Showing promise

The US is catching up with Europe on the furniture front, says Liz Farrelly, as she checks out New York.

Hoping that intelligent life exists beyond the Brit Design Pack? Then a visit to New York’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair may turn up a few revelations.

Prior to this year’s show I embarked on my own mini-circuit. Funnily enough, my first stop was a show featuring British designers, staged at Totem in TriBeCa. Despite earning critical acclaim in the US, it’s only with the opening of Totem’s “DesignUK” that the Brits went on sale, en masse, over the pond. Just a few years ago British design was deemed too pricey.

Today, New York booms and, according to David Shearer of Totem, customers are prepared to invest in a piece of furniture as an expression of their personal taste, so cost is less of an issue.

As it turns out, the enabler of “DesignUK”, David Shearer, is one of a triumvirate of New York retailers making all the difference to that city’s perception of contemporary design. “There are three really good stores here – Moss, Troy and Totem – that sell what I think is contemporary design,” suggests Nick Dine, graduate of the Royal College of Art’s furniture design MA and an American back on his home turf.

Thanks to the watchful eye of the mainstream media, the rest of the country learns by example from New York, especially when it comes to the serious subjects of style, taste and shopping. Shearer’s peers are two SoHo retailers, Murray Moss and Troy Halterman, both émigrés from the fashion world, who have carved out complementary niches for themselves from adjacent street-level lofts.

Moss, which opened in 1995, is a repository of the finest product design culled from around the globe, with furniture design represented by a few iconic chairs, notably Gaetano Pesce’s resin pieces. For the purposes of this article, it’s sufficient to say that Moss’s didactic approach (museum-like glass cases, thematic groupings, informative and well-researched labels) has set the tone, and paved the way for Totem and Troy to broaden design enlightenment to the realm of furniture.

Wandering around Troy is a real treat. The cavernous space is filled with an array of beautiful, bizarre, playful, classic and chic objects. The Cousin It ottoman (a blob of Icelandic sheepskin), an acrylic ice-cube cum occasional table and an aluminium bed by young American Jeffrey Bernett (from Troy’s “own line”), nestle next to classics by Arne Jacobsen and Alvar Aalto, obscure finds from Europe’s post-war avant-gardes, one-off commissions salvaged from apartment sales and auctions and flea market bargains.

Troy Halterman explains his approach: “I decided to combine the best of modern furniture stores and vintage collections with something that I learned in the fashion business. I watched fashion editors take the best Chanel jacket, the best pair of linen pants from someone else and edit together a wearable, usable look, rather than a one-label approach. So I thought, people don’t do that in their homes either, so why have a shop that only sells chairs, or only sells vintage.”

Halterman and his team of buyers and creatives “brainstorm” to produce twice-yearly collections. They acquire objects to fit the aesthetic and fill the gaps with pieces commissioned from a stable of fabricators in and around New York who work for the thriving “decorator” industry. Halterman’s expert edit doesn’t come cheap, but then his client base includes some of the planet’s wealthiest and most image-conscious individuals. “We’re really lucky that the most sophisticated people live in New York, and even more visit to shop for furniture,” he says.

“We get a terrible rap from Europeans who say Americans have such bad taste and would not know good design if it hit them over the head,” explains Shearer. “I don’t necessarily agree with that because there are some fundamental differences between the US market and Europe, the main being accessibility. Any little town in Europe has a design store. There are about two dozen strong design stores, featuring European manufacturers, in all of America.”

Totem opened its doors just six months ago, in a space designed by Dine. For the previous four years Shearer had been wholesaling from his apartment. He acts as an agent for individual designers, hooking them up with US manufacturers and fabricators – he’ll sometimes set a brief on behalf of a manufacturer to his roster of designers – and acts as the US representative and distributor for a number of European companies, including Babylon Design, Box Mobler and Asplund.

“There are tons of great European designers not being represented in the US. The design industry is global – it’s shrunk – everybody knows everyone. We’re working with designers in the US who are getting stuff produced in Europe, and European’s trying to license their designs to be produced here, to cut down on shipping costs. So it’s a pretty exciting time,” explains Shearer.

