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High-end furniture business is sitting pretty

Kiosk Design in Toronto has grown from a trade-only space along an alleyway to a 20,000-square-foot showroom.

Gemma Warren/Kiosk

Taking cues from art and haute cuisine, the luxury furniture industry in Canada has long looked to Europe for inspiration.

But for those who make a living at it, patience is the operative word.

"There's always been amazing product out of Europe that we wanted to bring in," says Paul Sidi, who runs Kiosk Design Inc. in downtown Toronto. The danger, however, was in outpacing local tastes.

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"We've had to kind of balance how far ahead we wanted to be," he says. "But the good sign is there's definitely been growth, and now we're selling things that we wouldn't have even five years ago."

Co-founded by Paul's father, Robert, in 1994, Kiosk has grown in sync with the luxury furniture industry, from a trade-only space along a narrow alleyway in midtown Toronto to a spacious 20,000-square-foot showroom in the sweet spot for the designer furnishings industry on King Street East.

To the immediate east is Klaus By Nienkamper, another European-inspired showroom that specializes in industry heavyweights such as Dutch designer Moooi and Britain's Tom Dixon. Across the street is Italinteriors, another store that caters to the well-to-do.

Being clustered together is good for business, says Mr. Sidi, particularly in a retail sector that relies on walk-ins. No one, he says, is going to spend $14,000 on a dining table on Amazon. "In the high-end furnishing business, we found that people still really prefer the tangible experience of the store," he says.

As Mr. Sidi explains, each player in Toronto relies on exclusive contracts with European manufacturers, so while customers may head to a competitor for the likes of Boffi or Cassina, they would come to him for a B&B Italia writing desk or a loveseat from Ligne Roset. So although he describes Kiosk as a "pitbull in the world of furniture," that exclusivity allows stores to fight in their own corners and not torpedo the industry by undercutting one another.

Customers are more comfortable shopping for high-end furnishings today because they can research them online and then see them in large showrooms that have popped up in the past few years, he says.

A similar scenario is playing out across the country.

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"At one point it was pretty hard to get someone to quantify spending the kind of money that is required to own a Minotti sofa or a Walter Knoll armchair," says Shaun Ford, who founded Shaun Ford & Co. in Calgary nine years ago. "People would struggle to find the value in that. But since I've been doing this it's definitely evolved."

His typical customers have been well-educated, well-travelled professionals aged 40 to 60, and empty nesters. But now he's seeing more younger customers, people in their late 20s and 30s who value the craftsmanship and artisanal qualities of the furniture.

"They get the value of the products we're carrying. They're not comparing an armchair we're selling with something from Crate and Barrel," Mr. Ford says.

One product line carried by his store features pieces handled by just one person from start to finish. "You can't replicate that; it's one of a kind," he says.

Technology is playing a bigger role in production, however.

Klaus Nienkamper, who has been in the furniture industry for more than 50 years, makes his own furniture and supplies items to the showroom on King Street, which is run by his son, Klaus Jr. He espouses the benefits of good quality materials, particularly imported leather, and he has been known to buy back pieces of his furniture when they appear at auction, 30 to 40 years after he originally sold them.

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But that insistence on quality doesn't necessarily preclude the use of technology. "In our factory, we computerize wherever we possibly can, because in many ways you don't have to rely totally on the skill of someone," he says. "You can do something that's high quality and is much more precise."

At the furniture manufacturer IZM Inc. in Edmonton, the economic downturn of 2008 forced somewhat of a rethink. Designer Shane Pawluk says the company had to stop making solid-wood pieces because they were just too expensive.

The romantic illusion of how furniture is made is often just that, an illusion, Mr. Pawluk says. "These days I think the whole artisanal [idea], a guy with a leather apron in dim light making your furniture, is how people think it's done. And we're like, no," Mr. Pawluk says.

However, the production process is an important aspect. Nancy Bendtsen, who has owned and operated Vancouver's Inform Interiors for 22 years with her husband, Niels, says that they can no longer sell some items from a company that took its manufacturing to China.

"People want to know where things are from and what the materials are," she says. "A lot of young people, they want to make the right decision and they want to have something that lasts a long time."

Her business has also benefited from high real estate prices. When customers can no longer afford a cottage to go along with their everyday home, they put more money into their furnishings, she says.

"Clients want to buy a real Le Corbusier piece from Cassina," she says. "They don't want a knockoff."

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