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Design Week travels to Germany to visit this year’s rebranded Cologne furniture fair, and finds more talk about industry issues than product launches

While furniture fans look to Milan each year to set design trends and provide creative stimulation, so Cologne’s January fair is traditionally seen as a business event, where contracts are won and deals struck. Cologne also gives a taste of how the industry is faring across the globe, with Scandinavian, Spanish, Italian and even British companies among the exhibitors in the three main contemporary halls.

That being so, the message this year is, not surprisingly, one of caution. With the German economy at a particularly low ebb and Germany being one of the biggest markets for contemporary furniture, visitors to the show were noticeably fewer than previously on the first couple of days at least.

Talk in the trade was more about mooted mergers between B&B Italia and Bulgari and Cappellini and Armani rather than new launches and there was little of real novelty to tempt regular fair-goers once they got there. There was a new chair here, a stool there or a new finish applied to last year’s model. But most of the significant lines had made their debut elsewhere – Stockholm, Valencia, Milan or even at London’s 100% Design show.

There was clear evidence though of a shift in the market – a broadening out from the old dependence on actual furniture to take on textiles, glassware, rugs and other accessories. It was a pleasant surprise to see UK lava lamp pioneer Mathmos there, for example, when previously we might have only expected SCP or Hitch Mylius (both absent this year). This is the stuff that 100% Design is made of and a welcome opportunity for newer designers, who often cut their teeth on accessories, to get an airing in one of the mainstream international trade shows.

The Cologne show has, in fact, been rebranded this year to IMM Cologne to reflect this. It is appealing more to lifestyle and fashion, seeing interior design in the round rather than just as furniture. Significantly, it staged two Ideal House installations in the main contemporary halls (now called the Avant-Garde Design Centre), by Karim Rashid and Konstantin Grcic respectively, as well as an awards scheme for stand-holders.

US-based Rashid’s Ideal House is a technology-driven home environment with soft forms and textures in sugary pinks. ‘My ideal house is one large space that is organic, transformable and rearrangeable. The “style” is infostethic – where the forms, spaces, shapes and colours all speak about our digital age,’ he explains. He creates words such as ‘technorganic’ to describe the house, with its simple fireman’s pole exit from the pod-like bedroom contrasting with an intelligent wardrobe that tells you which clothes are clean and which are dirty.

Grcic, meanwhile, opts for function in his Ideal House, seeing it purely as a storage unit for living. A host of newish storage systems line the walls of the double-height rectangle. ‘It is like a box full of “requisities” that the occupant can use to change the empty space as required, just like the storage of a theatre,’ he says. ‘A house of this kind is both a library and a database, which the occupant can arrange in accordance with his or her mood and need.’

Typical of most trade exhibitors in the Avant-Garde Design Centre was Swedish manufacturer Swedese. Showing in Cologne for the first time – and having a successful event in terms of enquiries – it had only one genuine launch on its stand: Sascha, an easy chair and footstool combo in birch and black webbing by Jeffrey Bernett. Though it was also unveiling the prototype Papermaster magazine rack by Torbjörn Anderssen of Norway Says that it picked up from the 2002 Milan Satellite, as did London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

Danish firm Fredericia, meanwhile, had two interesting new lines under its Mobili sub-brand: the ingenious Zip cupboard designed by Andreas Lund and Carlo Volf and the Easy Bean chair created by Nicolai Wiig Hansen.

In recent years, most student shows have featured at least one zip-up freestanding lightweight wardrobe, usually in Rip-stop fabric. The difference with Zip is that it is made of wood. Ultra thin sheets of pale wood veneer have been laminated and stuck together with the grains going in different directions for strength. A wooden top, floor and shelves complete the unit. The result is a skin that is almost as pliable as a stiffish fabric, but the unit is more elegant than most of its competitors.

Easy Bean is less successful. The concept of putting a bean bag on a generously proportioned metal frame is all very well, but this chair is only for lounging – you can’t sit up straight in it.

But for most the exhibition just provided an opportunity to showcase its latest collection. Young Italian company Plank, for example, showed new finishes for its laminated stacking chairs Paper, created by Raul Barbieri in collaboration with Anna Giuffrida, and Supersonic by Swedish designer Björn Dahlstrom. Meanwhile, German bathroom equipment specialist Dornbracht presented its established collection of accessories by the likes of Rodolfo Dordoni, Christophe Pillet, Claudio Silvestrin and Theo Williams, but a spokeswoman for the company said it now plans to return to its roots in tap manufacture.

Over in the more corporate Hall 14, the story was much the same, with the likes of Italian giant Cassina putting on a disappointingly dull show. But, though also cautious, German manufacturer Walter Knoll did have new ideas, notably the development of the Foster 502 ‘architectural’ sofa by Sir Norman Foster’s team to incorporate a smooth mechanism to allow it to be converted to a day bed while you sit on it. It also had familiar lines by the likes of PearsonLloyd and Eoos.

Apart from the domestic ‘lifestyle’ theme, there was some evidence of the new-found importance of hotels in the contemporary contract market. Philippe Starck’s company XO owes many of its lines to his hotel work, as do Driade and Kartell – though there was nothing new from XO at this year’s fair or in the Driade and Kartell showrooms. Italian manufacturer Boffi meanwhile presented a range of products ripe for hotels in a boudoir-like setting.

It certainly isn’t a vintage year for furniture if Cologne is anything to go by, though a few manufacturers are optimistic that they’ll have more to show in Milan in April. But, as ever, there are opportunities there for the right product and for newer designers – but possibly more on the mass-market accessories side than with more substantial items such as chairs.

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