Going less heavy on the metal

Special to The Times

FIRST gasoline, then food and soon furniture? Don't be surprised if prices for home furnishings rise in the months to come -- the result of not only higher transportation costs but also rising prices for metal.

Steel prices -- up 300% during the last five years, experts say, and 50% in the last nine months alone -- have already affected industry players such as Leggett & Platt, which makes furniture swivels and coil springs. The Missouri company has had to raise prices on some recliner mechanisms three times in as many months. "Metal lasts longer," says Pat Loch, vice president of sales, explaining why manufacturers have been willing to go along with the increases. "You don't have as much play as you do with wood."

Manufacturers of outdoor furniture in particular are embracing alternative materials, especially woods such as Asian shorea, which looks like teak, and Australian jarrah, a type of eucalyptus whose grain resembles Honduran mahogany.

"These new woods are being used both as decorative accents and supports," says Joseph P. Logan, executive director of the International Casual Furnishings Assn.

As costs have escalated, L.A. designer Bernard Brucha's Mash Studios has shifted from steel and aluminum to wood. The firm is crafting outdoor furniture out of ipe and teak, and instead of using welded steel to frame some pieces, it is using plywood.

"Wood used to be something you'd use as a decorative element," Brucha says. "For a lot of our pieces, we've flipped it around to where wood is the primary material and metal is the decorative element. It just requires different engineering. A while ago there was a movement where everyone was doing big, chunky metal furniture. Not anymore."

Industry experts say it's too early to tell the extent to which rising metal prices will change the designs consumers see in stores. Retailers such as Williams-Sonoma, whose brands include Pottery Barn and West Elm, declined to comment on how rising metal costs will affect their future collections. Whether driven by economics or the result of coincidence, however, mass-market stores are loaded with tables and chairs that forgo metal finishes in favor of rattan, wicker and other less expensive materials.

Elliott Jones, owner of Elliott's Designs in Rancho Dominguez, has few options for his antique-style bed headboards, footboards, benches and tables. "When someone buys one of our products, they're getting a bed that looks exactly like an antique," says Jones, who relies on heavy-gauge steel tubing for the structure and aluminum for castings.

Furniture manufacturer Wesley Allen goes through several container trucks of steel every month. Vice President Wesley Sawan expects his steel expenses to rise 7% to 20% between now and the end of June. To offset the increase, the L.A.-based firm is working on new designs that use less steel -- a strategy that worked during the recession of the early '90s, he says.

Modernica's outdoor line is almost entirely based on stainless-steel components, but co-owners Jay and Frank Novak are weathering the market thanks to a little foresight: They bought a one-year supply in advance.

With shoppers scaling back spending, Modernica's goal is to avoid drastic price increases by managing its labor costs through mass production. Whereas the V-shaped steel legs for daybeds were once made in lots of 500, now they're made 12,000 at a time.

"We make a stainless-steel outdoor lounge chair, and the stainless steel is probably 20% of the cost, while labor is close to 70%," Jay Novak says.

For Andy Hackman, whose La Brea Avenue store California Living specializes in outdoor furniture, the problem isn't materials. It's design. He says advances such as synthetic rattan have been largely wasted on products that lack innovation or quality craftsmanship. But Hackman and others remain optimistic.

"When there's a challenge, we use it to come up with something new and different," Brucha says. "We get to investigate a new set of materials, and that keeps us fresh."



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