The international design show: the final act?

In the wake of the spring's two major fairs, a critic asks if they can accommodate the epochal industry shifts at hand.

 

Op-ed / Amelie Znidaric

Walking through Manhattan's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center last week was a frustrating experience. "Seen it, seen it, seen it," was the reaction not only of the lucky few who had been able to make it to Milan in April. In the age of the Internet we have all seen the newest lines presented at the Salone only a month ago.

And yet, it is important for the European manufacturers to make an appearance at the New York Design Week, be it the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) at the Javits Center or any other concurrent design event throughout the city. The US, after all, is a large and important market and good business relations need personal interaction. Especially since travel budgets have become tight due to the recession and American retailers don't get to Bella Italia as easily as before, it's the European companies who take the time and effort of traveling. Once in New York, they set up second best versions of their Milan booths or host parties in their Soho showrooms—often increasing the entertainment value with dubious attractions such as a tattoo artist performing his skills on the guests. Only the best for our clients!

The American designer elite joined these efforts with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Bibi Seck, together with the Italian manufacturer Patrizia Moroso and the Senegalese designer and gallery owner Fatimata Ly, did a nice job explaining their common work in Africa. Karim Rashid celebrated Karim Rashid showing twenty of his pieces in a Chelsea duplex and making appearances at two other venues. Stephen Burks celebrated Stephen Burks in a show he curated for the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD). And Yves Behar—where was Yves Behar? Of course, none of these designers presented work that has not already been presented elsewhere.

All of this makes one thing clear: There is a fundamental problem with the design fair industry. To wit: ICFF might want to be a design fair, but in fact, it's a trade show. And it's not the only international fair facing this destiny. Cologne, Paris, and to some extend also Stockholm have been confronted with the same downgrading, ever since the Salone moved into Massimiliano Fuksas's shiny new exhibition center in Milan Rho-Pero. At the same time, we have seen a surge of local festivals, such as the ones in Kortijk, Belgium, Saint Etienne, France, Berlin, Vienna, Lisbon, and many more. They all celebrate young talent and local design traditions, enhancing maximum creativity with a minimum of commercial constraints and thus showing a diversity and vibrancy that big cookie-cutter fairs have never been able to provide.

New York tries to emulate the festival vibe, yet for a global design center it's heart doesn't seem to be in it. When it's Fashion Week in New York, by contrast, you can't help but know. But walking through the Javits Center and other venues in Noho, Chelsea, or Brooklyn was frustrating for another reason. Looking at the work of many young, non-established designers, the visitor experienced a leap in time, back to a mid-century modern, wooden rectitude. Maybe it's the crisis that makes people shy away from taking risks, maybe it's some other reason—but very clearly it seemed as if these young people had not yet overcome their inner Eames. Again, this is not unique in the world. The greater the design history of a country, the harder it is for young designers to step out of their forefathers' shade. Italy is largely dominated by silver-agers over 60 (with a few exceptions such as Formafantasma), Austria is just slowly shaking off the legacy of the Wiener Werkstätte; only Scandinavia has managed to develop a new formal language that is very different from Aalto, Jacobsen & Co.

One small booth at the very far end of the exhibition hall at the Javits Center, however, stood out. It was hosted by a group of BFA and MFA students from the Department of Furniture Design at The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Working with a new material called Twintex, they created some of the most exciting furniture found at Design Week. The black fiber filament is a recyclable composite of glass and thermoplastic polypropylene; a kiln bakes the originally supple material into any desired shape. Eun Sang Ernie Lee, for example, knitted an entire armchair, Perm Chair, with needles three or four inches in diameter. Her colleague Misha Kahn embroidered a tabletop with long threads, pulling them through to create the table legs. RISD showed design that pushed limits, experimented with new techniques, and at the same time, addressed one of the main concerns of our time: waste.

Another school project raised hope for a more interesting future in American furniture design: Tools at Schools. For several weeks, the US manufacturer Bernhardt Design and the creative consultancy Aruliden worked with 44 eighth-grade students from The School at Columbia University to design a "perfect" classroom. In the process, these 14-year-old kids came up with clever ideas, such as a desk with a modular tray easily adapting to art, science or English classes, and cute details, such as a locker with a little slot for anonymous love letters.

It remains to be seen, if all of this promising talent will eventually unfold in the field of furniture. Design in the US has always followed money and the newest technology—currently the furniture industry lacks both. If you want to see great contemporary American design, don't bother trekking across mid-Manhattan's far-western tundra to the Javits Center; go to the closest Apple Store. (This is a problem too, as the Dieter Rams-for-the-masses aesthetic is itself entrenched.) Whoever wants to have a look at the future of design, however, needs to take the subway and head to Brooklyn. There, in garages and warehouse spaces, a handful of creative geeks are at work on perfecting cheap 3D printing—and consequently on a revolution that will not only shake Milan, but the entire world of design. Because sooner or later, we will not need the entire infrastructure and promotional trappings of the furniture industry anymore. Instead, we will download data from the websites of independent designers, customize the design, and then print out our tables, chairs or shelves at the closest 3D print shop. Good old furniture industry, brace yourself. The show might soon be over.

Amelie Znidaric is an Austrian design writer and graduate of SVA's Design Criticism MFA. She contributes regularly to the daily Die Presse and the German design platform Stylepark.

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