With such a rich history spanning since the 1920s in France, Gontier are renowned for their traditional techniques, provincial style and extraordinary cabinet making skills. In 2010, two entrepreneurs, Eric Weiler and Nicolas Vermersch took over the company, marrying their working methods gained from professional experience with the history of the Gontier brand. This has only reinforced the qualitative and professionalism which already exists within the Gontier factory and further opened the gates to international markets.
It took them less than a year to set up research and development within the company, and they have since recruited French Designers and colour specialists in order to enhance the extraordinary skills of cabinet making, acquired almost a century ago. Now their French Provincial style comes to Australia as a highlight exhibitor at the next Australian International Furniture Fair in Sydney from 1-3 February. We asked their export manager, Frederic Beseme from his London base to describe the rich Gontier history, define the difference between French `Provincial' and French `Provence' styles and why both are so popular here in Australia, and the story behind the hand made process of Gontier furniture.
From the design to the finishing, the entire furniture is French – can you explain what this means? What defines the French furniture style?
It means they commission recognised designers and pay high salary wages to skilled cabinet makers, unlike competitors they do not sub-contract any part of the manufacturing process in Romania or Portugal; the timber is also sourced in France from well managed forest estates in the North East (Ardennes the region I was born in).
In Australia, the French furniture style refers mostly to "French Provincial": Firstly, the French provincial style must not be mixed up with French Provencal which refers to the South East region of France "Provence" (where French lavender and olive trees are grown). In fact, the term provincial, originates and refers to the country farmhouse life style you can encounter anywhere in rural France since the middle-age ; mostly in agricultural family households. Farmers use to make their own pieces of furniture from good recycled oak timber after building a barn or when a lightning stroke a centenary oak tree in the forest. All men acquired carpenters or cabinet making skills from generation to generation. This rustic country furniture style has become the base of the French furniture identity abroad, especially in Australia and it has become the symbol of good living, good food and friendship. There is nothing better than having a dinner party around a GONTIER “TABLE DE CAMPAGNE” where ever you are in the world!
GONTIER Furniture has perpetuated this French identity by reproducing the provincial style and the tradition in the making for six generations; the furniture lines are pure and each piece is so robust. Secondly, in France the French style of furniture refers to a specific period in history: France had many kings and all kings appointed specific cabinet makers at their court. Some of them had a strong influence and their style remained popular across generations such as: Louis Philippe style, symbol of a new elite Bourgeoisie around 1850. The style of furniture was made of mahogany and is now made of wild cherry or walnut timber. This style of furniture features comfort and practicality; this is the last style to bear the name of a French King. This style will be featured on our stand.
The "Directoire" Style is perfect sobriety, discreet elegance, visible tenon pegs, and diamond shape motif and brass caps for the feet. This style of furniture is the cabinet maker's symbols of mourning for their king. This style will be a major feature on our stand. The "Provencal" Style is recognisable by the paint bright colours used in the South of France and the use of village timber instead of Oak. Gontier manufacturers great solid Provencal pieces in ash timber and the colours are amazing should you wish to make a statement in your home or simply import a little of "Joie de Vivre" from the South of France into the warm Sydney climate. As you can tell, the definition of French style is not a simple answer, we have so many styles to get inspired from in order to satisfy the taste of the end user and the trends dictated by interior decorators.
Are all the furniture items still made by hand? Why?
Yes, all pieces of furniture are labour intensive and assembled in France by hand. Of course the factory located between Normandy and Bretagne regions (near "Le Mont Saint Michel") is serviced by the French power-grid and consequently workers use electric hand held tolls nowadays in order to be able to produce the furniture. What matters is that the ancient techniques are still maintained and used in the cabinet making process. For example, and as opposed to some Swedish furniture designers, Gontier does not use bolts / screws or plastic kits in order to assemble a book shelf of a French buffet. On the contrary Gontier uses: Mortise & tenon, wooden ankle.
French style furniture and décor has become extremely popular in Australia, why do you think this is?
France is the symbol of "Savoir faire" and "Savoir vivre" around the world and Australia has fully embraced the French style. Firstly with Provencal style because Sydney has a Mediterranean climate and French Colours and light pieces of furniture are adapted to the Sydney climate and lifestyle. Perhaps also because Australians have travelled extensively around the world and have loved French Castles and have noticed that most French style of furniture can be integrated with contemporary pieces. Perhaps also because some Australians have themselves reproduced French provincial pieces made from French recycled timber and successfully marketed their local products to the local public. Finally, we cannot forget to mention the fact that China has copied all French styles and promoted French provincial, French Shabby chic around the world for us.
You are to exhibit at the upcoming Australian International Furniture Fair in Sydney next year, why did you choose to exhibit here? What do you hope to gain?
We have chosen to exhibit first in Australia, because we believe there is a potential market in Sydney and Melbourne for the kind of quality furniture that we produce (since the Brigitte Forestier shop closure a couple of years ago in Sydney there is not many alternative places to buy a good re-production French piece apart from Grange Furniture). We also exhibit here because I have researched in-depth this market myself over the past five years and I now feel confident this is the right time to promote the Gontier products, the quality in the making to the mature Australian market.
Finally, with an Australian dollar at 0.75 to the Euro as per average, our Factory Prices are very competitive if compared with Chinese products available in Australia. I do hope to negotiate an exclusive distribution agreement with several importers or retailers for each of our range of furniture and we do hope to generate a turn-over of approx. 278 000 AUD within six months just after the show.
The Gontier brand is known for its unique wood furniture, what are the most popular wood types used in the company? What are some of the furniture products they make with it?
Wild cherry oak, walnut and ash. They make LOUIS PHILIPPE BUFFET (6100) / LOUIS XV BOOKCASES (0010)/ DIRECTOIRE LIBRARY (SLIDE 5040) / COUNTRY TABLES (D811).
Any other company news you’d like to share?
We would love to welcome to our Stand C16 the Head-Buying department of David Jones, Mr Robinson and Mrs Francis with whom the factory traded with 10 or 15 years ago through a buying agent. We would love to meet with Tailin Berenger and Belinda Lucas from Domayne Design. We would love to welcome Jean Christophe Burckhardt who has made a profession to promote the French Provencal style in Australia as a specialised interior designer. We would love to welcome Stephen Quintano, contract manager for Accor Asia Pacific in order to offer a line specific to the Hospitality industry people. Finally, we would love to see some interest from Domo Collections / Coco Republic / Town & Country Style/ Geraldine Cooper/ Imagine This / Sally Berresford and Original Finish.