Quality without Compromise in the art of manufacturing mid-century furniture

Naomi Evans gives tribute to the quality of the furniture designed by Fred Lowen famous for his classic Tessa and Fler models of sofas, chairs, chaises and sideboards.

Naomi Evans is an architect based in Melbourne, Australia.

Vintage advertisement for the Tessa T21 swivel armchair and footstool by Fred Lowen

Vintage advertisement for the Tessa T21 swivel armchair and footstool by Fred Lowen

Shutting Up Shop

When a childhood friend and fellow architect notified me some weeks ago that Tessa Furniture was terminating production, my disappointment was real. The news is a blow to advocates of Australian- made as yet another local designer and manufacturer shuts up shop. Tessa Furniture has been fabricating the signature designs of Fred Lowen for over 50 years in their Melbourne-based factory and have leveraged off the mantra “quality without compromise” since 1968. The Tessa brand is synonymous with quality workmanship, quality materials, and the hallmarks of a mid-century design ethos that values ergonomics over ornament.

The name ‘Tessa’ is sadly unrecognised by most Millennials, but the preceding generation are likely to recall the brand. After all, our parents are the Baby Boomers and Gen X’s who grew up clambering over the ever-so-comfy leather lounge suites that were a staple of the suburban sitting room in the 1970s. My grandparents owned a pair of Tessa’s T21 swivel chairs, and an accompanying T8 sleigh-based armchair. These were passed onto my parents and are now in pole position in front of the TV.

Cover of Fred Lowen’s 2001 autobiography

Cover of Fred Lowen’s 2001 autobiography

Fred Lowen, Fler, and Tessa

Tessa Furniture is the artistry of acclaimed German émigré designer Fred Lowen. Born to Jewish parents in 1919, Fritz Loewenstein (as he was then known) fled Nazi occupation in both Germany and Belgium before being deported to Australia in 1940 on board the notorious prison ship HMT Dunera. He lost his father soon after to the Holocaust.

In 1946 Lowen teamed up with fellow Jewish refugee Ernest Rodeck and together they ventured into furniture production. Their small business named ‘Fler’ (incorporating the initials of each founder) used Australian timbers to fabricate Scandinavian-inspired original designs. A successful first foray produced a couple of dining chairs and an expandable table. By 1960 Fler was fabricating in nine factories across the country and became the first national furniture company to be floated on the stock exchange. Having reached this zenith, Lowen and Rodeck made the decision to sell the business in 1967.

The following year Lowen was ready to launch his own manufacturing company and established ‘Twen’ – later to be re-named ‘Tessa’. It was Lowen’s T4 Hammock Chair that made headlines at the Cologne Furniture Fair in 1971 and remained in continuous production until the business folded. By the mid-1970s, Tessa was a household name.

The Tessa T4 Hammock chair by Fred Lowen made headlines in 1971 and remained in continuous production until 2019.

The Tessa T4 Hammock chair by Fred Lowen made headlines in 1971 and remained in continuous production until 2019.

Close-up showing detail of the arm and design of the Tessa T4 Hammock chair by Fred Lowen

Close-up showing detail of the arm and design of the Tessa T4 Hammock chair by Fred Lowen

So what went wrong? On 14th May 2019 Tessa announced their decision to close following an ‘everything must go’ final clearance sale at their warehouse. No doubt the management at Tessa fought hard for survival in what is now a very competitive market. Without knowing their particular Modus Operandi, we can guess at several factors that may have contributed to their decline…

Competition from Cheap Alternatives

Firstly, in today’s market there is an abundance of cheap alternatives. It wasn’t long ago when I first needed to furnish my own home. My bedroom furniture was an easy switch from the parentals’ abode to my new flat, but the living room was a blank canvas that needed filling. Filling on a budget. Given that I am my mother’s daughter and she instilled in me an appreciation for quality, my preference was to invest in durable furniture with a timeless design. High-end brands were obviously out of the question… in fact, I quickly realised that anything new was an unjustifiable expense at that point in time. I instead picked-up a second-hand, micro-suede sofa from Gumtree.com, and a colleague gifted me a small, teak dining table that had belonged to his family.

