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Carving out a new name for Chinese furniture

By Wang Hui | China Daily | Updated: 2014-11-08 07:47

Handcrafted works combine traditional features from home and abroad, Wang Hui reports.

Furniture talks. For Yu Heqin, general manager of Beijing Heyixing Classical Furniture Co Ltd, the new products his company makes tell a long story of a "marriage" between East and West.

"In my newly made furniture pieces, Chinese customers can easily sense the increasing Western touch while Western consumers can recognize the Chinese elements at first sight," Yu said.

As a manufacturer specialized in Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) style furniture and modern classical furniture, Heyixing now has an annual output value of 30 million yuan ($4.88 million). Its years of exploration in high-end antiqued Chinese furniture and experimentation in integrating Chinese features with Western styles have finally paid off: Its customers include domestic buyers from all over the country and furniture dealers from North America, Europe and Southeast Asia.

In Beijing's southern suburban district of Daxing, the headquarters of the company cover an area of more than 13,000 square meters. Its plant, staffed with more than 100 employees, covers an area of almost 9,000 sq m.

The company's 2,000 sq m exhibition hall is within the headquarters and showcases Ming and Qing style furniture and a series of lacquer, classical and vogue furniture all made from quality wood including gold simmering nanmu, huanghuali, old elm, walnut and cypress.

By referring to models, patterns and workmanship of classical Chinese furniture, Heyixing's Ming and Qing style furniture represents quintessential elements of traditional Chinese furniture. The company has developed a new series made from black walnut by drawing on elements from both Chinese and Western furniture.

In the past 13 years, Heyixing has become well-known among Chinese furniture manufacturers for its high-end products and constant pursuit of perfection. The company's achievements to date come down to Yu's good judgment in market competition as well as his innovative ideas.

Unique experience

Yu's years of experience in traditional industrial arts, continuous pursuit of top-quality products and taste in art have helped shape the company's culture and brand as well as inject vitality to its growth.

In 1981, Yu worked in Beijing Gold Lacquer Inlays Factory. The plant was a leading manufacturer of lacquer works, including furniture with inlays, in China. According to Yu, making furniture with inlays is the top of the trade as it involves craftsmanship of various professions.

Yu excelled in the plant as he was assiduous and keen to learn. He quickly moved up the management ladder and was poised to be the factory manager's successor.

In 2000, Yu took an abrupt turn in his career by quitting the factory and setting up a furniture plant of his own with three partners. He said the opportunities that emerged from China's reform and opening-up policy helped him make the decision. "Opportunities are only available to those who are prepared," he said.

As old furniture was the best-seller in the market at the time, Yu started his business by collecting old furniture from communities and repairing it to then resell it for a profit. His factory then focused on manufacturing antiqued Chinese furniture with rare hardwoods including gold simmering nanmu, rosewood and huanghuali.

Like most people who start their own businesses, Yu endured many hardships and said the winter of 2001 was his most difficult time. "We made the first batch of furniture with almost all the money we had, but no orders came. I had to make a hard choice between shutting down and making a job cut," he recalled.

"I chose neither options and continued paying the staff with my own money," the 57-year-old said.

As orders finally started to come in, Yu's factory struggled through the difficult times and embarked on a fast track to development.

With Yu's perseverance in ensuring every piece of furniture created was a work of art, Heyixing products soon became popular in the domestic market and also appealed to foreigners. Each year, the factory's exhibitions of furniture at the Canton Fair and Shanghai International Furniture Exhibition attracted dealers from both home and abroad.

Before 2006, the overseas orders Heyixing received were worth $3 million to $4 million each year. But Heyixing's antiqued furniture business soon met with a downturn. Yu blamed the shoddy and counterfeit furniture products that yielded quick economic returns, which he said were rampant and disrupted the market.

"It is a pity that years of cut-throat competition has seriously tarnished the fame of Chinese furniture in the international market. China is indisputably the number one furniture exporter, but Chinese furniture's added value and price rank fairly low in the world," Yu sighed.

Innovation is key

"China's entry into the WTO was really a game changer," Yu said and added that "many Chinese enterprises soon found out that their products could not compete with foreign ones." The reality of the situation made Yu realize innovation was the only way out for his company.

After comparing the main features of Chinese and Western furniture, Yu decided that he wanted to help Chinese furniture be better accepted by foreign consumers.

He said that because of cultural differences it was sometimes difficult for foreigners to understand the distinctive patterns on Chinese furniture. For example swastikas on Chinese furniture could be misinterpreted as the Nazi emblem, but the sign has its origin in Buddhism and since ancient times has been seen as an auspicious symbol in China, according to Yu.

In 2006 and 2007, Yu and his Italian chief designer Marcello Bennati drew up numerous designs and created furniture models to find the best way to seamlessly combine Chinese features with Western traditions.

Heyixing uses black walnut wood, which is very popular in international furniture designs, to make all its innovative furniture series. It chooses materials meticulously and strives for the best in each production process. The new series is a whole set of multiple furniture pieces for sitting rooms, bedrooms and study rooms.

In 2012, the new furniture series won the industrial designing award granted by the Chinese Ministry of Industry & Information Technology. The design and craftsmanship also caused a stir among domestic and international dealers at the Shanghai International Furniture Exhibition in 2013.

While preserving the best features from Chinese traditional furniture, the series also draws on popular Western concepts, which emphasize comfort, practicality and decorative functions. For example, the bedroom furniture series was created by integrating the natural, easy and smooth elements advocated by the Chinese with modern Western furniture manufacturing concepts.

Due to the handcrafted details of each piece of Heyixing's antiqued furniture, large-scale production is out of the question. It takes the company four months to complete a four-piece antiqued furniture set with one table, two chairs and a side table. The exception is the new vogue furniture in black walnut wood, which Heyixing has managed to produce on a larger scale after overcoming technical difficulties.

A strict manager

Yu is a strict manager who does not allow wood with even the tiniest defect to be used. He said he believes that credibility is the life of a company and only products of the best quality can withstand the tests of the market. "In this way, the economic return may be slow but the brand will last longer," he said.

Yu is also a caring boss, with integrity and a deep understanding of traditional Chinese culture. This is reflected by his team's high degree of loyalty. The company's chief wood carver, Xu Dazhi, is the best in the trade in Beijing and has followed Yu for many years.

As a private company owner eyeing up the overseas market, Yu said he looked forward to cooperating with more foreign counterparts and integrating his company's development plans with the Chinese dream. He said through his company's efforts he hopes high-end Chinese furniture will take on a new image in the world.

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Carving out a new name for Chinese furniture

The company's chief wood carver, Xu Dazhi (right), who is the best in the trade in Beijing and has followed Yu for many years, plays an important role in ensuring the quality and taste of furniture.

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