating indications I was overwhelmed with, I got some keywords: Malaysia, ministry, consultancy, promotion, furniture, manufacturers, travels, have-to-leave-in-about-a-month, so-please-tell-me-in-few-days.

Well, that sounded quite scary, to be honest: everything was happening so fast and the decision had to be taken in such a short time, but I was dreaming about ASEAN countries since I read a great book by Giles Milton titled “Nathaniel’s Nutmeg” (check it, if you like historical travel books), and the proposal was surely definitely enthralling.

I called her back the day after shouting a loud “I’m in!”

As I discovered better later, the goal was to work together with different selected local manufacturers and mentoring local designers in order to help the evolution of local Malaysian design culture; that was meaning frequent travels abroad and visits to manufacturer to start cooperation, formulate briefings and propose a product development plan: cool!

The Italian edition cover of a fascinating book about south-eastern asia and its importance over centuries

Before i could even realize it, I was seated on a plane heading to Kuala Lumpur.

Since that July, for almost five years, together with other fellow designers from Europe, I’ve been participating in a program called PDP (Professional Designer Programme) enrolled by the Malaysian government itself, through an internal agency caring about furniture industry promotion (MFPC, later passed on MTIB, another state-run agency but more focused on timber exploitation) and through frequent travels in Asia I was put in contact with local manufacturer and above all local culture, which I loved and still love.

MIFF, the local furniture fairs together with EFE, always attracts many buyers from any part of the world.

Malaysia is one of the most important exporter of furniture selling worldwide, but it mainly works in a OEM frame that didn’t allow them to develop an own design culture, meaning they produce (a lot) for somebody else, on-order only but lack a proper design process that could start from scratch. Here comes the Italian Design approach: along the four years I worked with dozens of huge companies and exhibited in Kuala Lumpur, hoping I helped the manufacturing transitioning to an OBM framework.

Sometimes, dealing with the production scheme adopted by Malaysian brands has been quite counterintuitive for a European designer: the small size of our businesses (well, at least the Italian vast part) makes us flexible and independent from market-driven rules, so along the years European brands and Italian brands in particular focused on the creation of cultural value for their products; but bigger manufacturer work differently. Instead, they conveniently focus on market and profit margin.

Almost every Malaysian company I spoke with expressed its turnover quantifying the number of containers (containers!) shipped per month (per month!!!)

I would not say there’s a better way to deal with it (taking money or culture as parameters would lead to totally different evaluations) but for sure the mindset I had at that time clashed with companies whose strategy was essentially to generate less labour costs as possible and avoid any tooling investment. But, as long as I kept collaborating with local professionals, it was clear everything had its logic, and the whole system could work exactly because of that approach.

Here are some pictures I took about the local factories and their facilities.

The challenge was indeed layering an OBM-like approach over the already existing OEM one; letting the manufacturer produce large batches would have allowed them to experiment on their own brand and own designs.

Somebody was keen to take this giant leap while somebody else deemed useless, but in the end I must admit the results were very encouraging: an attitude I could eyewitness during exhibitions: when I was called to do some lectures I kept seeing the local audience increasing in number and attention time by time.

Since the very first meeting, it was clear to me Malaysia had a very precise goal. Relentlessly, all the people involved appeared determined to take an evolutionary step for an already well-working industry, and the way the government has been farsighted both surprised me and impressed me.

I was often invited to participate forums and mentoring programs, attended by local professionals, company representatives and students as well.
In amazing venues, no less than two fairs take place.
That year, my Neige chair for Wegmans was featured all over the place

The program developed around selected local manufacturers, usually 4-5 per years, coming from different industrial areas of the country: Selangor, Klang, Ipoh, Sabah, Muar. We were given a briefing (usually more a market research, for the aforementioned reasons) to be developed and discussed with the manufacturers that would have eventually produced the needed prototypes and exhibited the final products during furniture trade shows, locally or internationally.

The most interesting thing (apart from the country itself, which is astonishingly beautiful) had been seeing how a design concept only lived in the head of the designers, and how companies couldn’t deal with something not physically existent, yet producing it according to designer’s specs. On the other hand, sometimes I couldn’t find any difference in the way they produced goods and coordinated operations from what I was used to.

This, in my opinion, means that with a proper design culture, a solid foundations or a willing and trusted art direction, Malaysian manufacturer could not only turn into OBM-based enterprises, but even become major player, also seen the wide distribution they can count on globally.

CHANG dining set, for Mobilia, is a nice example of how a nice coordination and an open-minded company’s availability to discussion can lead to rather satisfying results

In 2020 the pandemic blocked any chance to proceed with further plans, but many ideas are still boiling and can’t wait to come back there and develop more.

The entire collection of the products I designed will be posted soon, stay tuned!


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