Dezeen Magazine

Salone del Mobile photo by Saverio Lombardi Vallauri.

Brexit uncertainty causes problems for British furniture brands ahead of Milan design week

The ongoing uncertainty over Brexit is causing havoc with UK furniture brands' preparations for Milan design week, which starts 10 days after the country is due to leave the European Union.

With Brexit scheduled for 29 March 2019, and a no-deal exit still a real possibility, British designers and manufacturers are fretting over how they will get their products across the English Channel amid potential chaos on both ferry and Eurotunnel routes.

"It is a serious issue," said Sheridan Coakley, director of British furniture brand SCP. "Most people work down to the wire on their designs and people are usually panicking to get their furniture there in the week before the show starts."

Many British companies have decided to avoid showing in Milan altogether this year – although many of them are not openly blaming their decision on Brexit. SCP is among them.

"I think you'll find there are a lot of companies not attending this year, probably not for any reason in particular, and certainly not because of Brexit," Coakley told Dezeen.

Shipping delays could create "bottleneck at Dover"

Milan design week 2019 takes place from 8 to 14 April. As the most important event in the industry calendar, it centres around the Salone del Mobile furniture fair, which every year showcases products by over 2,000 brands.

Outside the main fair, many UK companies showcase their products at venues across the city as part of a programme collectively referred to as the Fuorisalone.

Brodie Neill, who is this year presenting his work in the Brera Design District, is among those with concerns about getting trucks over the ferry crossing between Dover and Calais.

The London-based Australian designer, founder of furniture brand Made in Ratio, moved his Milan shipment forward to avoid risk of delays.

"We're going to verge on the side of caution," he told Dezeen.

"We would normally expect a straight-through journey of about 30 hours, but we're expecting that to be a lot more because of any bottleneck at Dover."

Modus and SCP among British brands staying away

British brands that have decided not to exhibit at all this year include Lee Broom, ModusPinch and Established & Sons, as well as SCP.

Many brands that spoke to Dezeen claimed their decision was not motivated by Brexit. However one brand director, who wishes to remain anonymous, admitted that Brexit was part of their reason for staying away. Instead the brand plans to focus on launching new products in the UK and engaging with local customers.

"Brexit is definitely affecting our thought process as a business," they told Dezeen. "Whilst it was not the overarching reason we chose not to participate in Milan, it does play a part in this."

Similarly, Modus managing director Jon Powell told Dezeen that the brand had made the decision to take a break from Milan for the first time in 15 years to give itself more time to focus on the UK market and manage its expansion plans.

"We had intended to return to Milan this year, however, the uncertainty around Brexit, combined with the fact that we didn't feel we missed it especially last year, resulted in us deciding to wait for a further year, before reconsidering our plans for Milan," he explained.

"We will probably return to Milan in the next year or so, hopefully once Brexit has resolved itself and we have a clearer perspective on our position with the EU," he added.

Lee Broom focuses on new markets abroad

In some cases, companies said the cost of exhibiting in Milan has become disproportionate to the value of business it brings, while others said they are simply focusing on other markets.

British designer Lee Broom, whose eponymous brand has had a presence at the event every year since 2012, claims his reason for avoiding Milan this year is that he wants to instead grow the brand's presence in Australia, Asia and the USA.

"We decided we wanted a different focus for our exhibitions in 2019, so in March we will present our largest exhibition to date in Sydney, Australia, with Space Furniture," Broom told Dezeen. "Australia and Asia are important markets for the brand, and due to timings and scale of the Sydney presentation, we decided not to exhibit in Milan this year."

"Milan is always an important part of our design calendar, however I felt that this year it would be interesting to take the opportunity to present my work other cities who have supported my brand over the years," Broom told Dezeen. "We will be exhibiting in New York during ICFF and in London during London Design Festival."

Tom Dixon says it's time to "invest in Europe"

Conversely, designer Tom Dixon has decided to invest more in Milan this year than ever before. His eponymous brand is putting down permanent roots in the Italian city, in the form of a 100-cover restaurant called The Manzoni, which will pre-open during this year's Milan design week.

"The chaos, uncertainty and gloom surrounding Brexit could cause us all to hide under the duvet and hope it will all go away, but for us it just means that we have to move faster and try harder in an international landscape," the designer told Dezeen.

"Our reaction is to invest in Europe this year with a permanent space in Milan opening at Salone."

Dixon has previously hosted huge events during Milan design week, from the MOST venue in 2012 to the Teatro Manzoni exhibition in 2017, although he controversially decided to stay away in 2018.

"After years of doing five-day exhibitions in Milan, we finally decided that we had enough of putting such huge energy into pop-up interventions," added Dixon. "We wanted to look at different ways of being present in Milan. With the city being so active and engaging right now, it is the right time to forget being temporary and build something permanent."

Brexit uncertainty continues

The question of whether the Brexit process could be executed as a seamless transition or something much more chaotic hangs on whether or not a withdrawal agreement can be reached between the UK government and the European Union.

The latest Brexit deal put forward by prime minister Theresa May was rejected by British MPs by 391 votes to 242, with just 17 days to go before the scheduled Brexit date.

MPs have now voted against a no-deal Brexit, although this vote is not legally binding. At the moment the departure is still scheduled for 29 March, although there is a possibility of it being delayed until June.

Last month, UK magazine Which reported that airlines are not doing enough to warn customers about the possible impact of a no deal Brexit.

The magazine said that travellers should be made aware that they will need to have at least six months left on their passport from the date of arrival in EU countries, and that a cap will be imposed on new flight routes and flight frequencies of UK airlines, which could lead to as many as five million plane tickets being cancelled.

UK designers pin hopes on a People's Vote

The UK's architects and designers are believed to have largely voted to remain in the European Union. Many have been campaigning for a second referendum, now that the the various options for Brexit are on the table.

The Creative Industries Federation, Norman Foster and David Chipperfield were among the business leaders to sign a letter calling for a People's Vote earlier this year. The request followed on from a letter sent in October that was signed by over 1,000 leading architects that called for the UK to remain part of the EU, in spite of the vote to leave.

Despite the Home Office stating that it will grant special visas to architects who demonstrate exceptional talent or promise, a report by the RIBA revealed that nearly half of EU architects have considered leaving the country because of Brexit.

Main image showing the Salone del Mobile is by Saverio Lombardi Vallauri.