Small furniture-maker all about low carbon and high quality.
TORONTO—Nestled in an industrial park in northern Toronto is a small manufacturer of fine custom furniture. On any given day, interior designers from around the world call on it to produce unique designs to please wealthy patrons at destinations such as the Trump International Hotel in Toronto and the St. Regis in Mexico City.
It’s quite a feat for a company of 40 employees. Yet there’s more to the story at Louis Interiors Inc. Over the years, the family-run business has diversified its offerings and customer base, and built solid environmental programs.
Susie Muller, granddaughter of company president and founder, Louis Muller, says the company has always tried to be environmentally friendly, initially by ensuring they generate as little waste as possible.
“We’re always searching out organizations that could reuse our waste,” Susie says. If any leftover fabric and off-cut wood can’t be used in the manufacturing process it’s sent to a local manufacturer of puppets and crafts—along with the sawdust generated at the shop.
But it’s really been the past four to five years that Louis Interiors has made a move towards sustainable materials—a decision made by conscience, not customer demand, she notes.
“Our thought is, if it’s environmentally-friendly, economically feasible and doesn’t impact the quality of the furniture, why wouldn’t we do it?”
Furniture is hand-made using traditional European methods Louis learned during his childhood in Hungary. Susie says traditional European means “good looking and long lasting.”
As a boy, Louis was taught the family trade—tying rope—and by the time he was a young man, he’d taken an interest in designing and building his own furniture.
Louis and his wife emigrated to Canada in 1956. He put the skills he learned as a child in Hungary to use, at first taking up employment with an upholsterer. At the same time, he started working out of his garage, building and selling his own custom furniture.
Five years later, Louis opened his first store in Toronto’s Rosedale neighbourhood, and shortly after, moved to Yonge Street where he primarily sold breakfast nooks.
“Breakfast nooks were just a hot commodity at the time so he started to market himself as selling those items, but he always made custom furniture even from the very beginning when he worked out of his garage,” Susie says.
When the popularity of breakfast nooks waned, Louis already had a solid reputation and a cadre of dedicated fans. His customers weren’t necessarily wealthy, but “he priced his products very reasonably and his clients had an eye for quality,” she adds.
“When my grandfather started the company it was his philosophy to make very high-quality furniture and we’ve never departed from that. Being environmentally friendly is simply an extension.”
Thirty years ago, Louis’s son Bill took over day-to-day management of the business. As vice-president, he’s branched the company out into the interior design industry. Up until that point, the company had served consumer clientele.
“He wanted to do for hospitality what his father did for residential designers, which was to provide style and attention to detail, something he felt was lacking in the industry,” she explains.
With this new business model, furniture design is no longer a major part of the business—that’s left up to their customers, the interior designers. For the small amount of design work they do, the company uses two software suites—Rhinoceros 3D and AutoCad 2009.
Abstaining from automation
Though the business has changed, the hand-crafted approach to furniture-making hasn’t. There are no conveyors, robots, or heavy machinery at the 20,000 square-foot plant, meaning as far as industrial facilities go, it’s not very energy intensive.
Using mass manufacturing processes would take them out of their market niche where they have built a solid reputation for providing hand-made, high-quality, durable furniture, Susie explains. It would also increase their energy use and ultimately reduce their environmental performance. She notes many furniture manufacturers have cut costs and increased output through mass manufacturing but the quality of their products have suffered.
Yet the company doesn’t completely eschew technology; they’re planning to purchase a CNC machine for the woodworking area within the next six months.
According to the company’s most recent sales figures provided to Industry Canada, the company achieves between $1 million and $4.9 million per year in sales.
Like many Canadian manufacturers, Louis Interiors’ export business suffered as result of the recession. Pre-recession, U.S. customers accounted for 80 per cent of the company’s business with domestic clients making up most of the remaining 20 per cent. Now customers are evenly split amongst Canada and the U.S. with a smattering of clients worldwide.
The Conference Board of Canada (CBOC) notes the wood products sector lost $114 million in 2011 as a result of weak export markets. Burgeoning U.S. demand is predicted to propel the industry to profits of about $208 million 2012, and sales are expected to more than triple in 2013 to $673 million. The market for wood furniture specifically is expected to level out to about $400 million in 2016.
Louis Interiors has plans to diversify into the aircraft upholstery market but wasn’t ready to provide any further details.
Sustainable material advantage
The factory floor is best described as a series of workshops and since energy use doesn’t have a huge impact on the company’s carbon footprint, green initiatives are focused around materials.
Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified soft maple provides the foundation for any piece of furniture—the frame. The company sources locally from forests in northern Quebec and Ontario, which decreases shipping and fuel costs.
