INTERIORS+DESIGN for architects
SUZIE AGER, BRAND DIRECTOR, INTERIORS UK

Suzie Ager is Brand Director of INTERIORS UK, the UK's largest international trade interiors exhibition. The show, run by United Business Media, covers furniture, lighting, flooring, soft furnishings and accessories from high-end to volume, traditional to ultra-modern.

We spoke to Suzie to find out what's new for next year's show at the NEC Birmingham, 19-22 January. We also asked her views on where the interiors industry in general is headed, and found out where her own personal passion for interiors originated (interestingly it was partly down to a very special converted bomb shelter, but more of that later...)

Firstly, can you tell us how long you've been working for United Business Media?

I've been at UBM for seven years and started out on the Bar Show, everything and anything to do with luxury bars! I then went over to Sleep in 2010, concentrating on luxury hotel design and development before taking on a number of events including Decorex and the Arc show followed by INTERIORS UK in August 2011.

How long have you been involved with the INTERIORS UK show and in what capacity?

I've been on the show for over two years now. I started out as Sales Director back in August 2011, before quickly taking over as Brand Director in June 2012.

Who visits INTERIORS UK, and what makes it important for them to attend?

Visitors are broadly split between retail, contract and interior designers, but the true break down is much more detailed than that. So, for example, retail breaks down into independent, multiple and on-line. We also see plenty of contract project specifiers and commercial buyers.

In answer to 'why visit?', INTERIORS UK is the UK's most comprehensive interiors event. It's a prime opportunity for buyers to source new products and get up to speed with the latest trends, all in one location.

There used to be about eight different trade fairs representing the industry, but these have all merged into the current INTERIORS UK in the last few years. Given the pressures put on businesses in times of economic downturn, it's much easier for them to spare time and staff to visit one show that has everything they're going to need, rather than taking valuable time out to visit several.

On average, how many visitors does INTERIORS UK attract?

This year we had about 20,000 visitors, and the year before about 25,000. We lost a few in the snow this year, but the serious buyers still came and our exhibitors did pretty much the same level of business they did previously.

You're obviously very close to the show and know it extremely well, so how have you seen the event change over the last few years?

Although I've only worked on the show for a couple of years, I've worked as part of UBM's Interiors Portfolio for a lot longer and have seen the show evolve as both the industry and landscape have changed. The show is now more edited and compact, reflecting the current economic climate.

When you say 'landscape', could you please explain what you mean by that?

The industry itself has changed quite dramatically over the last few years - it's become a lot more compact. There have been lots of mergers and acquisitions, bankruptcies - unfortunately - and liquidations.

When I say the landscape has changed, the UK furniture industry, for example, is very different now to how it was six or seven years ago. British manufacture has unfortunately declined, so the UK furniture industry is now far more reliant on imports - you see far more overseas companies doing business over here. If you're going out to the High Street to buy a piece of furniture, the chances are it will be imported. So that's what I meant. We used to have quite a staunch stronghold of UK manufacturers and that's becoming diluted somewhat because industry has struggled an awful lot over the last few years.

Does the same apply to other interiors items as well as furniture?

Yes, absolutely, I mentioned furniture because I know it has struggled a lot, but I'm not saying other industries haven't as well. It's all directly or indirectly related to other industries, so for example the housing market - when that's in decline we notice it at the show.

From the INTERIORS UK website there looks to be lots of exciting new show features lined up for January 2014. Firstly, can you tell us a bit about what visitors can expect from Designer Makers and what it's all about?

This year's show is themed with 'new' in mind, and there'll be an impressive line-up of industry experts in the new Designer Makers area. The programme will include British craftsmen and designers making contemporary and bespoke furniture that's ideal for interior designers and independent retailers looking to select new one-off products at the show. Base Elements, Jason Muteham, Derrick Ibbott Furniture, Angus Ross, B:Bespoke, Mono Furniture by Design and John Barnard Furniture are just a few of the big names that will be there.

What else will be new to the 2014 show?

New for 2014 is the 'Editors Choice' which will be posted up on-line and around the show, and shared via social media and email. We'll be walking the floor before the show opens looking at all the stands, choosing from thousands of products and showcasing the most original ones.

We'll also be giving exhibitors 'swing tags' - basically brightly coloured labels - to highlight their newest and most original products. It makes it much easier for visitors to identify new products as they work their way around the show floor.

We're also planning another new feature area with a contract-project focus to be announced soon, so watch this space!

Once a stand-alone event, 'The Lighting Show' has more recently become an integral part of INTERIORS UK. Will it still be an important feature of next year's Show?

Yes! The Lighting Show is back by popular demand and will be celebrating its 50th anniversary at INTERIORS UK. Over 70 cutting edge brands will be exhibiting, including names like Dar, David Hunt, Illuminati Lighting, Search Light, Interiors 1900 ltd, Clifton and Illuma.

The centrepiece of the Lighting Show will be the VIP Lighting Lounge which will have its own café and dedicated seminar theatre - a great place to meet informally and network.

And the Fabric Pavilion?

To date we have confirmed Jim Dickens, Ian Mankin, Kobe, Barker & Barker and Art of the Loom. Again, the Fabric Pavilion is a great place to network as it is designed and built to form the "walls" of the show's central Champagne bar.

Will there be any major new exhibitors at next year's show?

We've seen lot of major brands returning to the show, including Duresta, John Sankey and G Plan - not to mention lots of new brands from Britain and abroad including Egoitaliano, Tomasella and Softnord.

Where do you see INTERIORS UK going over the next few years?

Because the UK furniture industry is now far more reliant on foreign trade it is essential that the show also becomes more international in flavour, with a greater variety of international exhibitors to give our visitors a better selection of products. In turn, by attracting more overseas visitors, our exhibitors will gain more global export opportunities.

Have you noticed any new and emerging trends in interior design in general?

Colours are much brighter and more daring that they have been in recent years. I remember going to one of the European events not so long ago and everywhere I looked there were variations of browns and beiges with the odd accent here or there. This year we've seen a much brighter spectrum and larger blocks of colour, and next year the palette will be even more daring with vibrant eye-catchers replacing background neutrals.

Coming back to you personally, what's your background? Where did you work before joining UBM?

I previously ran IFE Poland - a food and drink show in Warsaw - and the Russian International Wine and Spirits show in Moscow together with the Russian International Wine Challenge. It certainly helped me develop a deep appreciation for wine!

Have you ever bought anything for your own home as a result of seeing it at INTERIORS UK?

My home is an eclectic mix of genuine antiques, up-cycled vintage and the odd piece of contemporary furniture thrown in for good measure. We introduced 'Out of the Dark' to the show last year - a charity that trains young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in the art of furniture manufacture, upholstery, recycling and up-cycling. One of the pieces on display inspired me to up-cycle my grandfather's old Ercol dinner table, which now takes pride of place in my kitchen.

And have interiors always been of special interest to you?

I have been interested in interior design for as long as I can remember. My grandfather, Percival Ager, was an architect who designed and built his own huge detached house - complete with a beautiful, grand central staircase - so I grew up appreciating the aesthetics of my surroundings. There was a disused bomb shelter at the bottom of the garden which he converted into an underground den - I played there from when I was a little girl.

And what do you like doing when you're not busy working on the show?

I moved into an early 19th century cottage a couple of years ago - it's one of the old workers' cottages from Hampton Court. It was modernised (rather badly) by its previous owners so I've been busy restoring it back to its former glory. It's a long, slow process but genuinely rewarding. I also take kick boxing lessons four times a week which helps to relieve the tension when things don't go according to plan with the house!