On a visit to French patio furniture company Fermob’s factory, one seating obsessive gets an up close-and-personal look at what is right and wrong with modern manufacturing.
It is 6 a.m., though in my body it is midnight, and I have gotten maybe 10 hours of sleep in two days. The sun has just risen over Paris, where I have traveled over 3,000 miles to see about a chair.
I cannot be the first to set out on such a quest, as silly as it sounds. The chair is the prototypical design object. It has inspired the kind of quotes featured on websites like brainyquote.com such as "A chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier. That is why Chippendale is famous," or "Chairs are architecture, sofas are bourgeois," or "People buy a chair and they don’t really care who designed it." (That last one sounds resentful.) The chair contains multitudes. It is the perfect piece of furniture. And I am going to see where one of the originals of modern design is regularly reborn.
This is the moment to admit that when I was first invited by Fermob, the famed patio furniture company, to visit their factory in Thoissey, France, an hour-and-a-half train ride outside of Paris, their name did not immediately ring a bell. This is the inherent tension of a press trip, of course: an entity has invited you (in my case, with travel and accommodations included) to be convinced of what they are selling, and as a journalist, I am going in skeptical. But once you know Fermob, you realize you have seen Fermob everywhere for years, and its ubiquity is comforting the way a classic always is. ("I love Fermob!" my aunt said, unprompted, when I told her about my journey.) With its origins dating back more than 100 years, founder and current President Bernard Reybier acquired the metalworking workshop of 10 in 1989. And when you know Fermob, you will understand what you know them for: the metal bistro chair, a foldable steel chair often seen next to a table of the same design. Originally designed in the late 1800s—the patent of which Fermob owns today—its intention and its gift was always its movability in shared outdoor spaces, particularly for street vendors.
The stuff of France! You might say, and indeed, it is. Fermob is now 30 times the size, Bernard’s son is CEO, and its chairs and other pieces of furniture are everywhere: Times Square, the Jardin du Luxembourg (the site of another famous chair), your favorite café, your house, hopefully. They have expanded into lighting, fabrics, and other accessories. They are known for their bright colors; before them, they say, non-wood outdoor furniture was largely cheap plastic. But this, their classic-ness, is, in my opinion, also what they and so many other companies succeed and suffer over.
We arrive in Thoissey, the location of the company’s central office and factory, after what would have been a four hour car ride—the magic of European high-speed rail. My and many others’ excitement over seeing how stuff is made is the reason the show of that name is so popular, not to mention why children are obsessed with How Things Work in Busytown. Here, one is constantly reminded that this is just someone’s (or many someones’) job, only novel to me because I work at a computer all day. Once inside, we are informed that a central tenet of the Fermob belief is that humans and machines must work together—one cannot work alone, a comforting thought in a media cycle obsessed with AI. I’m swiftly convinced of this truth; as we walk past different stations, workers are putting parts into machines that spit them back out in a new state of togetherness, passed back to the workers to bang, weld, tweak, or spray them into their next position. It is like a dance, man and machine, and the more steps that go on, the more it is made clear how much sheltering the cost of a piece of patio furniture is doing from what it took to get it there.
Fermob furniture is primarily made of steel or aluminum, and its source materials come from all over Europe. They favor metal because it’s highly recyclable and durable—similar to the spray powder paint they use—and when you watch it move from sheets of nothingness into a full on table, you start to see why and how it becomes prohibitively expensive for many. Their pieces are, however, much more reasonable to purchase in Europe; it’s the shipping fees to America that get you.
But this is part of the problem: where do they get you? Fermob intends for their furniture to be used for a lifetime. The problem is: you want an enduring, well-made thing, but the upfront cost can be daunting, even if replacing cheap chairs will be more expensive over time. If you are saving money in the short term, you are losing it long-term in that you cannot afford to buy the better made thing right now, the same societal affordability crisis wrapped up in buying versus renting a house. They, like many others, deal with copycats, who bring down the market expectations for what a good deal is. Good furniture is expensive because it wasn’t intended to be as disposable as we treat it right now. To really understand the crisis that American manufacturing is in, regardless of the medium, might require every person to take a day trip to "the factory" to see where the cost really goes: people who have a job where they go home and feel good or fine a lot of days, that allows them to live the life they want, where they hand weld something "just" for decoration, not because it serves any other purpose than to provide subconscious visual joy. I left Thoissey sweaty and invigorated, not only by the idea of French furniture, but by the idea of what American furniture has so little of: itself.
A chair is genius only in that you don’t notice it. Once you see it, you will not stop seeing it. And if something is so well-designed that you don’t notice it, therein lies the problem: something invisible cannot have value. I have seen the chair. Now I need it.
A brief history of Fermob:
Top Photo Courtesy of Fermob by Adrien Daste.
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