Perused Furniture


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Let’s get one thing straight: The International Contemporary Furniture Fair, which just finished its run at the Javitz Center in New York City, is nothing like the Philadelphia Home Show I wrote about earlier. For one thing, it’s not in Philadelphia, and for another, it’s not about the home, at least no home that I know.  Instead, it’s about furniture in the Platonic sense. Take a piece of furniture out of the context of all restrictive impediments, forget even about the fact that it’s supposed to be used, and you’ve got an ICFF piece of furniture.

Who are the furniture philosophers? Clipped-haired men in cinched jackets and Philip Johnson spectacles, and hollow-cheeked women in linen shifts with a resemblance to Cruella de Vil. These are the people with the creativity and chutzpah to produce asymmetric sofas with chartreuse cushions, spidery standing lamps that double as flower pots, turquoise polka-dotted plastic clocks, and hand-made yellow leather door handles. This stuff may be designed for a home, but only if that home is Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

It’s my impression that, in design, the idea is to push an idea to the wall. Thus, the furniture at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair fell into two extremes: the very light and the very heavy. There were chairs made out of laminated foam that could be picked up in one hand, and tables made of massive slabs of gnarled wood (possibly spirited out of the Black Forest), whose scary volume would intimidate even your grandmother’s immovable sideboard. There were tapestried sofas inlaid with Swarovski crystals and Philip Starck-designed plastic chairs — from the sublime to the ridiculous, both equally pricey.

In keeping with the Platonic element, the keynote was the chair. I assume that every furniture designer must cut his or her teeth on a chair. One of the student exhibits from New York’s School of Visual Arts spelled this out with a “chair project,” which included the Anal Retentive Chair (covered with ruler marks in keeping with the anal stage), the Eurotrash Chair (imprinted with disco balls), the Serial Killer Chair (covered in faux human skins a la Silence of the Lambs), and the Paranoid Chair (which swiveled so as to be constantly looking behind its back). Most of the chairs on display at the Fair seemed to share one essential characteristic: you wouldn’t want to sit in them. A possible exception was the Placentoro Chair, which took the female uterus as its design model. A kind of oversized, manic rocking chair, it looked comfortable enough, though it might give you pause if you weren’t ready to go back to the womb.

Since the Fair was international, it encouraged generalization about different national esthetics. The Spanish had a pleasant modishness, not as flamboyant or whimsical as the Italians but not as laconically nondescript as the French. When I asked a French designer of anemic-looking wire lamps about trends in French furniture, he gave me a Gallic shrug: “Design has gone global,” he said. Who would have dreamed that the notoriously individualistic and snobbish French would agree to occupy the global village? I blame the America-loving Sarkozy for it.

A chunk of space was devoted to some 50 companies in the “British Design Group.” Despite their number, the British contingent could not throw off the specter of Jane Austen. One exhibitor featured embroidered teacups and the others, though they tried to be trendy, seemed more inclined to chintz than laminated foam.  The Germans made a stolid, humorless appearance. When asked about the current style of German furniture, an exhibitor informed me curtly that it is “simple and good.” Indeed, the German furniture I saw looked too well disciplined to indulge in ornament.

Ecofriendly was a pervasive theme, but here ingenuity was foregrounded.  I was stopped in my tracks by a vaguely macabre line of “recycled forest waste” furniture — the pieces looked like cork until you realized they were made of mashed leaves and twigs. The company has its headquarters in Las Vegas, of all places. Another exhibitor featured lamps in which the shipping package gets integrated into the final product. Only a wisp of brown paper remains at the end of the assemblage. The concept mildly depressed me for some reason.

A student exhibitor from the California School of Art and Design drew a crowd around his “waste chair.” Made of inflatable clear plastic, it was supposed to be stuffed with recyclable products: both a way to add color to a drab room and to comment on the profligacy of consumer culture, as the student explained. There was a Japanese designer who had taught an entire Thai Village how to make his natural dye silk fabrics, and a Geman designer posing proudly beside his waterless urinals (a special sealant lets the urine pass through while absorbing odor and residue, he soberly explained to me).

If I were to say that one kind of furniture had a particular hold on the design imagination this year it was baby furniture. The Dutch, Swedes, and Germans in particular seemed besotted by high chairs, car seats, bassinets, and cribs. I suppose if you want a population with a developed design sense you have to start young. Some of the Dutch high chairs looked like mini-UFOs (since babies look like aliens, why not match their apparatus to their appearance?). I was diverted by a German playpen made of beautifully  knotted pine — it looked like a cross between a partner’s desk and a frontier jail cell — no doubt a way to give baby a sense of the history of oppression.

A number of the exhibitors had made the transition from fine art into furniture — probably to put some bread on the table (excuse the pun). Kevin Dean, trained as an illustrator at Britain’s Royal Academy of Art, had a line of wallpaper entitled “English Roses,” so delicate and refined that it made Laura Ashley look slapdash and vulgar. When I asked the price of the paper, Dean became flustered as though he had forgotten that it was for sale. Amy Helfand, a painter from Brooklyn, had transposed her digital artwork, based on Lewis and Clark maps, onto rugs through the intermediary of “child-labor free” manufacturers in Nepal. And Sydney Cash, a New York sculptor, had designed furniture that incorporated his light installations — wired lattices on which light could be projected to produce intricate patterns on walls. “When you turn off the light,” Cash explained, “the sculpture goes to sleep.”

If the cutting edge and the artsy predominated at the ICFF, there were also pockets of the pedestrian — exhibits that would not be out of place at any typical convention center home show. Like Hellman Chang, a Brooklyn company with a line of cleanly built furniture, stylish enough but in no way over the top. On closer inspection, Hellman Chang turned out to be Daniel Hellman and Eric Chang, two former high school buddies from Potomac, Maryland, who used to build furniture in their garage and had, until recently, held down day jobs on Wall Street. They had quit their jobs, however, and were now seeing brisk sales of their furniture, according to Hellman. The high concept stuff is fine for the International Contemporary Furniture Fair, but people want the concept taken down a notch if they’re going to put it in their home. • 23 May 2008



Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her book, Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation will be published by Princeton UP in February.