A fast-fingered weaver needs up to forty hours to put together the meshing for a strandkorb, the traditional beach chairs that dot the beaches of the German coast. Once made from wicker, today they are woven from weather-resistance PVC plastic; but production still needs a human touch.
“No machine can do this; we are a workshop,” said Gerd Müsing, the founder and head of the eponymous Strandkorb company, as he showed off his production site.
Carpenters shape the wooden frames, while one floor above, workers sew the upholstery for the seat of the chair. In Mr. Müsing’s warehouse, located far from the coast in the landlocked northwestern city of Bielefeld, seats are being labeled for faraway destinations such as Halifax in Canada, Valencia in Spain and St. Moritz in mountainous Switzerland.
The Strandkorb is a German cultural icon, not unlike the Black Forest cuckoo clock.
The Strandkorb, invented 133 years ago in the Baltic city of Rostock as a beach holiday curiosity, has conquered the German garden furniture market. Mr. Müsing estimates 140,000 chairs are sold in Germany each year, meaning the market has doubled since the 1990s. And many outdoor swimming pools and restaurants lease them for the summer months.
Exact figures are hard to come by, but demand for handcrafted beach seats, available from only a few manufacturers, is growing. Aside from Gerd Müsing, only Korbwerk, Eggers, Jentzsch and Sylt-Strandkörbe offer a product of distinctly higher quality than cheap knockoffs made in Asia.
Mr. Müsing only got into the Strandkorb business after his wife fell in love with them on a seaside vacation. But in the mid-1980s it was nearly impossible to buy one privately.
“Women can be wonderfully pushy,” said Mr. Müsing, who at the time managed an interior construction firm. Together with his carpenter, he built his wife her own customized beach seat. It is a complicated construction, with more than 200 individual parts for reclining seats, drawers and foldaway tables. Eventually he started to make others. Today, he has 60 employees in Bielefeld and 70 in the Czech Republic.
“We expand every year,” said the 71-year-old businessman, who alongside his premium line also sells low-cost versions made in Asia.
An estimated 60 percent of the seats sold in Germany are cheap imports, starting at €250, or $275, apiece. Mr. Müsing’s budget brand is sold to home improvement stores for self-assembly. “After the entry-level model, people get a taste for high-quality baskets,” he said.
The old-fashioned furniture is trending towards luxury too, with options like a massage function, a champagne bottle holder, solar-powered LED lighting, a fridge and stereo. A custom-made piece by Gerd Müsing can easily cost several thousand euros. Though many Germans cherish the traditional wooden frames of strandkörbe, some are now made from aluminum.
The strandkorb is as uniquely German “as a cuckoo clock,“ said Dirk Mund, managing partner of Korbwerk, the country’s oldest manufacturer.
In operation since 1925 and based on the Baltic island of Usedom, Korbwerk employs 25 people making some 2,000 custom beach seats each year. When Germany hosted the G8 summit at the Baltic resort town of Heiligendamm in 2007, Korbwerk made an eight-person Strandkorb for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former U.S. President George Bush and other world leaders.
The company’s products, which include a rolling beach chair and one for wheelchair users, aren’t cheap. “We can’t compete with the wages in Asia,” said Mr. Mund. Still, “the order situation is good.”
Enno Cramer, managing director of the Strandkorb manufacturer Dekovries, said the market for the beloved beach seats is only likely to improve.
“Demand in Germany will continue to increase,“ he said. The majority of the 30,000 seats Dekovries sells each year are low-cost ones made in Asia. But the East Frisian company also assembles and finishes higher quality models in Germany.
But Mr. Cramer said there was also plenty of potential to make the Strandkorb more popular abroad. German manufacturers are already selling them to Alpine and Benelux countries and further afield, such as Spain and the United States. Mr. Müsing even had one urgent order from Japan: “The air freight was more expensive than the Strandkorb,” he said.
Katrin Terpitz is a reporter for Handelsblatt. To contact her: Terpitz@handelsblatt.com