In business Shearer’s a total pragmatist, with a crystal clear view of where both US consumers and designers fit into the bigger picture. “I’m bridging the gap between designers, and manufacturers who simply want to produce stuff they know will sell. Americans are coming from a very young culture and there have been problems with design here. We went through planned obsolescence, and the post-war move to suburbia creating a phase of keeping up with the Jones’s,” he says.

Realising that the way forward is to promote “difference” rather than an ideal of “good taste”, Shearer offers a level of service that is almost unheard of in Europe (where you either like it, lump it, or try next door). “Progressing out of the Eighties ‘me me me’ attitude, people want to live their way, trust their intuition and not let someone else dictate their taste. That’s where we come in, offering items from our own range, which are entirely customisable,” he says.

Totem holds its trump card deep below its light and airy showroom. In the basement studios reside another threesome who are becoming increasingly more crucial to the New York design scene. Designers Dine, Bernett and Lloyd Schwan can be found beavering away on personal projects and collaborations for Totem, Troy, a host of US manufacturers and the European big guns.

Dine comes from a sculpture background, but his aim is to design for mass manufacture. Graduating from the RCA with just two years of furniture design tuition under his belt, he felt the need to keep learning, away from the glare of publicity which his peers in London seem to enjoy. Dine imported the idea of “design and build” to New York, and since his return in the early-Nineties has revamped a succession of interiors. “It’s a furniture designer’s approach to architecture, I manage the construction and detail on site,” he explains, “and I get to prototype designs for manufacture under the guise of building custom furniture for a client.”

Studio colleague Bernett also studied in the UK, at Parnham. He began making furniture “out of my own needs. I knew my way around a metal workshop thanks to a fascination with motorcycles, but I wanted to learn about wood”. In 1996 he took a booth at the ICFF and showed “five ideas for production… the fair was in my backyard, and it was an easy way to gauge the market”.

From that initial move, he met and collaborated with Schwan. Schwan gave him an intro to Cappellini, Totem and Troy Halterman, who sells limited editions of those initial ideas while Bernett sorts out licensing deals in Europe and, along with Schwan, he’s prepared to travel to Italy every few months.

Bernett’s approach mixes the cerebral and the sensual, and he understands the difference between designing for the high-end and mass production. “The difference is about appropriate materials and levels of detailing. My aesthetic swings across a whole range, sometimes it’s humorous, maybe it’s austere. I try not to overcomplicate things.”

Down the hallway, Schwan, another sculptor by training is in an enviable situation. He wears a number of hats. As design director for Totem, he hooks-up designers with manufacturers and irons out production problems. He also has items in production with Cappellini: “I’m an artist/designer and now I’m starting to make a living!”

In the early-Nineties, as Godley Schwan (working with his wife Lyn, a lighting designer) he weathered a number of ICFFs and Milan fairs, and realised that publicity got results. “I’m better known and respected in Italy, but I have a collection of my own weirdo clients who I do interiors for and they buy my work,” admits Schwan. “New York has new money coming through all the time, and my clients in the entertainment industry want to live in a particularly creative environment.”

Schwan’s aesthetic builds on American’s last great era of design, mid-century Modern, but he’s cautious about journalists looking for a new movement. He veers from hard-edge to softer forms, but his major obsession is colour, preferably in the form of laminates. “My sculpture is flat, it hangs on the wall and it’s made of laminates. I can look into each one and remember a particular colour from, say, a fast food joint, the colour sets a mood,” he says. Likewise, his furniture combines multiple tonal ranges, from bright to sombre. “It’s a struggle,” he says. Try making 21 colours work together.”

No trade show is perfect, we all know that, but if you need an intro into one of the most diverse, maturing, and potentially lucrative design markets anyway, you know where to go. If you miss the main attraction, no problem, just make sure to check out the side-shows next time you’re in New York.

ICFF runs from Saturday until 19 May at the Jacob K Javits Convention Center, New York.

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