United strangers

A New Zealand designer based in Southern China is selling furniture made from recycled Chinese sailing junks all round the world.

Working out of a refurbished shipping container as a studio in Guangzhou’s art district is Kiwi-founded furniture company United Strangers. They are making furniture out of salvaged wood from old Chinese trading boats, selling to niche designer stores mostly in the US and Europe.

Auckland-born furniture designer Logan Komorowski heads the team. He moved to China to be part of the world’s manufacturing hub and 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 boat yard with other discarded junks. 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 has organised a small buying committee with some older Chinese locals, who now approach him with ideas about materials he could make into furniture, such as old door beams from Central China. 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 United Stranger’s brand involves a umbrella group of independent designers, including Kiwi designers Sam Lennon and Anthony Robertson, producing furniture under different labels, but manufactured on United Strangers’ 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.” 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 hopes to secure more distribution agreements by showcasing its work at September’s Shanghai Furniture Fair, which last year attracted more than 20,000 overseas buyers from 144 countries and regions. ×