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Why shipping is challenging for the design world – and how to solve it

Galleries, dealers, interior designers and art fairs often report challenges with shipping. Leaders from across the design and shipping industry talk to Effect about the issues and their solutions.

At Mexico City’s Unique Design X show in February, one stand featured pieces of furniture made of cardboard. Nothing new there – think Frank Gehry’s 1972 corrugated Wiggle Side Chair. But members of the Belgium-based design collective Zaventem Ateliers had actually made their pieces in Mexico, from cardboard gathered nearby. The reason? Most of the ‘real’ pieces they were due to exhibit were stuck in transit and weren’t released from customs in time for the show. Hence the one-to-one scale cardboard models. So with typical designers’ ingenuity, total disaster was just about averted.

Designer Humberto Campana’s On the Road exhibition at Friedman Benda gallery in New York, 2024

It’s the sort of horror story that sends shivers down the spine of any gallerist, interior designer, furniture designer and collector who ships their treasures to or from other territories.

Minor hiccoughs and full-blown nightmares caused by customs regulations, taxes and duties, and import/export restrictions are only part of many items’ ‘incredible journey’. Geopolitics, weather and distant catastrophes have a role too. Clients may not be aware that the Ukraine war, a traffic jam in the Suez Canal, the collapse of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge, and a transport workers’ strike at Finnish ports could have had an impact on the delivery of their fabulous bespoke sideboard. Add COVID and Brexit to the mix, and the likelihood of disrupted delivery and cost hikes loom even larger. Edouard Gouin at white-glove courier service Convelio confirms this: “Prices have remained high and even escalated beyond pre-COVID levels. Additionally, cargo airlines now offer fewer options for transporting fine art, which complicates logistics and increases competition for limited space.” In 2023, Convelio handled the shipping of 35,000 items, with a collective commercial worth of €500m.

A recliner in leather and brass by architect and designer Reda Amalou at PAD Paris 2023. Nathalie Elmaleh at Reda Amalou Design describes the stress two-week waits at Swiss customs waiting for approval

Nathalie Elmaleh at Reda Amalou Design in France describes the stress of sending an item out of the European Union: “A truck spent two weeks at Swiss customs waiting for approval.” Interior design firm Portia Fox London arranged for a container shipment from the UK to Singapore, “initially expecting a one-month transit time”, explains Portia Fox. “However, unforeseen weather conditions extended this period by three months.”

A truck spent two weeks at Swiss customs waiting for approval.

Nathalie Elmaleh, Reda Amalou Design

Sometimes, a customer just can’t wait. US gallery Two Enlighten recently had a client request to cancel an order coming from Europe. The gallery’s Luke Vitanza was quoted a 12-week lead time, which turned into 16 weeks. “Luckily, the maker hadn’t started making it,” he says – because it would be hard to find a new buyer for a bespoke piece made to someone else’s specifications.

Then there’s the hassle of navigating the different requirements of different countries for different types of pieces. Elmaleh has found that US authorities ask for the specification of the wood a piece of furniture is made from, and that some wood isn’t accepted. And Two Enlighten has discovered that some fabrics from Denmark don’t meet the flame-retardant requirements of certain US states like California.

LA-based Two Enlighten ship vintage and contemporary lighting globally, such as the Daniel Becker ‘Emily 5’ chandelier — seen here installed in the home of actor Robert Downey Jr

So imagine how all this affects a studio or gallery exhibiting multiple designers at an overseas fair. To take items to Collectible 2024 in Brussels earlier this year, Relay Design Projects had to produce a carnet – a passport for each of the goods that were temporarily in Europe. “We have to do a list of where each piece was produced, what materials were used, and who produced it,” says Richard Healy, the firm’s co-founder, “that can be labour intensive in terms of recording details.” The carnet goes with the courier and is checked at the border there and back.

Shipping costs were “one of the issues we had to think about when setting up in Collectible New York (whose first show is in September 2024), and how to help the European exhibitors work it,” says Clélie Debehault, co-founder of Collectible Brussels. But the maths made sense. “The US market is really booming for collectible design; there are collectors and professionals who have a bigger budget for design pieces.”

For sellers who want to do their bit for the planet, there’s the extra effort of trying to cut down on carbon emissions. To get their collection from the UK to Collectible Brussels, Relay Design Projects used Zhero, which operates electric vans. This was the company’s first foray onto the continent. “There are some excellent route planners online,” says Zhero’s Ollie King, “the charging network is more open, there’s single charging app for all charger providers, and there are loads of them, so no queuing. We were confident we wouldn’t run out of power.” However, if an EV carrier came from the continent to the UK, the relative lack of charging points would mean “they would definitely need to plan properly,” he cautions.

At this end of the market, fragility is also a factor. One of Convelio’s longest-standing clients is a French-based gallery specialising in rock, crystal and amethyst sculptural lightings. “Due to their size and fragility – crystal being extremely sensitive to any kind of light shock – it’s critical to thoroughly assess the chandeliers before removing the individual pieces, packing each of them separately, and crafting a made-to-order ISPM-15 compliant crate to hang the chandelier within during international freight,” explains Edouard Gouin at Convelio.

Relay Design Projects (whose Ghost Series by Haha Studio is pictured here) describe the labour-intensity of exhibiting multiple designers at an overseas fair such as Collectible 2024, with a ‘carnet’ needed for each of the goods

Seasoned sellers have their favourite courier services. Two Enlighten has had success with Alpi Logistics, while Debehault at Collectible rates online platforms such as Convelio and Arta. “They act a bit like a Trivago, but for shipping,” she explains, “you can enter all the details of the shipment and they find for you the best option and act like a liaising platform for exhibitor and shipping company.”

For each item going out of the EU, Reda Amalou Design employs a transitaire – “a person in-between the shipper and us who organises the customs, checks all the papers and organises the payments of taxes to the country,” Elmaleh explains.

We tend to under-promise and over-deliver.

Luke Vitanza, Two Enlighten

Two Enlighten also has a stable of EU couriers who “hand-collect lamps and furniture that we’ve sourced overseas and then take the pieces back to their respective warehouses where they prepare them for export, and build custom-wooden crating if needs be, so the lamps and furniture have the best chance at arriving at their destination without damage or delay”, explains Vitanza. These couriers act as a freight forwarder of sorts and don’t provide door-to-door service but rather prepare the packaging and export documents so the pieces can then be collected by UPS, FedEx or DHL.

Major design and art events such as the Venice Biennale are a logistical challenge involving many months of shipping planning. Pictured: Willem de Kooning and Italy at the Gallerie dell’Accademia (Photo: Matte de Fina)

For Two Enlighten, these independent couriers are worth their weight in gold. “We consider them a vital cog in the wheel, and it allows us to accurately quote our client,” Vitanza adds.

But whether it’s a bad storm or a change in duties, sellers manage these variables by managing the expectations of their buyers. That can mean playing it safe by overestimating the length of time a delivery will take. Or as Vitanza puts it: “We tend to under-promise and over-deliver.”

Read more: Design | Art | Interiors | Interior Design | Insights | Shipping