The second-hand market is a treasure trove for young home-makers looking for a bargain. Gumtree, Ebay, and Facebook Marketplace are each booming online platforms, while High Street op-shops have their faithful clientele. However it’s the rise of ‘big box’ retailers such as Freedom and Fantastic Furniture that have posed the biggest rival to a boutique manufacturer like Tessa. Typically fabricated on Asian production lines, their structural components are highly standardised and mostly veneer. It’s fair to say their furniture is not intended to be investment pieces worth bequeathing to the next generation. But they’re affordable! And to a pocket-conscious buyer these brands supply on-trend furniture that won’t break the bank. ‘Fast Fashion’ describes the current trend for cheap clothing intended to be disposed of after a season or two… and the same can be said for furniture.

Old design, new technology - a Tessa T21 chair and footstool for the contemporary market.

Old design, new technology – a Tessa T21 chair and footstool for the contemporary market.

Competition from Designer Imports (or Cheap Knock-Offs!)

Now it’s not my intention to knock affordable retailers. I am personally a big believer in Ikea who have established a reputation for producing well-designed furniture at a budget price point. Truth be told, for a company like Tessa that has pitched itself as a premium manufacturer, their target market is not those looking for disposable, short-term furnishings. No, buyers of Tessa furniture are looking for quality pieces with a designer’s name attached. But compared to names like Eames, Hans Wegner, and Arne Jacobsen…. just how marketable are the names Fred Lowen and Tessa?

With the rise of Pinterest and Instagram public awareness of designer names has escalated so that pieces like the Eames Lounge Chair – once only recognised by architecture students and the super- rich – are now widely known. The now famous Eames chair (by American designers Ray and Charles Eames) is a timber-framed, leather-upholstered swivel chair with accompanying footstool. In many respects it is very similar to Tessa’s T21 swivel… but I can name more Melburnians who own a fake Eames than a Tessa original.

The marketability of Hans Wegner’s Wishbone Chair and Arne Jacobsen’s Swan Chair have had design enthusiasts rummaging around auction houses for mid-century Danish exports… or simply heading off to Matt Blatt to nab a replica. And the name Thonet has been a perennial favourite ever since his famed bentwood chair landed on Rue St Germain in the mid-19th century (…I’m a fan, my dining chairs are Thonet!) If only the Tessa brand had similar caché! …Perhaps there was a missed opportunity here, and the PR machine at Tessa could have better capitalised on the current madness for all things Mid-Century Modern.

Left: ‘From A to Eames’ published in 2019, this book identifies signature mid-century designers - Right: A 1970s advertisement for the Tessa T21 swivel chair from Vogue Living magazine

Left: ‘From A to Eames’ published in 2019, this book identifies signature mid-century designers
Right: A 1970s advertisement for the Tessa T21 swivel chair from Vogue Living magazine

The Benefits of Buying Local

As appealing as it may be to own a piece of imported furniture, the benefits of buying local cannot be understated, especially as society becomes more environmentally aware. Eliminating shipping and minimising transportation of goods significantly reduces the embodied energy of commodities. And if the furniture we buy is fabricated from locally sourced materials, then the supply chain is in good proximity and the energy consumption reduces further still. Tessa has prided themselves on using native Australian species, with locally sourced Teak, Victorian Ash and Tasmanian Blackwood their preferred timbers.

Tessa furniture is Australian designed and made for Australian households. Now I don’t know whether we Antipodeans are ergonomically any different from our brothers and sisters in the Northern Hemisphere (I expect we aren’t) but I imagine a designer with lived experience on Australian soil would somehow better understand the workings of local community and may be more able to anticipate the needs and customs unique to our culture. What’s more, buying local makes restoration or replacement of parts (if necessary) a cinch!

My Tessa Chairs

In April 2017 I stumbled across two T21 swivel armchairs for sale on Gumtree. $700 was the asking price for the pair. Given that a new T21 with accompanying footstool markets at a cool $4,900, I knew this was a bargain too good to let pass. And so it is that I’m the proud owner of Tessa chairs! The irony is not lost on me that whilst we savvy second-handers appreciate quality, designer furniture, we are not always willing to pay full price. Perhaps I too am in a small way to blame for Tessa’s demise.

So I write this piece in tribute to a small business that has served well three generations of Australians and kicked goals on the global stage. May we ever be snug in your spongy leather seats!

My living room with a Fred Lowen Tessa armchair in pride of place

My living room with a Fred Lowen Tessa armchair in pride of place