Cologne fair spotlights sustainability and hospitality theme

COLOGNE, Germany — Oh, were this dateline accurate and true. One of the annual highlights of covering case goods internationally for so many years was attending the International Furniture Fair each January in this jewel of European cities. 

A world-class fair center right alongside the Rhine River, an ancient but vibrant host city anchored by the great Cologne Cathedral, the Grand Dom and the bakeries. Oh, the bakeries. Covering this fair always proved to be a delight.

With airfares to Frankfurt running north of $2,200, and that’s from the East Coast, I’m guessing that quite a few of you couldn’t make it to IMM this year. No problem. Using the interwebs and plenty of experience walking those huge Koelnmesse halls, your intrepid columnist is here to serve.

After a post-Covid year running in June, this year IMM returned to its traditional spot on the furniture calendar: Jan. 14-18. 

The 2024 edition took place against a backdrop of supply chain-interrupting global conflicts, from the grinding Ukraine-Russia struggle to the destruction of Gaza to, most recently, U.S.-led attacks on militias disrupting trade through the Red Sea that has the potential to blow up like an Icelandic volcano.

Just as the fair opened, Tesla announced the suspension of production in Germany because of the Houthi militia attacks and the disruptions to supply they are causing. Retail powerhouses Ikea and Aldi each announced steps to deal with supply chain problems that the persistent piracy is causing. Container prices for the China-to-Spain route through the Red Sea have already jumped to $7,000 per box from $1,500.

New seating from Tivoli, an IMM exhibitor. Photo courtesy of IMM

In Germany as throughout the United States, consumers are fortifying themselves against record-setting winter temperatures, as well as snow and ice, producing a mindset that includes fears of having to replace their homes’ heating systems. Like most everything else, consumer demand is basically frozen until the weather improves. 

“People are afraid of their heating breaking down and then having to invest tens of thousands of euros in new technologies and a home conversion,” said Markus Meyer, president of the German Furniture and Kitchens Retail Association. “They are holding on to their money.”

Meyer cited a general lack of confidence, which has “significantly” slowed traffic in German furniture stores. This sluggishness follows a year (2023) in which German foot traffic dropped by as much as 20%. Meyer told German publishing house Axel Springer that furniture sales at retail managed to hold steady last year, but only because of price increases that were an industrywide average of 18%. 

Germany’s largest furniture retailer

For Ikea, Germany “remains a growth market,” according to Walter Kadnar, head of Ikea Germany since October 2022. With 54 locations and a 9.1% share of the market, Ikea sees “a lot of potential here in Germany” after a record fiscal year in the country last year, he said. 

Germany is Ikea’s largest single market. 

That Ikea mojo in Deutschland led to — gasp! — price decreases in November on 800 SKUs, or about a tenth of Ikea’s product range in the country. These price adjustments rolled back some of the price increases that were levied at the end of 2021 as a result of Covid.

For the fiscal year ended Aug. 31, Ikea Germany reported revenue growth of 13.3% to nearly $7 billion. Ikea’s Covid hangover is over. 

Kadnar said Ikea has benefited from consumers who previously shopped at higher price points but now are seeking price relief by shopping Ikea. They are also visiting Ikea online, which accounted for nearly a fourth of the company’s German sales. In total, Ikea’s German e-commerce was up almost 7% to reach $1.4 billion for fiscal 2023.

Global trade

There are a few more entities seeking opportunity in Germany, including furniture manufacturing blocs from the Philippines, Brazil and Bosnia-Herzegovina. All three have big plans and government backing, and all three had shared exhibition spaces at IMM Cologne.

Philippine furniture makers exhibited first here before traveling to Paris for the Maison et Objet trade fair that just closed. The Philippine Exporters Confederation said Filipino furniture manufacturers are seeking 15% to 20% growth in sales this calendar year now that international buyers are returning to the Philippines in force. PHILEXPORT reports increased furniture demand specifically from buyers representing the United States, the United Kingdom and Dubai.

