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All Form is Fair Game

By Michele Meyer

You sit, sleep and eat on them. But do you pay home furnishings enough respect?

“Furniture can push the boundaries of design, inspiring style upward to the buildings and rooms that contain it and downward to handheld objects,” says Demetrius Romanos, Vice President of Design at product design firm Kaleidoscope in Cincinnati. He and his colleagues there and in Manhattan spotted (and titled) the following six emerging themes at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York last May and The Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan last April: Mash Aesthetics, Up to Eleven, Back to Bauhaus, Follow the Light, Concrete Jungle, and Supply and Design. The firm posted their predictions, thoughts and images on the Web.

These trends not only mirror their makers’ sensibilities, but also influence the design of interiors, exteriors and fashion. “There’s a sensibility in the air,” says Manhattan architect Joerg Schwartz. “All designers breathe in some of that and apply it to their disciplines.”
Here’s a closer look at these six major furniture trends and how they’ve made their way into other design arenas in the months since Kaleidoscope first posted them online.

Like a musical mash-up of rap and reggae, combining design concepts, eras and forms holds our attention. But the effect from bumping Victorian against mid-20th Century, geometric against baroque and ultra-functional against decorative can seem chaotic. Kaleidoscope’s team witnessed unapologetic pairings of polar opposites, such as a white plastic sofa with tufted grey leather cushions, neon pink wing-back chairs and glass cubes printed with gold lace doilies.

“With so much noise and so many messages out there, the best way to have your design heard is by screaming or whispering,” says Michael Roller, Senior Industrial Designer at Kaleidoscope. “There’s no middle ground anymore.” And therein lies the danger: Not everyone has the skill of artist Julian Schnabel to juxtapose wisely and with restraint, as he did with New York City’s Grammercy Hotel lobby and its wildly different rugs stitched together, a look also seen on spring fashion runways. Done well, mash-ups warm chilly ingredients, such as distressed wood with metal or concrete with glass. “But you can’t take a phone and wrap it in fur and declare it avant garde,” Romanos warns. “It should be unexpected, not ludicrous.”

A new version of materialism revels in the ingredients themselves, pushing them to their limits for glorious results, such as table legs made of stacks of stones, richly hued and polished metal lamps or un-sanded slab wood tables. They make you view fabric differently, as did blown-up houndstooth on recent runways. While a drop in production costs lets furniture makers decorate mirrors and tables with foil, raw woods and other natural substances have particular appeal.

“Craftsmanship has become the new luxury,” says Sung Jang, an instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and furniture/light designer at Chicago-based design firm gregorysung, which displays dangling light tubes fashioned out of unfinished tree trunks. “Unlike technology, it’s not something second-tier competitors can duplicate quickly, if at all.”

As we’re bombarded with images and information, interiors free of distraction have become the ultimate luxury. “Home becomes the escape,” Roller says. And so chairs and benches forgo arms and other adornment, as they’re stripped down to angles. Color becomes the selling point for cubes of acrylic that recall the form of crates. The careful and calculated geometry of Bauhaus is a natural response to the ‘90s. “It was the decade we realized the amazing things we could do on computers,” says Mari Hulick, graphic artist and head of the Communications Design department at The Cleveland Institute of Art. “Suddenly, playing with layers and transparencies could be done in a flash, so we used it all at once. Now we’re over that.”But this century’s zen is warmed with rounded corners, as we see in everything from skirts to cars to fast-food signs. “This adds sumptuousness to a hard aesthetic,” Schwartz says.

More sofas, flower pots and outdoor benches are lit from within, boosting practicality and theatricality. Whether fashioned from natural alabaster or acrylic, light is the product,”Roller says. “By blurring boundaries, designs are richer. You create atmosphere and context, making products that attract or repel purely with light.” Thanks to new technology, the heat, cost and energy generated by lighting has dropped, making it possible to create internally illuminating outdoor lounge chairs, round fluorescent tube-sinks and wall hangings with folds and ribbons of fabric that beam brightly, much like Hong Kong’s towers transform its skyline into a light show.

Cold urban living has led furniture creators at all price ranges to incorporate a sense of nature to comfort consumers. Thus, a floor lamp’s post may be shaped like tree branches or room dividers made with ribbons of wood to evoke waves crashing on a beach. Floor tiles are printed with leaves or a tiny pine tree sprouts from a table top, while African tribal prints of woven straw and canvas have replaced metals in handbags, shoes and jewelry, as shown at furniture fairs and fashion runways late last year. “Today, people can go through life without walking past a tree,” Roller says. “This [trend] is an ironic, cheeky way to bring nature into your home. And they take you to a place in your mind where you couldn’t go otherwise.”

Eco-chic is not new, but the latest incarnation uses reclaimed materials, such as chandeliers made from plastic milk jugs or egg cartons as fine jewelry displays. Salvaged furniture design companies such as Cleveland’s APOC and New York’s Urban Archaeology and Olde Good Things recycle fixtures, siding, studs, rafters and pipes from about-to-be-bulldozed buildings to create furniture and countertops. Interior designers also mine salvage yards and elsewhere for used doors, mantelpieces, carpets and restaurant equipment. Similarly, fashion designers seek fabric from ‘50s mens’ suits at used clothing stores, and card makers recycle ink and paper.
“It’s not like going to a chain store and grabbing everything,” says Scott Richardson, owner of Richardson Design and visiting instructor of Interior Design at Cleveland Institute of Art.

“These objects often have a beautiful patina you can’t replicate — and each piece has a story behind it.” His firm bought and repurposed a dilapidated barn in Ohio Amish country to adorn a restaurant’s walls. They’ve also used church pews as seating and shipping palette wood to cover a bar. “It authenticates a new interior.” Expect this trend to become the norm once the economy recovers, says Jeremy Levitt, Furniture and Lighting Director at AvroKO Design in New York. “It can be more expensive when you use reclaimed and sustainable items,” he says. “It’s a Catch 22: You’re not typically helping your budget, but you’re giving the public what it wants by contributing to the preservation of the environment.”

A Brief History of Famous Furniture
Barcelona Chair,
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Tea Cart,
Alvar Aalto

Plywood Coffee Table,
Charles and Ray Eames

Ant Chair,
Arne Jacobsen

Stacking Chair,
Verner Panton

Mac Gee Bookshelf,
Philippe Starck

Soft Heart Rocking Chair,
Ron Arad


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