Pretoria - An anecdote city furniture king Etienne Lewis likes to tell that has Queen Elizabeth calling him up from Buckingham Palace to ask for a chair that’s really comfortable. There’s a catch to this request… would he be willing to accept the trade-in of an old piece?
Lewis says he regrets that he doesn’t do trade-ins, but who would pass up the chance to have the custom of the queen? So he assures her that he’s willing to make an exception.
Obviously such an exchange never took place, but it forms the basis of an ad currently flighting on radio.
The point, says Lewis, is that when it comes to furniture, functionality and comfort should be first priority.
For those who like a classic look, Etienne Lewis stocks a range of chairs with classic origins: Marie Antoinette, Regency, or a Louis XVI item, to name a few.
But this is not for everyone’s taste, and to be successful in the furniture business, especially for as long as Lewis has, you have to cater across the board spectrum and make sure you have something to suit every taste, old and young.
As for his most popular line of furniture, Etienne says “we sell a lot of lounge furniture, with the most popular item the genuine leather lounge suite”.
“You get scores of different (upholstery) material. Upholstery can for example be leather: plain or exotic such as oryx, eland or ostrich… and a range of fabric types and colours.”
You get South African woods and materials, but Lewis has also looked to other countries to source furniture suitable for the modern South African home.
“Look East, and you’ll find well crafted pieces made of hyacinth, banana leaf and cane, for instance…”
There’s such a range of wood, such as kiaat, tambotie and ironwood; there’s mahogany furniture from East Africa; white oak and red oak from the Americas; Maplewood from Canada; palmarfin and oak.
The type of wood used in furniture determines quality and if the furniture is bulkier in appearance, or more delicate, making this an important consideration for shoppers to bear in mind.
“Is it pine from Sabie which can be obtained cheaply, or stinkwood from Knysna, which is expensive? Is it made of beachwood? This is fine-grained furniture of wood that takes longer to grow and thrives in cold climates.”
There is also the option of staining items to get the desired colour and tone, from light to dark. “In the case of items such as tables, they can be blasted to enhance the grain, ideal for customers who like something with a more rustic look.”
Lewis started in 1976 and has kept abreast of latest trends in furniture and accessories by travelling to international furniture shows.
His extensive showrooms (his lifestyle centre in Montana and store in Waterkloof Glen) are also accessory havens of lamps, pots, vases, flowers and the like. The ceiling is bedecked with lamps Lewis saw on a visit to China.
Lewis entered the furniture business as a salesman for a furniture retailer in 1967. By 1976, he had branched out on his own, armed with a cardinal business philosophy, which states that “business requires 2 percent capital, 8 percent experience and 90 percent guts”.
His first shop was a moderately-sized store in Arcadia, but it soon grew when he bought up two adjoining properties to expand the showroom to 1 100m² and eventually increase to a total of seven Etienne Lewis outlets across Gauteng by 1982.
But a strategy meeting in 1995 decided on a restructuring of the family-owned business.
As a result of that decision, only two Pretoria stores now remain, something which has allowed Lewis to maximise efficiency.
His client base is wide, and goes far beyond Pretoria – to Polokwane, Thabazimbi, Middelburg and Rustenburg, for example.
Asked how he keeps up with the competition, Etienne laughs off the idea of there being competition. “There’s no competition. No one sells the quality we sell,” he says. “We close the gap between expensive, cheap furniture and cheap, expensive furniture. We aim to give value to our customers. We don’t sell them cheap furniture. We give them quality at a cheaper price.”
And what could possibly be the most exclusive item in the range? Etienne chooses not to answer but gives a clue. He suggests the possibility of a combination of pieces for the lounge. Depending on the type of leather – and Etienne himself prefers leather, especially exotic leather – it can set you back R100 000.
But even if you’re not in that market, visiting the showroom should be a sensory experience and help you get a sense of what’s out there. At Montana, a walkway gives visitors views of room settings on either side of the aisle.
There is a wide range for every room of the home, as well as the outdoors at Etienne Lewis. From lounge suites, dining room suites, bedroom suites, furniture for the study, patio furniture, foyer furniture, entertainment units, cupboards, ottomans, stools and accessories.
There are seven things you must get right when it comes to shopping for and handling furniture, says Etienne Lewis.
1 Get your furniture from a specialist. For instance, Etienne Lewis deals exclusively in furniture and avoids household items in its inventory. Sound advice and quality are assured.
2 Colour is important. Warm colours, including browns, oranges and reds, can be recommended for temperate areas such as Gauteng while softer colours such as blues, whites and greens are best suited to hotter regions such as KZN and the Northern Cape. Colour co-ordination is also important.
3 Remember too much of the sun’s rays can potentially ruin your furniture.
4 Do not sit on armrests as they can wear out quicker; they are not made to be sat on.
5 Keep pets (especially those in the cat family) away from furniture to avoid it being scratched. The same applies to children. Both need to be trained and taught to stay away from or avoid sullying or damaging furniture.
6 The less you clean your upholstered furniture the better. A dry cloth is the most recommended item to clean leather furniture, while a damp cloth can be used for stubborn stains. The care that goes into leather material also depends with the treatment of the leather.
7 Buy your furniture from an established business. There are in-built guarantees over and above those on paper.