Doing things differently is Australian furniture manufacturer and retailer King Living’s winning strategy, from its game-changing approach to innovation that informs its quality and comfort to its timeless viewpoint on design. Soon after King Living was launched in Malaysia, co-founder David King told us the story about its unexpected start, its guiding philosophy and the secrets of its rapid growth.

SINGAPORE (May 7): Prior to 1960, living room furniture was more decorative than functional. You sat in a chair with your back straight and when you were finished with your task in the room, you left. It was all quite formal, in fact, and the idea of relaxing on a sofa would have been considered a little ludicrous.

So when King Living founders Gwen King and her son David started selling their comfortable, timelessly designed and uniquely modular furniture at Paddy’s Markets in Sydney, Australia, it was understandably a huge hit — the world was ready to look at the interior of their homes in a different light. King Living, which

celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, is today Australia’s leading furniture manufacturer-retailer with 14 branches across the country as well hugely successful showrooms in Auckland, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

“I remember how my grandmother would sit upright on her sofa, she would never let us lean on the back or sit on the arms,” David recalls with a good-natured laugh, lounging on a gorgeous leather sofa in King Living’s Furniture showroom. “In the 1970s, the realisation sort of hit that furniture was for entertaining and, actually, living. Something you’ll hear from me a lot is this — you spend the best hours of your life on your sofa. Everyone works really hard and when you get home, that is your time to relax. Everything we sell is meant to enhance that experience.”

Although David says one of King ­Living’s major claims to fame was having its Delta sofa featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, it is the quality of its products that sets it apart from its competitors. A distinctly design-driven brand that responded to a need in the market for Australian-designed, customisable furniture, it is actually most notable for the sheer amount of research and innovation that goes into each and every piece.

Especially game-changing is the patented Postureflex Seating system, an idea taken from the automotive industry.

King Living’s design studio is staffed by industrial designers, supported by engineers and artisan tailors, who create truly innovative furniture pieces. It is centred on David and Gwen’s philosophy of creating furniture that is designed for style, engineered for comfort and built to last. But these insights come not from an exceptionally profit-driven founder at the helm — King Living is a family-run business that owes its success to honest hard work, good instincts and not thinking like traditional furniture companies.

This gives King Living’s furniture an edge — style within the service of functionality, practicality paired with exceptional comfort and solutions for the home that just work. As David puts it, it is furniture that actually makes any living space nicer than it was before. After a quick stroll through the brand’s showroom, I am sold on quite a few pieces, especially the beds. Sturdy and strong, the mattresses’ many layers can be taken apart for easy cleaning or to adjust to the preference of the user. The sofas are just as impressive — some include storage space under the seats and many have Smart pockets on the arms, which are nifty spots to store small items such as TV remote controls, magazines and iPads.

How it all unfolded

Back in 1977, starting a furniture company with his mother was not part of David’s plans. In fact, he was running a burgeoning electronics business when King Living sort of happened to him and his family. Gwen — a successful interior designer — had started making foam-­moulded furniture for some clients and got her son to help her. The pieces they made were unique because the covers could be removed, washed and even changed, while their modular nature meant they were extremely versatile and could work in homes of any size and would fit into any arrangement.

“Some of the chairs looked so good that we wondered if there was a market for it. My mother sewed the covers, I made the shapes, and we popped them on the roof rack of the car and brought them to ­Paddy’s Markets. Everyone loved those initial foam-moulded chairs, including the other stall owners!

“We used to make them at home, which was located in a quiet suburban area of Sydney. The neighbours weren’t at all thrilled with all the activity as the lorries and cars started to arrive. So we had to make a big decision: either stop it completely, or take it to the next step. We ended up moving to a shop in the city that had a workroom and we hired our first employees.”

After two years, David and Gwen took a risk and invested in a dedicated factory and showroom in the swanky Annandale neighbourhood, which now houses the brand’s Sydney flagship store. The Kings did much of their early research and development here, thanks to a mission shop across the road from which David would buy and take apart discarded furniture.

“The arms were breaking, the webbing had gone saggy. So when it came to developing our product, we got rid of the timber, the dowel, the elastic,” he says. “Timber frames just don’t work unless you make them from heavy hardwood, but most manufacturers use cheap softwood.”

This was when David came up with King Living’s Postureflex steel frames — he found inspiration from car seats, discovering that even the oldest, most beat-up of vehicles would always have intact seats, and it was the steel frames that kept them so robust. Incidentally, King Living borrows from cars in another way — some of the leather it uses is from the same German tannery that supplies to British luxury carmaker Rolls-Royce.

It was in the late 1980s that David and Gwen realised that they were doing something really special with King ­Living — they were making furniture that was truly long-lasting. “About 10 years into the business, the most amazing thing happened,” David describes excitedly, as if it had just taken place. “People who wanted new covers for their furniture were able to get them, and with that, get a totally new look! They could also then hand the furniture down to their kids, who were quite happy to use them as long as they didn’t look like mum’s and dad’s old things. The thing with our furniture was that you could change the covers but keep the frame, which made it good for consumers, and for the environment too.”

Evolving and updating products

Many of King Living’s most enduring product lines are not new, but are frequently updated to keep abreast with newly available technological advances. Built-in electrical ports to charge devices, smoother motors for recliners — these are simple things that make an already good product even better.

