Style to the max

New entrant to the high-end furniture scene, Macsk, raises the bar with marquee names.

THERE is a new luxury furniture store in town, and it comes with an oddly spelt name - Macsk. You would think it is pronounced as "mask" but general manager Syddal Wee says to pronounce it as "max". "We want to maximise the potential of the brand. Most people would think it is "mask" but that only implies there is something to hide," he explains.

Located on Mohd Sultan Road, Macsk opens on Dec 15. The 8,600 sq ft showroom will house 11 brands which include flagship brand Molteni&C, and will be bringing in design icons old and new by the likes of Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola and Italian master Gio Ponti.

For the first time in South-east Asia, Armani/Dada will bring their Slide kitchen where the marble worktop glides open to reveal a stainless steel work area.

On the lighting front, it will carry pieces from Louis Poulsen, Brand van Egmond, Oluce, and Lasvit. It will not be difficult to miss the Macsk showroom when it is ready. From the outside, passers-by will see the Alice, a kinetic chandelier from Lasvit, in the shape of a hanging lotus flower which opens and closes in time to music. The chandelier is available for sale at US$500,000.

Some other brands include Fendi Casa furnishings and leading outdoor furniture brand Kettel, as well as accessories from Murano glass artisan Carlo Moretti and Italian brand Alessi.

Macsk's opening comes amid a tepid property market, but Mr Wee doesn't look fazed. "The middle-income crowd could be affected but Macsk will be dealing with the high net worth folks, who still have the means to buy," he says. "They may defer buying for now, but they will make that purchase eventually."

Mr Wee would know. Armed with more than 20 years of experience in the furniture industry, he was previously the general manager at Space, was instrumental in building the Space business in both Singapore and Malaysia, and most significantly oversaw the launch of the new flagship Singapore showroom at Bencoolen Street. His departure from Space in June was sudden, but "was not unexpected. There have been hints", he says frankly.

He cites the example of him and the owners not seeing eye to eye on brands that he brought in and for distributing Space products in a location outside of the showroom. He left in June, and was planning to take a break, but when Macsk's owners, the Minlon Group of Companies, a leading distributor and wholesaler of haberdashery products in Malaysia, heard about his departure from Space, they approached him to start Macsk. He has been on the job with them since July.

Mr Wee says that when Molteni&C heard that he had left Space, they approached him to be their distributor. The brand previously had its own store at Newton. In fact, a majority of the brands decided to make Macsk their distributor after discovering that Mr Wee was at the helm. "That doesn't make my job any less stressful," he quips. "The owners have high expectations of me."

But is the luxury furniture market big enough to handle another store?

Founder of Xtra, Lim Choon Hong says that the Singapore stores also "attract rich customers from Indonesia and Malaysia, and so the size of the market is beyond the geographical limits of the island." Xtra retails brands such as Moroso, Herman Miller and Dedon.

Jean Wee, CEO of Marquis Furniture Gallery points out that brands such as Molteni&C, Kettel and Fendi Casa "are not new and have been in the market for at least five to 10 years with other distributors, so it is simply a matter of who is selling it now. In the local scene, there are not many premium brands that are not represented."

Yung Ong, executive director for Proof Living and Dream, which has brands such as Poltrona Frau, Barbara Barry and Cassina in its stable adds that the introduction of Macsk into the Singapore market is yet another indication of the strength of local demand for designer furniture.

Industry players say that the luxury furniture market has changed over the years. Mr Lim says that when Xtra started in the early 1990s, luxury furniture was known as high-end designer furniture. "Today, the luxury scene is more encompassing and sophisticated and extends beyond pure affluence," he says.

Not only are there more affluent consumers, consumers are more knowledgeable about luxury furniture.

Christina Caredes, Space Furniture group CEO says that "with consumers being more well-travelled, more attuned to international design culture, and more informed through the Internet, the type of consumers we now have are definitely a lot more aware of their choices."

Consumers are not only becoming more knowledgable, they are getting younger too, note the various stores. "The younger group is more well-travelled, and more aware of what's available. They may drink nice wine, have a nice car, and similarly, nice furniture. In fact, some young people are the ones to hold their parents' hands and say they should buy that," says Ms Wee, whose firm Marquis represents brands such as Minotti, Porada and Kartell.

A more knowledgeable consumer crowd now means that the various stores have much competition, despite each carrying different brands. How each company stays ahead depends on various factors, one of which is their product range.

Next year, Marquis will be introducing furnishings from Bentley. "Bentley is not just furniture but a concept. It is not just because of the brand and namesake, that we bring in the brand, but we see value in them as a furniture collection," says Ms Wee.

Space's Ms Caredes says that in terms of sizes, European manufacturers are now also mindful of Asian proportions so that helps the business meet market demands. "The B&B Italia Piccola Papilio chair was first launched as the Papilio chair and later sensitively downsized for our smaller homes," she cites. Other brands that Space carries include Poliform and Giorgetti.

Knowledgeable sales force

But ultimately, the stores say that it is the shopping experience that matters. Aloysius Lim, creative director at P5, which carries brands such as Arflex, and BD Barcelona Design, says that "knowing the brand very well is crucial, because consumers these days fully know what they are buying into. You have to be able to propose different ways the pieces can be put together too." He adds that the way a showroom is designed also matters. "You want to be able to create settings with different feels, so that customers have more choices."

Macsk's Mr Wee is very particular about his sales team's level of product knowledge. He used to conduct training sessions for his staff at Space, and will also do the same for Macsk.

"The quality of the sales people will make a difference. They have to be passionate, and dedicated. They cannot just sell products, but must be solution providers as well."

Just like it was done at Space, Macsk will also conduct cooking demonstrations in its kitchens with appliances fitted out by Gaggenau, and customers will dine using Alessi crockery. "This is our way of allowing consumers to enjoy the brand experience, and not just for Macsk to sell products," says Mr Wee.

Even when the stores have their product ranges and service standards down pat, the slowdown of the property market may prove to be a challenge, but they remain upbeat.

Xtra's Mr Lim says, that "in the last 25 years since we started, we have been through several ups and downs so we see this as cyclical, and the market will eventually come back." Mr Wee says, "My job is to get consumers to spend despite the negative sentiments."

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