Design Notebook: At the International Contemporary Furniture Fair, new designs mingled playfulness with social responsibility. Among the more than 500 exhibitors from 39 countries in New York for ICFF, were designs from Seattle and Portland.
NEW YORK — The table lamp is laid-back, and no wonder. Created by Peter Stathis, a San Francisco industrial designer, for Joby, a San Francisco consumer products company, Trapeze has the easygoing affect of a Bay Area windsurfer on a fair-trade coffee break.
But don’t be fooled by its relaxed demeanor. Trapeze has a serious side — it’s good for the environment, too. Introduced at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (www.icff.com/general-information/exhibitor-list), which ended Tuesday, the lamp has 102 LEDs embedded in its ultra-thin head; a diffuser softens and spreads the light so that it resembles the warmth of (boo, hiss) incandescent bulbs. Another bit of patent-pending wizardry allows Trapeze to bend like a Cirque du Soleil gymnast because no wires run through its jolly, bulbous joints. The current somehow manages to flow anyway.
At the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, where the furniture fair is held every May, and in concurrent design events throughout the city, playfulness mingled with social responsibility, and sometimes overshadowed it. Among the more than 500 exhibitors from 39 countries, the green conversation hadn’t faded by any means, but it was less strident, better integrated into the ambient hum of the new.
This fair showed that objects as banal as recycling containers, stepladders, fruit crates and old potatoes can have flair. At the Javits Center, Catherine Mui, a designer based in Hong Kong, showed her GO recycling bin, its compartments topped with sculptures of a bottle, can and carton to assist in sorting.
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Among the items at “Use Me,” the American Design Club exhibition in NoHo, was Step, a ladder by Iacoli & McAllister (http://iacolimcallister.com), of Seattle, inspired by models from the 1920s, except that it had pink-painted oak treads and was priced at $1,195, so it probably won’t be left to rot in the garage. (It’s sustainable the way emerald brooches are.)
Hannu Kahonen’s Fruit Box chair, on display at a Finnish design exhibition in the meatpacking district, challenged consumers who presumably have mastered Ikea furniture to assemble their own seating from recycled planks lashed together with linen cord.
And at “Model Citizens,” a design show at the Chelsea Art Museum, the Dutch designer Juliette Warmenhoven’s Potato Music Box, part of her Everyday Growing collection (http://www.juliettewarmenhoven.nl), turned a sprouting potato into a centerpiece. The music box, constructed by hand of paper dipped in plastic, displayed the potato on a rotating pedestal, flaunting its underappreciated charms.
Once the grim, chastising superego of product design, sustainability has become delightful. And it no longer calls attention to itself as insistently as it once did. Trove (www.troveline.com), the Brooklyn wallpaper company, has begun applying its delicate, nature-themed prints to wallcoverings made with calcium carbonate, the stuff of marble and limestone; the texture of the material offers little evidence of its provenance, although a sample was suspiciously heavy and cool. Randall Buck, Trove’s co-founder, said the stone-based wallcoverings are breathable, antimicrobial, degradable (into dust) and easier to hang than conventional wallpaper because they don’t expand and contract when paste is applied. Another virtue, Buck pointed out, is that while “paper wants to turn yellow,” stone is content to remain its original color.
Sustainability has traditionally created aesthetic challenges, leading to products made in regrettable shades of oatmeal, but designers at this year’s fair positively embraced those hurdles. At the booth representing Rhode Island School of Design’s furniture department (http://www.risd.edu/About/News/International_Focus_on_Furniture.aspx), students working with Twintex, a recyclable Owens Corning-manufactured composite of glass and polypropylene, described the medieval tools they used to turn the material into hairy-looking tables, chairs and lamps. For Eun Sang Ernie Lee, the author of an armchair composed of crimped waves of fiber, the instruments were giant knitting needles; a system of aluminum rods and clips to produce the perm; and a kiln to bake the chair into stability.
How big were the needles? “Two inches in diameter,” Lee estimated. Other students jumped in to correct him, making circles of three and four inches with their fingers.
One designer even buried the sustainability story. Immersed in a discussion of the spine that provides flexibility for a chair called I Would Do Backsprings 4 You, Daniel Moyer of Brooklyn neglected to mention the source of the wood that made up the rest of his piece. Only eventually did he reveal that it came from “the branch of a black walnut tree that fell down in Pennsylvania in the ice storm of 2008.” Five or 10 years ago, anecdotes like that were breaking news in the design industry. Today, one has to beg for them.
