A very early and strangely empty flight to Cologne followed by a quick taxi ride and we enter the now familiar, but alien world of the Cologne Furniture Fair.
The KÃ¶lnMesse exhibition hall stands on the banks of the Rhine and overlooks the imposingly beautiful Gothic cathedral at the heart of Cologne. Yet, this vast interior has a global blandness that could just as easily be in Chicago, Milan or London. Even the Euro currency now disguises our location.
It’s 10am. First espresso of the day. Whether designer, manufacturer or shopkeeper, the task at hand for everyone is the selling and buying of furniture. Every combination of taste, style, material, technology, price and nationality exists on three floors in 14 halls.
For designers, the opportunity and the challenge expressed at the fair seems simultaneously infinite and terrifying. Seen side by side, an object of beauty and innovation can be imperceptibly close to one that is clumsy and shallow. The task at hand is one of constant filtration and editing of the (admittedly subjective) visual pollution that surrounds those things of beauty.
The German manufacturer Walter Knoll showed new pieces by PearsonLloyd called Easy. As ever, excitement and anticipation go hand in hand. Work that six months ago was a sketch, a model or an idea is now presented, judged and compared alongside both the best and the worst in the industry. 12pm. Quick espresso.
Furniture fairs have the curious habit of placing shoulder to shoulder those companies who lead and those who follow. A challenge to the status quo by one company, becomes a trend in the eyes of another, which in turn becomes the status quo in need of challenge. And each year the companies with no idea re-work and reproduce the ideas from the year before. Consequently, a kind of design fog lingers everywhere, disguising what is real and what is not. What is good and what is not. Where there is joy and where there is not. 3pm. Strange German gateau for lunch.
‘Doing’ the fair also requires a unique form of physical effort. Never enough sleep leads to too much coffee. Walking for hours along endless air-conditioned corridors, eating strange food at the wrong time of day, aching feet and too much alcohol.
The mood this year was strangely subdued. The events of 11 September 2001 and a gloomy German economy seemed to take the pace off a usually buzzing affair. Major players have also moved off campus on to the Passagen circuit in the city centre.
B&B Italia and Vitra have moved into a Citterio-designed interior in a new, typically technical building designed by Foster and Partners in the centre of town. Together they present a quality that, as ever, sets the benchmark by which all others compare. There also seem to be fewer Scandinavian companies showing; choosing instead next month’s Stockholm Furniture Fair for new product launches. 5pm. Early drink.
There are definite trends to be seen. Sofas are becoming still deeper, lower and longer. Simple bold forms differentiate one model from the next by the subtlest of details. As ever though, real quality still shines through.
Piero Lissoni, for example, has extended his beautifully mannered Reef system for Cassina with benches and chaises longues. Big bold colours also prevail. Pieces that really stand out are those that seek to set their own design agenda.
ClassiCon presented a collection of six sidetables in folded steel by Konstantin Grcic. The tables perfectly match Grcic’s own confidence and clarity of thought within the 20th century modernist cultural tradition of ClassiCon itself. Simplicity of manufacture matched by impeccable quality.
Ligne Roset launched Tolozan – part sidetable and part lounge chair – by Eric Jourdan. It mixes a felted upholstered seat and plywood table on a simple steel frame to create a surprising and yet strangely convincing composition. Possibly more sculpture than commercial, but beautiful nonetheless.
Moroso maintained its own momentum by re-launching Ron Arad’s Little Albert side chair in rotationally moulded polyethylene. Whether by luck or good judgement the original form creates a perfect outdoor chair and remains remarkably iconic. If only it would stack.
End of the first day. Already exhausted. In bed at 10pm.
The Milanese company Paola Lenti showed a series of asymmetrical seats (described as ‘essential poufs’ in the press release), combined with sumptuous felted carpets that combine e e to offer a richness that is often devoid in the modern arena.
As ever the companies with real pedigree continue to show the highest quality work that is produced beautifully. Luckily, they don’t have a monopoly on innovation.
Liv’it continues to surprise with confident modern design. This year two pieces stand out. Net, by Jean Marie Massaud, is a beautifully simple rotationally moulded shelving element that combines structural and functional intelligence with a strong graphic presence. And, in Bahbar, designer Guillaume Bardet has managed to identify true originality and innovation in the most challenging of briefs: the plastic stacking chair. A single flat-moulded component is riveted together to form a graphically imposing and structurally ingenious design.
BRF presented a new shelving system called Loop, designed by Biagio Cisotti and Sandra Laube. A simple module of chrome tube work supporting laminated plywood shelves combines in a multiple to create a dynamic and enjoyable landscape. Apparent complexity achieved through simple intelligent setout.
Why do these pieces stand out to us? Clarity of thought, a simple beautiful idea, simplicity expressed confidently, materials used intelligently. Furniture fairs like no other polarise the extremes of ‘taste’ in our ‘modern’ world, because all the work is good and has a market; to someone. Isn’t it?
Wandering across a road in search of a taxi at the end of three long days, we are accosted and searched by German police for jay walking. After ten minutes of misunderstood English humour and a ten Euro fine, we are sent on our way. So that’s another fine mess we got ourselves into.
Tom Lloyd and Luke Pearson are founders of PearsonLloyd