In a refurbished shipping container in Guangzhou’s art district sits the studio of Kiwi-founded furniture company United Strangers. Here, furniture out of salvaged wood from old Chinese trading boats is designed and made by the company, later showcased and sold to niche designer stores mostly in the US and Europe.
Auckland-born furniture designer Logan Komorowski heads the team, who moved to China to be part of the world’s manufacturing hub. He launched the United Strangers studio and factories in Guangzhou in 2009.
At first Komorowski’s furniture was mainly made from mainstream, boring wood products, he says. Then one day, sitting by the Guangzhou river, feeling dejected about making another box of MDF tables, Komorowski spotted an old traditional Chinese trading boat floating down the river. He followed it and found a small boatyard with other discarded boats. The idea of making furniture out of salvaged junks was born.
To collect the wood he needed, Komorowski travelled along the eastern coast of China, meeting with villagers to secure and buy wood from their discarded boats. Since then he's organised a small buying committee with some older Chinese locals, who now approach him with ideas about materials he could make into furniture, including old door beams from Central China.
The United Stranger’s brand involves an umbrella group of independent designers, including Kiwi designers Sam Lennon and Anthony Robertson. United Strangers produces furniture under different labels, but all is manufactured on the company's lines in a large facility employing around 600 workers.
Komorowski likes to avoid using the word 'factory'. “It conjures up bad notions in the West. And we’re pretty proud of how we do things and how the staff are treated.”
Kiwis in China: Anthony Robertson (left) and Logan Komorowski
He says that by working alongside local manufacturers, aiding and pushing them to excel, it makes the workforce in China “brilliant."
“Many forget that 15 years ago the workforce here were peasant farmers. There is not the huge history and knowledge base as there is in furniture factories in New Zealand,” he says. “What you get here is a willingness to try anything and a eagerness to get stuck in and do something. The local workforce is the most important element here and we have a huge respect for them. They are our engine.”
United Strangers’ finished product is stocked in 13 countries, and the company recently signed a distribution deal with New Zealand’s Nood furniture stores. Komorowski’s team is now looking to move into developing markets, including South America, Russia, India and other Asian countries.
The company hopes to secure more distribution agreements by showcasing its work at this month’s Shanghai Furniture Fair, which last year attracted more than 20,000 overseas buyers from 144 countries and regions.