15 Aug 2017
Integrated Tech and Interaction Breathe New Life Into UK Gift Sector
Despite the bewildering array of new products on show at this year's Pulse event, London's boutique gift expo, several clear trends emerged, including a craving for integrated technology and a love of both interactivity and Scandi-design.
With a positioning statement that reads: 'Make an Impact', Pulse styles itself as 'the UK's ultimate boutique trade event for inspiring new gifts, modern living and fashion accessories'. This year, the three-day show attracted more than 500 exhibitors from across the world, all eager to showcase their latest innovations in the homeware and gift sectors.
Despite the sheer range of products on show, it was not difficult to detect a number of clear trends. One of the most prominent was the move to integrate technology with day-to-day life, with the iBeani proving a prime example. Highly commended in the UK Gift of the Year Awards 2016 and manufactured by Nottingham-based DeVancer, the iBeani is basically an innovative alternative to the traditional tablet stand – a small, robust bean bag that comes in a variety of styles and fabrics.
Explaining its appeal, Director Nigel Spencer said: "It's the ultimate tablet stand, a true fashion and lifestyle accessory. Introduce it into your home and it instantly becomes part of the furniture. Not only that, it will also balance on any surface and fit any tablet, making it ideal for just relaxing and browsing.
"You just put the iBeani onto your knee or bed, pop your tablet onto it and you instantly have a really comfortable and stable stand, suitable for both landscape and portrait use. One thing that distinguishes it from any other tablet stand on the market is that you can use it at every conceivable angle, anything between wholly vertical and completely flat."
Handmade in the UK, the bright, colourful designs of the iBeani are designed to make it suitable for users of all ages. They are also said to be extremely safe, with their polystyrene EPS beads filling effectively dissipating any heat from the back of the tablet. At present, the product is solely distributed in the UK, but there are plans to change that.
Outlining the iBeani's future prospects, Spencer said: "At the moment, we don't export as such, although we do distribute individually to customers across the world. Exports, though, are something that we'll be looking at more seriously in the future, there's no doubt about that."
Another trend evidently popular in the world of gifts and homeware is interactivity, with consumers increasingly keen to have hands-on involvement with any items they buy, wear or display at home. One exhibitor that was ahead of the wave with this one was Netherlands-based Imakin DIY Design, suppliers of kits for making a whole variety of personalised gifts, including mirrors, plant hangers, leather tote bags and fedora hats.
Explaining the appeal of the business, Jinske Verpalen, the Founder of Imakin, said: "We make do-it-yourself kits, so all the materials you need for a particular creative project come packaged together, complete with step-by-step instructions.
"Overall, interactivity within the homeware market is definitely on the rise, a trend being led by women in the 25 to 45 age group. At present, we sell largely in Europe, though we do have one stockist in Japan."
A more high-tech approach to interactivity came courtesy of Illuminated Apparel, a young London-based company that first found fame via a Kickstarter campaign and an appearance on Dragon's Den, the British reality TV show aimed at budding entrepreneurs. Introducing the concept behind the company, Head of Business Development Troy Abraham said: "We're here exhibiting our range of interactive glow-in-the-dark products. Basically, we've invented a luminescent ink that you can draw with, allowing you to create your own T-shirt designs."
The unique panel on the front of an Illuminated Apparel T-shirt can be drawn on using the supplied UV keyring, a BlueLaser pen or even a mobile phone's flashlight function. The company's luminescent ink is said to be much stronger than many others available on the market, giving considerable longevity to any designs drawn on T-shirts. At present, the company also uses the technology on a range of sweatshirts and glow-in-the-dark caps, with pillowcases to be phased in in the near future.
Singling out the product's somewhat youthful demographic, Abraham said: "It's kids that we primarily sell to, although we also have the music festival market in the summer. In terms of the corporate market, we offer a logo-embedding service, whereby official logos are printed onto T-shirts, ensuring they are visible by day and luminous at night. At the moment, we are also looking at exporting. We've had a lot of interest from companies in China, but we haven't agreed anything yet."
Typically, many of the exhibitors at the event were young designers and owner-operators, and for some, such as Northamptonshire-based Katie Cardew, it was the first trade show they'd attended in a professional capacity. Through her company, Katie Cardew Illustrations, she has already won a number of awards for her range of high-quality prints featuring various landmarks from around the world.
Her London range, for instance, includes illustrated prints of St Paul's Cathedral, the Palace of Westminster, Buckingham Palace and the Globe Theatre, while her World series features the Capitol Building, the Taj Mahal, the Coliseum and Beijing's Temple of Heaven. She also produces bespoke maps, with many of her print designs additionally available as wallpapers, lampshades or notebooks.
While her work has a particular appeal within the British market, it has also found favour among tourists, something that has seen her overseas sales beginning to take off. Outlining her ambitions for the future, she said: "When I first launched the London collection, a number of people said: 'This would go down down really well in China. They love anything like this', so, that's a possibility I'd definitely like to explore."
Overall, the idea of world travel and cartography-led design is currently very popular within the gift and homeware sector, with many exhibitors at Pulse 2017 having branched out into this area. One company, however – Estonia-based Bold Tuesday – had taken the concept and fused it with a stark Scandinavian-style typography-based design aesthetic, another in-demand trend in the sector.
Explaining the thinking behind this radical blend of style and concepts, Courtney Smith, Bold Tuesday's Marketing Manager, said: "We've actually merged together two distinct components – travel and design. Our two co-founders, Kairi Kuuskor and Markus Marks, had a design studio and they started creating these travel posters as a side project, with each of them having an interactive component, as well as being aesthetically pleasing."
The company's first product was Go World, a wall-poster made entirely of black stickered vinyl. When it's first removed from its packaging, it's entirely black. Once the map's owner has visited a particular country, however, they can peel off the relevant sticker, revealing a white space below.
Another of the company's most popular products is Find It World, an interactive word-search poster inspired by the aesthetics of typography. Consisting of 2,596 white-on-black letters, within which are concealed the names of all the world's 197 countries, owners can highlight individual nations as they see fit.
Drilling down into the company's client base, Smith said: "Our customers are of all ages. We tend to have people who are avid travellers, but who also have an eye for a stark design aesthetic. Then we also have design lovers who just happen to travel a lot. Hopefully, expanding into the wider export space is also something we'll be looking at seriously in the near future."
Pulse 2017 was held from 14-16 May at the London Olympia Exhibition Centre.
Catherine Jones, Special Correspondent, London