The Brazilian Furniture Industry Association, in partnership with the Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency, also is on the move, using IMM to emphasize a focus on sustainability. The sixth-largest furniture source in the world, Brazil exports furniture to 180 countries. 

After IMM, Abimóvel and its constituent manufacturers were headed to Expo Mueble in Guadalajara, scheduled for Feb. 14-17, and for May’s Salone del Mobile in Milan. In addition, Abimóvel and ApexBrasil will take trade missions this year to the Middle East, India and Chile. 

For Bosnian and Herzegovina’s furniture exporters, IMM is “the most important promotional event” in which they participate, according to Lejla Mededovic, an adviser with the Foreign Trade Chamber of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The FTC organized the group of manufacturers that exhibited at IMM, a group that included AS Nostro Tesanj, Malak Janj Donji Vakuf, Ramex Kladanj, Roccaforte Vitez, Quantum Sarajevo, Senex Celic and Smarvet. (I’ll give you $50 if you can accurately pronounce all of those.)

Mededovic said that on average a third of her exhibitors’ exports come from the deals and contacts established at IMM.  


When I covered IMM, I had only three goals. Well, four if you include the German bakeries. I sought to gauge the German market by speaking with a handful of the largest manufacturers, whose executives were without exception gracious with their time (and their coffee). I wanted to check in with the U.S. contingent of exhibitors to learn of their larger global trade strategies. (By and large, they had none because few could crack the insular German distribution system.) 

Most of all, I wanted to get a sense of European trends in design, manufacturing and marketing.

This year’s fair clearly emphasized sustainability and a theme of hospitality, a word that seems to have more currency in Germany than in the United States. I have never heard “hospitality” mentioned in a U.S. furniture showroom, either at manufacturing or in retail. In Germany (and in Denmark), “hospitality,” or Gastfreundschaft, is mentioned with great frequency and regularity. The word and, more accurately, the concept refers to a friendly state of welcoming and hospitableness.

For a centerpiece display that IMM called Installation Circles, three leading design studios presented on the themes of “Welcome to Stay,” “Sense of Surface” and “Impact of Light.” Studio Dessi, Raw-Edges Design Studio and VANTOT participated, and all three emphasized both sustainability and friendly hospitableness. 

All materials, including an inflatable roof, from Studio Dessí’s installation will be reused by the construction industry after the fair, and all of the elements in the Raw-Edges circle are fully recyclable or reusable. VANTOT designed its display to ensure zero waste upon disassembly.

“We only use materials that can be recycled or reused,” said Yael Mer, a principal at Raw-Edges. For its installation, Studio Dessi deployed inflatable elements and semi-finished products that will be used in the construction sector after the trade fair. 

Vienna-based Studio Dessi used its furniture and lighting to communicate a hospitality that is characterized by cultural traditions and artistic inspiration. The installation sought to bring to mind a pavilion in the center of the trade fair to attract visitors like a landmark.

Studio Dessi’s “Welcome to Stay” pavilion. Photo courtesy of IMM

A giant doughnut-shaped inflatable roof keyed the space, which was furnished by the studio’s own Texta D70 and Thonet 520 chairs and “anchored” by black Cima lights suspended on cables. The inspiration for the space came from James Turrell’s temple architecture.

The “Sense of Surface” display from London’s Raw-Edges Design Studio used digitally printed curtains and 3D-printed mesh lighting to inspire “visual calm and contemplation,” according to the firm. Printed as flat structures and then formed in Cologne, the design drastically reduced production and transportation costs. 

Raw-Edges’ organically shaped luminaries inspired by nature and handicrafts become opaque when illuminated and return to transparency when turned off.  Photo courtesy of IMM

Postscript: One last note (not) from Cologne: Police here are working to deport the 25-year-old suspect in a terror attack on Cologne Cathedral that was planned for New Year’s Eve. The Tajik national was arrested before the attack could take place at the Dom, which annually gathers large crowds waiting to ring in the new year.

Brian Carroll

Brian Carroll covered the international home furnishings industry for 15 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He chairs the Department of Communication at Berry College in Northwest Georgia, where he has been a professor since 2003.

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