Natural selection

The Cologne Furniture Fair went back to basics this year. Simple, classic designs took centre stage, with a lot of tactile, chunky products in muted colours. Lynda Relph-Knight presents the show’s highlights

If the Cologne fair was expected to set the tone in furniture design for the 21st century, then we can look to a period of low-key design in muted, earthy colours. Purists such as Jasper Morrison, David Chipperfield and others whose clean, classic furniture stands out without gimmickry look set to stay in vogue, with a handful of new names joining them from the Continent.

It’s about quality, evident in the details of carefully crafted designs. And it is attracting considerable interest from across the world – the first furniture extravaganza of the new millennium was packed from the first day and big sales were anticipated. UK designer/ manufacturer Tristram Mylius said the Hitch Mylius stand, showing David Chipperfield’s seating, was constantly busy, with visitors from almost everywhere but the host company Germany.

But nothing on show in Cologne this year matched the flurry of new designs that we saw in 1999. Then the Germans stole a march on the Italians, whose economy has suffered badly over the past few years, transforming what had essentially been a “selling” show into a launchpad for new designs. Even the Italian manufacturers, which had previously held fire for their own Milan spring fair, announced new products, acknowledging that the German show was proving a bigger pull to buyers.

It wasn’t quite like that this year. The Italians were there in force and they had new things to show. Cassina, for example, devoted its entire stand to a collection by Swiss designer Hannes Wettstein, who previously designed a bed for the Milan furniture giant. Wettstein’s elegant seating units can be built as sofas with wide or thin backs and arms, depending on how they are configured – a clever touch that is pure Cassina. The complementary long, low shelving/ table units also allow for flexibility: if you want drawer units you simply slot them in. But there is a strong sense that the Italians are again holding their fire for the Milan fair in April.

The Milan fair organisers are planning big things this year. They took the opportunity in Cologne to reveal plans for two major projects to run alongside the fair: SpazioMilano, a collection of pieces by international creatives including Yoko Ono, US theatre director Robert Wilson and our own film director Peter Greenaway at the 17th century former “pesthouse” Rotonda della Besana; and an urban project involving six Italian design masters, including Vico Magistretti, Gae Aulenti and Ettore Sottsass, to explore ideas of the city that benefit local Milanese in less chic parts of town.

Milanese locals, such as British designer Perry King and his Barcelona-born partner Santiago Miranda, are sceptical that these ambitious events will come off as planned. But we can expect the Milanese furniture community to respond to the spirit of the initiatives with new collections of their own.

Certainly, Italian furniture industry representatives at Cologne appear to have declared a mini trade war on Germany and seem intent on regaining any status they lost on the world stage during their recession. They cite figures that suggest a slight upturn in turnover from the furniture sector last year, following a period of stagnation in late 1998-early 1999. The Germans, they maintain, are meanwhile suffering from the effects of a strong deutschmark.

There were new things in Cologne, beyond the Cassina showing. But some of the most interesting furniture had already had an airing elsewhere, building on the current trend for collections to be born of architectural projects – a tendency that started with Philippe Starck’s furniture for his hotel projects being picked up by the likes of Driade and French manufacturer XO. Kartell made the most of Starck’s gnome stools at Cologne, the kitsch creations to be found in St Martin’s Lane hotel in central London, designed by Starck with London architect Harper Mackay, though they were the centrepiece of its stand at Milan last year.

But, in my view, it was another architectural project that threw up the best new collection at Cologne: Foster & Partners’ rejuvenation of the Reichstag in Berlin. German manufacturer Thonet, best known for its beautifully crafted bent wood furniture classics, devoted its entire stand to the steel and leather Programm S900 range, based on the UK architect’s concept for the German parliamentary building.

Programm S900 is distinctive for the right-angled steel profiles that make up the frames of the chairs and tables and the T-shaped profiles that form the chair legs and arms. Fine engineering and a design that hides the screws holding the components together result in an elegant concept that is applied across the collection of chairs, small sofas and tables. Slim leather or plastic seats and backs add to the “sophistication” of the products.

Foster & Partners product design head John Small found working with Thonet was a delight. “They can bend anything,” he says.

Some UK furniture buffs described the design as “heavy”, but Foster has managed to combine the “ample” seating perhaps demanded by the German market with elegance and created a distinctive product line into the bargain.

Colour and texture have become increasingly important in contemporary furniture, and this was reinforced in Cologne. Black is definitely dead, and while wicker is out, bouclé and weave are in for upholstery. Jorge Pensi’s Chocolate sofa for Spanish company Perobell, for example, which was first seen last autumn at the Valencia fair, is available in an array of colours from browns to pale blue in a very open weave fabric. Even Cassina showed Wettstein’s collection in charcoal grey and ivory.

Danish furniture giant Fritz Hansen chose Cologne to show off the new colour palette for its classic Arne Jacobsen plywood chairs: the Series 7, the Ant and the lesser known Tongue. Its compatriot Fredericia has made darker American walnut versions of Nanna Ditzel’s contemporary classic Trinidad chair and Tobago table collection, while it was also showing Hans Sandgren Jokobsen’s ingenious Gallery bent plywood linked stools – voted best of show at London furniture show Spectrum last year – in American walnut for the first time. Gallery is also available in beech, maple and cherry woods.

Hitch Mylius, meanwhile, continues to use Bute Fabrics bouclé and other textured textiles to show off its Chipperfield seating systems, HM 991 and HM 992, as it did for Nigel Coates’ Oxo seating last year. The new range, HM 992, comprising sofas, an armchair and ottoman, builds on the success of HM 991, which features a daybed and chaise longue and was launched at 100% Design in London last September.

Aluminium and leather are still very much in evidence, as in Foster’s Thonet collection, but wood is more prevalent now among smaller companies. The Spanish continue to excel in this area, with companies such as Andreu World successfully creating contemporary lines, even from dark woods. But there is a new wave of interest, best exemplified at Cologne by the work of E15.

Taking its name from the postcode of the London Borough of Hackney, where the furniture was made, E15 is nonetheless a German company, based at Oberursal. Set up in the mid-1990s by product designer Florian Asche and architect Philipp Mainzer, it uses natural materials, predominantly huge, fairly rough-hewn chunks of dark wood to create a very distinctive contemporary style. It is furniture that is built to last, taking the 1970s idea of the “butcher block” table to its limits to create tables, benches, an elegant storage unit and a bed.

E15’s work is not to everyone’s taste, but it has a strong aesthetic and its prominent stand in Cologne’s avant garde halls is proof that there is real opportunity for German designers to follow their convictions through to manufacture. Not many UK designers have managed to do this on any scale as yet.

We’ll have to wait until the Milan fair in April to see if the young Italians are following suit, or if Milanese manufacturers are once again pushing design to reclaim their place on the front line of contemporary furniture design.

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