“We fine-tune frequently, and our products always evolve,” David explains. “The sofa we are sitting on was launched in 2003, but the version sold today looks up to date. It’s not that anything is wrong with the stuff we launch, but things change, so we update our designs, taking into account technological advancements and even customer feedback. The automotive industry does this a lot. For example, a BMW 3 Series or a Porsche 911 go back a long way, but current versions are up to date. Generally speaking, the ­furniture­ ­industry doesn’t do this, but we do.”

This is his third reference to cars — David is a bit of a petrolhead, it seems, and he’s distilled some of the industry’s best ideas to be included in the company. Nicely done, sir.

Going back to the early days, while the fine-tuning was going on, King Living’s team of designers also kept busy developing new products. Although the bulk of their creations in the 1980s and 1990s were armchairs and sofas, they also expanded into bedding (how can a mattress be so firm and yet so soft all at once?), dining tables and even outdoor furniture, which was quite logical seeing that Australians do tend to spend a great deal of time outdoors. More recent additions include smaller items such as cushions and candles, which will be available in the brand’s store.

The team also frequently collaborates with external parties to grow the company’s collective oeuvre — the Zaza couch bears the creative handprint of Charles Wilson, one of Australia’s top designers, and the team is currently working with an Italian design house for a project scheduled for a September reveal. But ultimately, David says, it is the in-house team that is the main custodian of King Living’s design genius and unique philosophy.

“The internet has changed a lot of things. People here have access to the world’s best homes through Instagram, and they decide what they want. This is happening all over the world as people become more educated about good design, so there’s a diversified amount of taste, but there are good design basics that we have followed for years,” he explains. “One of them is to avoid unnecessary ornamentation. Furniture that’s unnecessarily fancy is long gone, we want something architectural with clean lines that will enhance your living space. There is a particular look in furniture that is popular and we think we have that look, and I think one of the reasons of our success is that people can put our furniture in their room and the space will look better for it. Plus, our products don’t date and that’s deliberate on our part — we keep a fairly plain design approach.”

But that is not to say that plain implies unsophisticated, as there is a lot to be said about an elegant simplicity that belies a thoughtful and practical eye for design. As we continue our tour of the showroom, I can’t help but think that King Living has benefited deeply from its founders’ not actually having trained in furniture design, but instead, relying on what must be said are excellent instincts. “We do a lot of things differently,” David agrees. “Right from the beginning, we understood that if we did what everyone else was doing, it comes down to the lowest price. But if you do things better, it’s a different approach to everything we do.”

A handsome man with an impressive sweep of silver hair, David perfectly epitomises the stylish Sydneysider — from the effortless assembly of his relaxed blue-jeans-blue-shirt ensemble to his clipped accent, he is pure Oz chic. We can only imagine how glamorous Gwen, who is today based in Queensland, must be. “She thinks I’m a total embarrassment to her because I look so old — she looks much younger than me,” David grins, confirming our suspicions. “Mum is very much still involved in the business too. She goes to the showrooms and tells me what she likes or doesn’t like — she’s fantastic.”

Expansion plans

After an hour’s chat, David warms up to the idea of being in the hot seat (he doesn’t often do interviews) and divulges a few more details about himself. For example, the electronics business he spoke about was actually related to audio equipment. This was the natural progression from his being in a pop band with four mates. Called King Fox, the band — for which David sang and played the guitar — came into prominence after entering a talent competition. Their winning song, Unforgotten Dreams, was on the Sydney charts for over four months. Who knew?

Having swapped the fame and fortunes of music for furniture, David is now based in Singapore with his wife Sonia and two daughters, who are also involved in the business. Moving from Sydney has helped him better coordinate the company’s expansion into Singapore and Malaysia, with Vancouver and Mainland China to follow. Singapore is also an easier commute to Europe — where much of King Living’s high-quality leathers are from — as well as to Shanghai, where their factory is.

Expansion into Asia — with Singapore and Malaysia — is something David has been looking forward to. Since the opening of the brand’s Singapore showroom in Kallang three years ago, Singapore has seen a steady stream of customers through its doors. With Malaysia, the affection towards the country is personal — Sonia used to work for Malaysia Airlines and the couple used to holiday there frequently — but much of it is practical, as it has some advantages that other cities like it do not have: space. “In most cities in Southeast Asia, people live in small apartments, which is the case when you look at Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. But there are lots of beautiful homes… large ones… here in Malaysia and there’s an opportunity to buy larger pieces of furniture,” he observes. “In that way, it’s quite similar to Australia where people live in bigger homes because we have a larger sprawl.

Today, three generations of the family are involved in the business — a source of great pride for Gwen as the company continues to grow, with its principles intact. David and Gwen are ensuring that the company will go on well past their lifetimes. “Early in the 1980s, we already realised that we had a business that was quite different from others,” David says philosophically. “Doing well isn’t something we set out to do, we aren’t driven by creating an empire and were not a public company, so we aren’t motivated purely by profit. We are building a 100-year-old company… we want the company to go on well beyond all of us.”

Indeed, we have no reason to doubt that it will.

Anandhi Gopinath is an assistant editor with the Options desk at The Edge Malaysia