As the RISD students and Moyer both demonstrated, conversations about sustainability in design frequently turn to craft. Both areas have gained momentum in the past decade with heightened concerns about the fate of the planet.
Limited-edition hand-wrought pieces tend to be treasured by their owners rather than discarded in landfills. They also consume fewer resources than their factory-made counterparts, and are more likely to be produced by loving hands.
One of the fair’s most remarkable objects in this genre didn’t look like craft at all, but an ebullient work of industrial design. The Bulldozer Lounge, a stocky aluminum-composite chair lined in neoprene that resembles a caterpillar (as well as a Caterpillar), is the first production piece by Mark Goetz, a New York designer, and Efe Buluc, a designer based in Istanbul, who have been working together off and on since 1997.
“We wanted it to be animated and playful,” Goetz said, adding that his 7-year-old son is bursting with pride in his accomplishment. There is nothing toylike, however, about the $12,000 price of the made-to-order chair.
The altruism of craft was a theme of several projects, among them Espacio Sami Hayek’s collection of objects made from Barro Negro, a clay native to Oaxaca, Mexico, that gets its sheen through smoking rather than glazing. The studio’s tableware and furniture in this material are produced by a Mexican artisans’ collective that employs local workers. Similarly, Bow Bins, rattan-and-recycled-plastic baskets designed by Cordula Kehrer of Germany for the New York City company Areaware (areaware.com), help support the Aeta people of the Philippines, who weave them.
Other craftspeople were busy demonstrating their skill. Over the course of the fair, the storefront of the Future Perfect, in NoHo, was occupied by Matt Gagnon, of Glendale, Calif., who built lamp prototypes out of aluminum pieces that he assembled into armatures and wrapped with different kinds of fibers. The Boston designer Debra Folz passed time at her display at the “Model Citizens” show in Chelsea needlepointing the mesh top of a metal bench. And “Wanted,” an exhibition of international design nearby, offered a demonstration of gilding.
Summer is nearly upon us, but knitting fever shows no sign of letting up. The New York artist Olek has won admirers by crocheting wrappings for every object in a studio apartment, and designers are also making sweaters for things insensible to cold. The Future Perfect displayed small flasks that the New Yorker Lara Knutson had clothed in a glassy knitted yarn, while at the Javits Center, Esque Studio of Portland, Ore., showed hanging lamps with white pullovers, like little pear-shaped Irish fishermen.
If an award were given for suffering in the service of decoration, though, it would probably go not to a knitter, but to Peter Sandback of New Hampshire, who drove 5,800 aluminum nails into a slab of oak to create the inlay design of his Nail Table # 5. The piece is exquisite; one hopes that Sandback’s digits have not paid the price for its beauty (http://petersandback.com/nailtable5.html).
For decoration in the service of suffering, the prize belongs to the Boston artist Leah Piepgras (www.leahpiepgras.com), for Consumption, dinnerware shown at “Model Citizens” that featured haunting images of the digestive tract. The dishes, which are manufactured in a limited edition by Pickard China, depict all the organs involved in processing food, from intake to output. Piepgras painted them freehand, using an anatomy book as a reference. She chose blues over more realistic reds and pinks to evoke X-rays, she said, and because “I didn’t want to gross people out.”
Though Consumption might dissuade diners from cleaning their plates, lest they have a clear view of such things as salivary glands (which decorate the bottom of the tea cup) and intestines (on the dinner plate), it was not Piepgras’ intention to kill anyone’s appetite. Rather, she wanted to emphasize the “mindfulness” of mealtime rituals, she said, where partakers consume not only food but conversation.
Indeed, the furniture fair demonstrated once again that designers are driven not just to make the world a nicer-looking, healthier place but one that is more sociable.
James Ramsey (http://raadstudio.com), a Brooklyn architect who exhibited a modernist chicken coop with a solar-powered lighting and cooling system, said its floor-to-ceiling windows were inspired less by glass-loving architects like Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson than by ant farms. The point was to let children observe the chickens in their daily routines.
Such as? “They eat, they sleep, they lay,” Ramsey noted. “It’s pretty straightforward. I don’t think they have many hobbies.”