If you stand in a furniture store for long enough, eventually you’ll see someone do a double-take at the price tag of a sofa, bed or coffee table.
Maybe it’s because in today’s world of online shopping, there’s a rising market of knock-off, fast-furniture options out there (albeit of questionable quality, made in questionable conditions) available for a fraction of the price. Or, maybe it’s simply because anything with too many zeros on the end is always going to make people raise their eyebrows.
‘Everyone is very price sensitive, especially in this economic climate,’ says SARAH ELLISON. CEO and co-founder, Leigh McKeown. He and stylist-turned-designer Sarah Ellison launched her hugely successful namesake brand in 2017, making waves with their tonal, sophisticated, and refined furniture collections.
The duo’s aspiration was to be a digital business that sells the ‘Australian design aesthetic to the world’. They decided to forgo a big warehouse and a plethora of showrooms in order to avoid passing on these big costs to their customers, because when your goal is to sell to ‘the world’, getting the price right is a big ask. ‘We looked at all options when we started, and we really wanted Sarah Ellison to be accessible,’ Leigh says.
This meant balancing the quality of their pieces with a price that fell in the middle of the furniture market – appealing to customers who love original designers and wanted a step up from the generic offerings of your typical furniture giants, but are also looking for something more affordable than some of the five-figure dining tables you’ll find at the top of the range. A SARAH ELLISON. dining table starts at about $2000, while the Zephyr 2.5 Seat Sofa will set you back $2349. And prices start at $6599 for their luxurious new coffee-coloured FLOAT sofa.
While everything is designed locally by their team in Australia, Leigh says they’re only able to achieve these prices because they make them overseas. ‘Even us at the price we are at, we get pushback on price with people wishing it was Australian made. But that $5000 sofa would need to be $15,000 or $20,000 to make it here.’
Now with suppliers across the US, Vietnam, India, Indonesia and China, Leigh says their focus is on making the pieces ‘wherever the expertise is’.
‘When we did our rattan collection, we did that in Indonesia because rattan is what they know the best and they are very skilled at using that material,’ he explains.
But finding the right manufacturers has been a difficult, time-consuming, and expensive process in itself. The brand is moving towards a made-to-order model, and currently only orders ‘very small runs’ of about 50 pieces at a time. Leigh also estimates about 70 per cent of the work behind their pieces is handmade, in contrast to some of the ‘big box retailers’, who mass-produce pieces at budget prices.
There’s no denying Sarah Ellison’s investment in creating considered designs has been a key part of their overwhelming success, and this focus contributes to a large part of their prices.
‘From initial design to a product being ready, it can take us anywhere between 12 to 18 months just to get it right before we can launch it. We often go through about three, four or five iterations of something before it’s ready,’ Leigh explains.
‘And when you are working with a really cheap factory, they’re not going to spend a year with you doing that kind of thing. For many suppliers, it’s much easier to sell to a bigger retailer because they’ll buy a thousand of something, than it is to work with a brand like Sarah Ellison. But for us, we would never want to put anything into the world that we’re not proud of.’
There are, of course, a handful of companies who’ve managed to create a thriving manufacturing processes here in Australia. But (as Leigh points out), a lot of them were established in a different, less inflated economic market than the ones brand’s face today.
Family-owned furniture business Jardan has been producing its designs here in Australia since 1987, when they started with a small team of eight. It’s a legacy that managing director Nick Garnham is proud to have maintained, now employing more than 100 skilled makers who handcraft all of their pieces from their expansive Melbourne factory with the help of advanced machinery. The company also has their own internal design teams, alongside a research and development department that create and prototype all their new products.
Naturally, this allows them to create a premium product, with a premium cost. Nick says Jardan’s Wilfred Sofa goes through a ‘meticulous manufacturing process that involves 14 departments’, including timber machining, CNC wood routing, sanding, polishing, frame-making, cutting, sewing, foam cutting, upholstery – just to name a few. Prices for one of those two-seat sofas start from $9,094, while larger modular designs from the brand can climb beyond $18,000.
‘We haven’t explored the cost of offshore manufacturing but we do acknowledge that labour costs in Australia are relatively high,’ Nick says.
‘However, we prioritise quality over cost and believe that sourcing premium materials and controlling our quality justifies our investment in Australian manufacturing.’ By choosing to produce locally, he says it also ensures ‘the highest standards of working conditions and environmental practices’.
It’s not just the workmanship or their materials that adds to their prices. Since 2005, Jardan’s been focusing on sustainability, even hiring a ‘dedicated environmental management team’ that’s helped them become carbon neutral. All their pieces are ‘made for life’, which means they also accept the return of products that have reached the end of their life and recycle them.
‘To this end, we have recently invested in a briquetting machine that enables us to repurpose sawdust collected from extraction and timber offcuts by transforming them into briquettes that can be sold to heat people’s homes. Additionally, we have also introduced a foam shredding machine to upcycle materials,’ Nick adds. ‘These initiatives require both time and money, which add to our production costs.’
For the Garnhams, this is all part of creating ‘good design’. And their enduring success shows there’s a a definite appetite for customers willing (and able) to invest in their timeless pieces.
‘We extend an invitation to all our clients to visit our factory and witness firsthand how our furniture is crafted. We believe that seeing the scale and complexity of our manufacturing processes can be eye-opening and provide insight into why Australian manufacturing comes at a higher cost,’ Nick explains.
Perhaps that’s the perspective we’re missing when we look at the prices of our dream furniture purchases with lament. Because, it’s not just about what you see in the store or online, but everything that came before it; the time, design, care, materials, and the many hands these designs pass through before they land on our wishlists. Good brands know that furnishing your home with well-made pieces comes at a price — it just depends what you’re willing to pay.