Wood is cut, carved, glued and lacquered in a woodworking area adjacent to the main factory floor.
Louis Interiors made the decision to exclusively buy FSC-certified wood several years ago, and the increased cost was negligible—only three per cent, she notes. The company is planning to participate in a tree-planting program whereby they plant as many trees as they use each year.
The wood is dried by kiln, not with chemicals, she adds. Any medium-density fibreboard (MDF) the company uses is formaldehyde-free.
“We use materials that are easy on the environment and have low toxicity levels. We’re always trying different environmentally-friendly products as long as they don’t impede on the health and safety of our workers and the cost is reasonable. For example, water-based versus solvent-based lacquers are something we have tried, and try often to use on our products.”
However, one drawback to some water-based products is they can release more volatile organic compounds (VOCs), Susie explains, which can pose a health risk to staff.
Ultimately, being sustainable wasn’t a huge undertaking for Louis Interiors because many of the traditional furniture making methods Louis brought with him from Hungary were already easy on the environment.
For example, Italian twine, made from hemp, is used to tie down the coils.
“Hemp is one of the faster growing biomasses known,” Susie says. “It’s environmentally-friendly as it requires very few pesticides and no herbicides. It’s called a carbon-negative raw material.”
Jute webbing, used to provide support for the upholstery, is made from the skin of the Jute plant and is biodegradable. On top of that, it’s strong.
“Good jute webbing can easily hold 400 to 500 pounds (lbs),” she notes. “The 11-lb. red stripe jute webbing is generally used in seats as it’s stronger.”
Also made from Jute is Hessian fabric, more commonly known as burlap in North America. Louis Interiors uses heavier Hessians to cover springing and spring units.
On top of the Hessian, a layer of 100 percent organically-grown cotton felt is placed to help prevent coils from poking into the foam.
Tying down the coils and attaching the support fabrics are carried out on the main factory floor, just outside the woodworking room—it’s the second stage of the manufacturing process.
In the third stage, in an adjacent area on the main factory floor, the foam is attached though there’s a separate room, called the foam room, where foam is stored and cut.
By default, Louis Interiors uses polyurethane foam for seating but customers have an option to use a soy-based foam called Koosh, manufactured by Toronto-based Foamite, which is Louis Interiors’ main foam supplier.
The upholstery is the final layer. The upholsterer takes charge of this process, with employees at his disposal who can stitch and cut fabric at his direction. The company will provide any material the client wants, and it’s considering implementing a sustainable fabrics program.
“We want to offer bamboo-based and recycled fabric material as options for upholster for those interested,” Susie explains.
Marlene Makowka has been working with Louis Interiors for about 20 years, and says the company’s use of sustainable, natural materials is definitely a sell for some its clients. Makowka is a co-owner and founder of Toronto design firm Hefele-Makowka.
“Their quality is top-drawer,” she says. “The fact they produce such a high-quality product and respect the environment is definitely beneficial to the end-user.”
Many people are sensitive or allergic to chemicals used in wood processing and furniture manufacturing, she notes. She knows furniture from Louis Interiors isn’t going to cause health problems for the end-user.
“People who are spending money for Canadian-made goods deserve to know they are getting products that are formaldehyde-free. They could find products that cost much less but suffer.”
Health Canada advises Canadians to do what they can to steer clear of this cancer causing chemical. It even recommends sealing uncovered edges of any furniture made of MDF to reduce exposure.
Makowka notes lots of low-quality, inexpensive furniture is being imported from China, where manufacturing practices are generally less friendly to the environment.
“There are harmful elements that go into producing that kind of furniture,” she notes.
The flame retardant and carcinogen, decabromodiphenyl ether (DecaPBDE), finds its way into Canada through imports of furniture and electronics from countries like China. It’s either sprayed on upholstery or used in processing molded plastics or polymer foam. The ministry recommends researching a company’s manufacturing practices before purchasing any furniture or electronics.
This is a test Louis Interiors would easily pass.
Even though the company doesn’t serve residential clients directly these days, occasionally, they’ll get a knock on the door from an old friend who wants their sofa reupholstered.
“It’s gratifying when customers come back after 20 years,” Susie says.
Their outdated coverings make these old friends are easy to spot on the factory floor—the frames are still in great shape.
Though semi-retired, Louis is still active at the company. Every day, he tours the plant to ensure things are running smoothly. Although the business he started more than 60 years ago has come a long way from its humble breakfast nook beginnings, when it comes to its manufacturing processes, not much has changed.
That’s why the company stayed true to its roots—building products that last, while minimizing its environmental impact.
For Louis Interiors, the formula is proving a success, with global installations, a lean carbon footprint and solid quality all contributing to its competitive edge.