Goods Under Pressure

Faced with a stressed-out supply chain, interior designers are turning to local vendors and secondhand antiques to fill in the gaps and make deadlines.

By Elise Hofer Shaw
In an aerial view, container ships and shipping containers are seen at the Port of Los Angeles on Sept. 20, 2021 near Los Angeles, California.

The land of plenty isn’t so plentiful right now. Congested ports and truck driver shortages are the current root of the problem. And now with the holidays approaching, there’s a new buying surge adding even more pressure. So while we gird our loins in preparation for more sticker shock, we have to ask… How did it all go sideways? First, people panicked and stopped spending during the pandemic. Then the stimulus hit—and everyone started spending again all at once, creating a huge increase in demand for everything from ketchup to couches. So now the demand is back and production is back—causing a huge swell—but the supply chain can’t keep up during the national labor shortage with a hopelessly overwhelmed transportation system. Boom—utter disarray and headaches.

“There are 500,000 containers in a holding pattern outside of America’s major ports, filled with everything from operating chips for cars to marble slabs,” says Marshall Erb, principal and lead designer at Marshall Erb Design in Chicago. “Everything is backed up and bottlenecked at sea and on the docks. We’ll be quoted six weeks for building materials or products, but in actuality it will end up taking months because there’s a shortage of trucks and truck drivers to get the merchandise to its final destination. Try as they may, our suppliers aren’t able to acutely quote us on the time it will take to get the goods on the trucks and to the warehouses. It’s an impossible task until the supply chain is fixed.”

And, sadly, without government intervention experts aren’t expecting any improvements until the end of the second quarter next year. And even then prices will continue to be high. So for now, we hurry up and wait on Biden’s infrastructure proposals to generate results. “Previously, freight costs would comprise about 12 percent of the budget on a project. That has increased to 20 to 25 percent—and delivery estimates are a moving target,” says Erb. “Consequently, it’s a customer service nightmare. And our productivity is being affected across the board as we attempt to carve out extra time to ease the concerns of anxious clients whose budget and timeline expectations are X when the reality is Y.”

As with most interior designers, chronic shipping delays have forced Erb to rework his client presentation process, too. “We used to prepare several weeks in advance of a client presentation. Now we have to do it the day before to ensure the stock position.” Because, according to Erb, “in stock” doesn’t quite mean what it used to. “We might log in and see that a particular vendor has three bar stools ready to ship, but if we don’t click and buy them right then and there, we could lose out to a furniture retailer. It’s hyper-competitive right now because of the low inventory levels—and we don’t want to make promises to our clients that we can’t keep.”

The inventory backup has Chicago interior designers getting creative, including leaning on local vendors to try to circumvent delays and stay on budget. “We are searching high and low for fresh sourcing streams—vendors who have physical stock or good availability,” says Erb. “In the process, our vendor network has become much broader over the last six months—especially our Midwestern contacts—which is a positive. And, luckily, Chicago is a deep well of incredible craftspeople and collectors. From cabinets and custom furniture to upholstery and antiques, sourcing locally can shave months off of the delivery turnaround—and right now, time is money.”

Speaking of antiques… During a time when “new” is a big pain in the supply chain, a wave of antiquing is building—another product of the perfect storm. “We’re trying as much as we can to incorporate antiques, whether from the secondary market or from auction houses,” Erb says. “This isn’t a new page in the MED playbook. I love layered interiors that mix new and old, distressed and polished. Timelessness over trends—always. So if the supply slump is pushing design in that direction, away from this fast economy, fast fashion, fast furniture mentality, then that’s the silver lining as far as I’m concerned. Cheap, disposable furniture filling our landfills is a pandemic in its own right.”

But Erb does have one word of caution: “Auction houses like Hindman and Wright are amazing resources for antiques, but don’t forget to tack on time for refinishing and reupholstering,” says Erb. “Nine times out of 10, secondhand antiques will need to be restored and reupholstered—and this sector is experiencing extended lead times, too. While it’s not a quick fix, it’s still quicker than waiting 32 weeks for a new chair from Italy. And, in the end, you’re giving a quality piece of furniture a second life and doing your part to reduce your footprint. And you can pass it down from generation to generation.”