Here's Something New!
By Tom Lassiter
Keith Kennington knew he was interested in Plank & Hide’s product lineup as soon as he saw it last year. A seasoned casual furniture store owner instantly recognizes when something truly innovative appears at the Merchandise Mart.
“When I saw it on the temp floor, it was very unique – impressive – and really appealed to me. It was unlike anything else we’ve seen,” says Kennington, owner of Casual Living Patio & Fireside, headquartered in the Dallas suburb of Carrollton.
The collection, called Preece, had a different profile. The colors and textures didn’t have that cookie-cutter sameness that pervades too many showrooms, and the furniture was as heavy as it looked.
“I like things that are big, substantial, and heavy enough so that people don’t have to worry about them blowing away,” he says.
Preece has somewhat modular lines, reminiscent of the countless versions of contemporary chairs and sofas executed in resin wicker. But instead of a metal frame wrapped in fiber, Preece appears to be constructed of massive wooden timbers on the scale of railroad ties, though lighter in color.
The surprise is that there’s not a single fiber of wooden material in Preece (more about that later).
Plank & Hide, which made its first appearance at the Casual Market in 2014 with six groups, returned this year with an expanded lineup.
The offerings include aluminum-frame, deep-seating sets, masculine-looking metal bars, and rustic dining tables that appear to be hewn from a single, giant log.
Appearances, however, are deceiving. There is no timber in any of Plank & Hide’s products.
The material masquerading as wood is a proprietary cast composite. Plank & Hide has given it the trademarked name SIMA. It’s similar in composition to a durable, moldable, fiber-cement material long used in building construction. Another fiber-cement variant popular in the housing industry is known as Hardie Board.
|Photo: ©2015 Josh Beeman Photography. www.joshbeemanphotography.com.
L to R: Chris Probst, president; Erik Mueller, founder of Plank & Hide.
SIMA, says Plank & Hide founder Erik Mueller, differs from similar materials in that it is highly moldable, can produce a finely detailed surface, and readily takes color and other finishes.
SIMA is heavy, durable, and fire resistant to 1,300 degrees F, Mueller says. Yet the surface can be cast to hold fine detail, such as wood grain, or an intricate wicker-like weave, seen in the group called Julius. SIMA’s chameleon-like surface can be manipulated to mimic wood, stone, and other materials.
Mueller says he came upon SIMA when in China looking for alternative materials to build active recreational products, such as shuffleboards. He found a Chinese factory making fire pit tops from fiber-cement material.
“Everybody wants wood, but nobody wants the maintenance of wood,” says Mueller, who also owns Watson’s, a Cincinnati-based specialty retailer. Watson’s sells a range of products including pools, spas and hot tubs, game and pool tables, as well as furnishings for Outdoor Rooms and kitchens.
“I thought this was some of the most beautiful, interesting product I’d ever seen,” he says of the material he now calls SIMA.
The discovery of SIMA led Mueller to push forward with his plans to create an outdoor furniture company.
“I already had a vision of what I wanted to do in patio,” he says. “My vision is not to give in to what everybody else has.”
Plank & Hide, he says, aims to offer “a combination of materials that we can sell in high volume. We’re trying to have a very positive impact on retailers’ lives by delivering unique product that gives them a unique advantage in the marketplace.”
Chris Probst, president of Plank & Hide, says the company benefits from Mueller’s many years as a retailer. The company’s products line, he says, is designed to allow retailers to create “an unshoppable experience for their customers.”
The company’s product line, Probst says, is designed to allow retailers to create “an unshoppable experience for their customers.”
In other words, shoppers won’t be able to go down the street or online to find look-alike competitors with similar features.
Plank & Hide wants functionality to be one of its hallmarks. Several of its products offer features that enhance or extend their usefulness.
For instance, the hood-like top of the Sadie coffee table parts and slides open from the center to reveal a fire feature. The table’s slender, longitudinal design stores a propane tank underneath. When closed, the Sadie table offers a handsome, smooth surface for entertaining while cleverly concealing the fire feature.
Dining tables are available with a patented system that elevates bowls of chips and dip above the tabletop. They move in an orbiting fashion, allowing guests on either side access to the food without resorting to a “boarding house reach.” Bars and coffee tables have similar chip-and-dip serving options.
Retailer Eric Brenner of AuthenTEAK in Atlanta became a Plank & Hide dealer at the 2014 Casual Market. Initial shipments, he says, were a bit slow in arriving. “For a product that came in a little late in the season, it’s been well received,” he says. “Have we made some nice sales? Yes.”
The Preece collection appeals to customers because it creates “something different in the showroom,” he says. “It’s good looking. They’ve got the color scheme down.”
An AuthenTeak contract customer is considering a sizable order of the heavy furniture. A Preece club chair weighs 125 pounds and takes two people to assemble. The customer, Brenner says, “feels like the inherent durability would be perfect for their new patio.”
SIMA is touted as being water, fire, mold and corrosion resistant. The manufacturing process, Plank & Hide says, is free of formaldehyde, asbestos and benzene. Yet the material is not indestructible. SIMA may chip if dropped, struck with a blunt instrument, or involved in a patio collision with a speeding tricycle. Plank & Hide prepares to handle those eventualities by shipping a touch-up kit for retailers as well as retail customers.
A Preece chair at the 2015 Preview Show suffered slight damage on site. After a bit of touch up, the repair was invisible.
Larger SIMA products take plenty of muscle to set up. “An eight-ft. table takes four guys to deliver,” says Kennington. The Graham table looks like a huge slab of wood. “Everybody likes it,” he says. “We sold it pretty well.”
SIMA products are undeniably heavy, Mueller says, “but the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.” A Preece sofa weighs 202 pounds.
The weight of many Plank & Hide products won’t be the only challenge for some retailers. The company sells only in container quantities for the time being.
“I sampled a little of everything,” Kennington says. “I couldn’t go deep. It doesn’t take much to fill up a container.”
Mueller says Plank & Hide is focused on the specialty retail market. The company, he says, is not selling to online retailers nor is it working with mass merchants.
He says the company wants to bring the best possible value it can to retailers. “We want to bring increased margins, unshoppable features, and the most aggressive pricing we can do. At the moment, a container program is the way to do that.”
As the business matures, Mueller says, the company will “make decisions on what we want to stock and how we want to stock them.”
Plank & Hide’s lineup caught the eye of Dean Kjeldgaard at the 2014 Casual Market. He’s general manager of Beachcomber, a casual furniture store in Edmonton, Alberta. Beachcomber ordered two collections.
“The pricing was really not out of control, and the product looked beautiful, unique and different. We knew it was something that was definitely different in the marketplace,” he says.
Product didn’t arrive until the first week of May, later than Kjeldgaard would have preferred given Canada’s relatively short sales season. The manufacturer had to get some quality issues in hand, he says, but “they kept us informed of everything. It worked out fine.”
Working with a brand-new company always requires “a leap of faith,” Kjeldgaard says. “You never really know when it’s a first-year manufacturer. But Erik made us feel quite comfortable, and it turned out pretty well. It’s been a real good product line for us.”