Sunday Afternoon at Javits

May 19, 2008


Link, an LED lamp by Peter Stathis for Pardo.

I’ve been going to the International Contemporary Furniture Fair at the Jacob Javits Convention Center now for — my God! — 20 years. I was working on staff at Metropolis Magazine when it was born (a tip of the hat to Beth Dickstein) and every year, like clockwork, I go. Sometimes I have actual chores to do there. During the period when I was editing Dwell, for instance, I’d do what shelter book editors do: identify the hottest new pieces, seek out previously unheralded talents, and lavish lots of attention on existing and potential advertisers. Now, I take great pleasure in roaming the aisles at Javits wanting nothing from anyone, feeling no obligation to make nice.

Mostly I go to look. And every year I try to read the fair as a whole, assessing the state of the world by inventorying silhouettes, materials and strategies. In recent years there have been great bursts of technological bravado in which chairs and light fixtures began to emerge from new computerized manufacturing processes: lots of baroque extrusions and laser cutting. Paper became a structural material and bamboo a type of fabric. Eco concerns merged with commercial concerns and everyone and her sister had an itch to manufacture extremely mature furniture for babies. All these trends are still present at this year’s fair, but none of them seems fresh anymore.

This year also brings more of the ironic nostalgia that started a few years ago with Philippe Starck’s Louis Ghost chairs for Kartell, continued with and endless stream of fussy chandeliers, and is this year most emphatically represented by Spanish designer Jaime Hayon, who did a collection for BD Ediciones de Diseno based on old MGM musicals. The ratio of irony to nostalgia has gradually shifted. Less of the former and more of the latter.

What I encounter at Javits, for the most part, is evidence of deep uncertainty that can be linked to the big picture: the macro economy and geopolitics, the price of oil and the precarious state of the food supply, global warming and the assault on biodiversity… No, I don’t believe that most furniture designers consciously process these issues, but the manufacturers’ willingness to take risks and their tolerance for innovation is deeply affected by the overall state of the world. So, my reading of human civilization based on three hours at Javits is: we’re treading water.

On a more modest scale, I simply look for things I’d like to own. A handful of objects meet that criteria. My very favorite thing at the fair is the Link task lamp (above)designed by Peter Stathis for Pablo. It’s an LED lamp, so it’s very energy efficient and “delivers power directly through its aluminum skin, eliminating all internal wiring.” But it’s also a beautiful object, with its Charlie Chaplin feet and glowing halo, something I’d be happy to have on my desk.

My other favorite is a trio of aluminum benches designed by Massimo and Lella Vignelli as part of a project called Botanist sponsored by a manufacturer called Orange 22. The idea was that famous designers would each use the sleek curved metal benches as a “blank canvas.” Other participants made figurative patterns or inscribed the benches with words, but the Vignellis’ went for a minimal pattern combined with a strong color palette and succeeded in making a design (see photo below) that heroically transcends the cuteness of the concept.

Botanist aluminum benches by Massimo and Lella Vignelli