Simon Keane-Cowell

Author

Simon Keane-Cowell
Zürich   Switzerland

Inside Out: Tribu shapes the exterior landscape


It’s no mean feat producing timeless design that’s also innovative and future-facing. One of the few brands to pull this off is Tribù, the leading outdoor-furniture label that invites its users to sit back and relax, while itself doing anything but take it easy.
 

Inside Out: Tribu shapes the exterior landscape
Monica Armani's 'Tosca' armchair for premium outdoor-furniture label Tribù marries quality, comfort-guaranteeing materials with weather-resistant robustness for a long-life product

It’s not easy going backwards.

The American comedian Chris Rock does a segment in one of his stand-up shows where he talks about the difficult of giving up the levels of lifestyle and comfort we’ve come to enjoy once we’re enjoying them. “Can’t do it. Just can’t do it.”

It’s all about expectation, you see. What previously might have been acceptable becomes sub-standard once we’ve experienced the pleasures of things more elevated. Call it human nature.

When leading Belgian outdoor-furniture label Tribù made the smart move in the mid-80s to transform itself from importer and agency to producer, it recognised the market need for resolutely contemporary, quality-driven furniture for outside spaces, furniture which offers its users the same kind of experience in terms of comfort and aesthetics, with no compromises, as products traditionally found inside. With the increasing dissolution in architectural thinking, since then, of the boundaries between indoor and outdoor space – particularly when it comes to contract projects, where, for example, the terrace, becomes another ‘room’ and is staged as such – Tribù’s paradigm-shifting new furniture typologies have established themselves as the benchmark for al fresco seating and leisure products.

Inside Out: Tribu shapes the exterior landscape
The braiding is simple in form yet innovative in technological terms – a foam mousse sheathed in knitted textilene and polyolefine, which makes it impervious to the elements, yet very soft

Countries have constitutions. Artists manifestos. Tribù has a small bundle of papers, which they call their brand DNA. ‘The documents were drawn up a decade ago. They’re living things, evolving as the world and our target customers change,’ explains Tribù CEO Koen de Cock, the eldest son of the company’s founder, Lode. ‘I guess we’ve updated it about ten times so far.’ The papers contain the company’s core values, the touchstones of the Tribù brand as it were: ‘Trendsetting, yet timeless, design. Sustainable, yet durable, products. High-end materials, allowing customisation. Versatile outdoor, as well as indoor, use. And added architectural value for the total project.’

Big-ambition stuff. Yet once you factor in the company’s commitment to innovation and leading-edge technology, as well as its engagement with ethical sourcing and production, you get a true sense of just how high the level of expectation is that the Tribù team have of their work and their products. And, like Chris Rock says, you just can’t go back.

Inside Out: Tribu shapes the exterior landscape
The diverse values of aesthetics, comfort, durability and sustainability meet in Tribu's collection of high-quality, space-defining products

If you’re going to change the rules of the game, you’re going to clock up a few firsts along the way. Tribù were one of the first outdoor-furniture brands to exhibit at Milan’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile (back in 2001), having led the way in introducing to market leisure products for exterior spaces contemporary in design. Innovation in terms of material usage saw the company pioneer the application of stainless steel in outdoor furniture in the late 1990s, specifying it for their long-selling, Wim Segers-designed ‘Natal’ collection of sophisticated, formally reduced garden seating and lounging. More recently, working in collaboration with producers the way Tribù has elected to do from the start (hand-picking the best industrial partners affords the Belgian label supreme flexibility, which, in turn means excellent creative opportunities for designers in terms of materials and processes), they’ve developed an innovative woven textilene with Ferrari Batyline called ‘Canax’. The wonder stuff, which combines hemp with PVC, has a natural look and a tactile quality almost like leather, but with all the robust, climate-resistant performance you’d expect from premium-segment brand. What’s more, it’s made from 50% recycled materials and can be 100% recycled again for reuse as Canax. Canax born again, if you will.

