Exchange and market

Peter Hall laments the lack of a market for innovative furniture in the US. But, he says, the ICFF show and imaginative retailing can help bring design to the people

There were reasons to be cheerful last Tuesday afternoon at New York’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair. The “new designer” award was bestowed collectively on The British European Design Group at the annual ICFF Editors Awards. But, being the last day of a relatively small-scale show, the young Brits were winding down.

There was even a sardonic note in the laugh of one of the exhibitors when I mentioned the award. “Oh that,” he said, throwing his eyes to the ceiling of the great glass exhibition hall.

It did seem a trifle wishy-washy of the awards committee, who individually spend several hours a day deciding what should go in their magazines, not to be able to pull out a single designer from the pack for this award.

Only the group’s pertinacious organiser, Karin Beate-Phillips, held the proverbial trumpet aloft. “This is the first ever UK contingent to win a group prize at an international trade show,” she insisted as she propelled me toward another gathering of bemused young British designers.

The popularity of the group at the ICFF was an indication that there was little in its vicinity that compared in terms of new, fresh, raw, experimental furniture design. The Brits offered an array of impressive and not-so-impressive designs, but always refreshingly unkempt, eclectic and innovative. Blue’s aluminium stools and chairs displayed by Allermuir and Make Design’s one-piece molded birch plywood tables were good examples.

Elsewhere, however, this year seemed to re-establish the fair’s reputation for art furniture and cautious classics. Plenty of high-gloss laminates, oversized castors, fairy tale twists and anthropomorphic twirls, and plenty of conservative classics from Donghia, Dakota Jackson and Ligne Roset. But you have to remember ICFF is not the showcase for technological breakthroughs, new materials and the unveiling of distinctive new lines.

Neither are deals struck at ICFF. At a discussion “selling design downtown and beyond”, Sabrina Schilcher, a designer and the owner of one of New York’s high-design downtown stores, Salon Moderne, described the fair as a place to test reactions rather than do business. “People look at your new products; you approach people and explain what you’re doing, and it gets very good press,” she says.

Of the British contingent, Make Design had enjoyed the prospect of a deal with the Museum of Modern Art shop in Manhattan and San Francisco, and the superbly named Precious McBane had found a potential taker for its cuddly Mongolian lamb Pom Pom stools in a forthcoming Sony Pictures film. But the actual deals will come later. As Precious McBane’s Evelyn Smith and Meriel Scott observed, this is a show that attracts more designers on the look out for what they can copy than buyers on the look out for what they can purchase.

There is nothing amiss, of course, with a small show of novel and art furniture, beefed up by the presence of some larger design distribution groups, as a venue for the exchange of ideas and phone numbers. The only nagging fear is that ICFF reflects a generally stunted market for innovative furniture design in the US. As the larger Neocon fair proves, there is huge demand in the US for occasionally inspired office furniture, but when it comes to furniture for the general public, little faith is invested in the new products of living designers.

It is easy to blame the mass conservatism of middle America for this creative deficit. But it may also be attributable to a lack of imagination among buyers and retailers in assessing the taste boundaries of the average American. This point was made at the “selling design” discussion by the retailer Murray Moss, who claimed to have founded his downtown industrial design store two and a half years ago as a response to what he saw as a yawning gap between maker and consumer. “Having a great interest in the people manufacturing and designing,” said Moss, “I concluded that what was missing in the chain was that there was no access on the street to this work.”

Moss’s store has since made quite a name for itself. According to House Beautiful editor Louis Oliver Gropp, it has “outpaced MoMA as New York’s greatest design curator”. Evidence perhaps, that with a little willfulness, inspired design can be brought to the public via retailing.

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