Karrie Jacobs


May 19, 2009

Zeitgeist '09

Ikea’s Vava lamp.

Every year I go to the International Contemporary Furniture Fair at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center expecting that, after spending a few hours roaming the aisles looking at the latest high style furniture, I’ll come away with some insight about the state of the world. Here’s what happened this year: the first piece of furniture that really caught my eye, that made me think “I want that,” was a chest of 16 small drawers. It looked like something you might find in a Chinese apothecary shop, but done up in pale Scandinavian style. I walked up to get a closer look, and then realized: I’m in the fucking IKEA booth.

For ICFF, IKEA put together a credible display of their most innovative design ideas, some of which will hit stores in the US this summer. The chest that got my attention, by designer Ehlen Johansson, is cleverly configured so that the drawers can nest inside one another for flat-pack shipping. And the spiky lamp above, Vava by Wiebke Braasch, is made of folded palm leaves. The products in the IKEA booth were distinguished by their exploratory, risk taking nature, something there was generally very little of at this year’s fair. Clearly the low end is where the action is.

Another timely booth was Design for a Dollar , showcasing the work of Pratt Institute’s Department of Industrial Design. Students each had to design a product that could be manufactured for that impossibly low cost. Elegant solutions included the lovely Orange Votive Candles by David Steivurzel, made from soy-based wax and discarded orange peels, Scissors by Brian Persico, manufactured from discarded saw blades, and my favorite, winner of the Fred Sandback award for extreme minimalism, the Three String Shelf by Lara Knutson (see photo below).

Three String Shelf by Pratt industrial design student Lara Knutson.

Zeitgeist aside, there were a few things that I simply liked. The always interesting English firm SCP was showing a trio of knitted lambswool pouffes, Henry, Frank and Ernest, by designer Donna Wilson (see below) Pouffes typically work very hard at being sculptural and austere, but these managed to convey coziness without seeming overly nostalgic. Also, Umbra was displaying a new wine rack by one of their favorite designers, Alan Wisniewski, a folded ribbon of metal (see below) that looks to me like a cross-section of Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim.

Henry, Frank and Ernest by Donna Wilson.

Wine rack for Umbra by Alan Wisniewski

The most unexpected thing at Javits this year was the expansive new Japan Pavilion, a mini-World’s Fair of innovative product design from ceramic soy sauce dispensers to cunning one-slice toasters. The strangest thing I found there was Paro (see below), a plush baby harp seal used in “robot therapy.” While Japanese hospitals and nursing homes acknowledge that contact with furry pets can have a therapeutic effect, they don’t like having actual animals on the premises. Robotic animals, however, are perfectly fine. So this furry automaton behaves like a real pet, only better:

By interaction with people, Paro responds as if it is alive, moving its head and legs, making sounds, and showing your preferred behavior. Paro also imitates the voice of a real baby harp seal.

A Washington Post article reports that the robo-seals were very popular in US retirement homeswith seniors suffering from dementia. Personally, I found the faux creatures a little spooky. I began to wonder how these lovable little seals would go over in a home for retired Canadian fisherman. I was envisioning Paro goes Cujo; clearly it was time get the hell out of Javits.

The Paro robotic baby harp seal at rest.

Other stuff I liked:

Crayon Rings by sneaker designer Timothy Liles.

Koda Bag by Skinny Vinny.

Dining table by Moe.

MShelving by Loadbearing.

Bunny-shaped tote bag from +d.