Inside Out: Tribu shapes the exterior landscape
Tribù has its sights set on expanding its contract business, as outdoor spaces become ever more an integral part of architectural schemes; shown here the 'Vis à Vis' sofa by Piergiorgio Cazzaniga

The Canax innovation pretty much sums up the Tribù MO, uniting, as it does, the diverse values of aesthetics, comfort, durability and sustainability. The latter is something the company has always taken seriously. ‘We only use plantation teakwood,’ explains de Cock. ‘In addition, a lot of our aluminium products are high-pressure casted, which means zero waste and the ability to use a very large percentage of recycled aluminium in the production.’ But Tribù also recognises the critical role designing out aesthetic obsolescence plays in sustainability. ‘Our furniture has a timeless design quality to it. We have customers who purchased our products 20 years ago and come in now because they need small repairs. This is ultimate sustainability.’

Inside Out: Tribu shapes the exterior landscape
'We have customers who purchased our products 20 years ago and come in now because they need small repairs,' says Tribù CEO Koen de Cock. 'This is ultimate sustainability’

A bigger-picture approach is taken to the company’s ethical standing, too, which goes hand-in-hand with its environmental undertakings. 50% of its production is based outside Europe. In Indonesia, for example, Tribù has set up a subsidiary company, which under European management, employs over 200 staff indirectly. Workers’ conditions in the factory are maintained to a high standard, with full-time, on-site Tribù employees ensuring this remains the case, as well as being responsible for quality control. ‘I maintain a very close relationship with our overseas operations,’ says de Cock, ‘visiting all of our partner factories twice a year. It’s vital that all of Tribù’s products are produced in an ethical and sustainable way.'

Back home, a team of 30, based in Zutendaal, focus on the through-the-line business (they like to call it ‘head-to-tail’) of research and development, design, sales and distribution (Tribù products are available in over 50 countries worldwide, via high-end dealers), all shaped by the company’s internal culture of innovation. ‘A company needs a fresh idea or driving principle, which its people can rally around and act upon. Something more than words. Something more engaging, revolutionary. This is exactly what we’ve one over the past few years: focus on a common goal and repeat that goal until it becomes the truth.’

Inside Out: Tribu shapes the exterior landscape
Piergiorgio Cazzaniga's 'Vis à Vis' lounger for Tribù. With 50% the production of Tribù products located outside Europe, the company has introduced a robust set of ethical standards with regard to labour

The chief goal for Tribù right now is to develop further its already successful contract business, which currently makes up 40% of the company’s turnover. ‘Our retail customers value our perfect finish; subtle details and high quality are important to them,’ says de Cock, but the same is true of the brand’s contract clients, who have specified its products for diverse projects internationally. ‘To grow the contract business, we’ve had to change the entire company culture, the collection, talk to suppliers and in some cases change the culture of some of our suppliers. It’s been a fascinating process.’ Until now, the project-based side of Tribù’s activities has seen it serve, in the main, luxury boutique hotels, spas and top-tier restaurants. ‘In the future, we’ll be moving more into this hospitality sector’, de Cock explains. ‘We’re currently working on bigger, five-star hotel and retail projects, together with luxury yachts. But we feel confident we can tackle any project, no matter the size, no matter the weather conditions.’ A recently completed project to the tune of €1.1 million in turnover (and an incredibly short six-week turnaround) certainly testifies to this.

Inside Out: Tribu shapes the exterior landscape
Tribù CEO Koen de Cock: 'We feel confident we can tackle any project, no matter the size, no matter the weather conditions'

Dovetailing with this target-group development is an expansion in Tribù’s markets. 66% of its market currently is within Europe (with Benelux, France, Germany and Italy its key countries), but plans are afoot to nurture the business in the Middle East and Asia. A recent appearance at Maison&Objet Asia in Singapore underscores the intention to address architects, planners and other specifiers directly, especially in growth markets. ‘All the discussions we’ve had with architects so far have been extremely positive,’ says de Cock. ‘They’re thrilled to find out that there is a new and trustworthy player in the market that can really add value to their projects.’

Never was timeless design so future-facing.

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