As well as the International Herald Tribune’s weekly Design column Alice Rawsthorn writes the Object Lesson column on design and contemporary culture for the New York Times Magazine
11th April, 2010 – NY Times
Furniture Designers are shifting direction
There is one question that everyone should sensibly ask before designing or making something to show at the Milan Furniture Fair. Does the world need another chair?
The sensible answer is “no.” The world is already stuffed with chairs, many of which made their debuts at past Milan fairs. We don’t need more of them, just as we don’t need more tables, lamps, vases, closets, or any of the other objects that will be exhibited at the 2010 fair opening Wednesday. Unless, of course, they’re gobstoppingly innovative, beautiful, sustainable, expressive, useful or whatever.
That’s the strength and weakness of “Milan,” as the design world calls it. There won’t be anything special about most of the stuff that’s shown there. (It will be mediocre at best; a pointless waste of resources, at worst.) Though there will be a few exceptions, and several hundred thousand people will flock to see them.
Producing something special is getting tougher for the furniture industry. One reason is, of course, the recession, which cast a cloud over the 2009 fair, when attendance at the cavernous Rho fairground fell for the first time in years, to 313,385 from a record 348,452 in 2008. Tellingly there will be fewer exhibitors there this week, just 2,499, compared with 2,723 last year.
The economic pressure is now easing slightly, as the industry’s new markets in Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe return to growth. But demand remains weak in the established markets of North America and Western Europe. “It’s still a negative situation,” said Patrizia Moroso, creative director of Moroso, the Italian furniture company. “Some markets have huge growth potential, and there are signs of recovery in others, but it will be a slow process, because there is a more cautious approach to spending.”
The industry is being cautious, too. Hundreds of cocktail parties, dinners, previews and press conferences will be thrown in Milan this week, but beneath the hullabaloo, manufacturers are quietly presenting fewer new products, and have pruned their existing ranges, by dropping anything that isn’t selling well. Even the shiniest design stars have seen their royalties fall sharply.
That said, the furniture industry has weathered recessions before, and will do so again. A knottier problem is that (and there’s no euphemistic way of saying this) the sort of stuff on show at the fair just isn’t as interesting as it once was, at least not in terms of design.
First, technology is now more important than furniture in product design. (Odds are that the most drooled-over objects in Milan this week will be shiny new Apple iPads, not chairs.) Second, design’s intellectual focus has swung away from producing tangible things, like furniture, toward the abstract process of applying design thinking to ethical issues, such as social, environmental or humanitarian problems, and developing sexy new technologies, like data visualization.
The title of the exhibition to be staged by the hot Dutch design school, Design Academy Eindhoven, says it all – “?” (It isn’t alone. The Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York has named its forthcoming Design Triennial, “Why Design Now?”) “We thought it would be interesting to show how designers take an idea and make it real by asking questions, because that’s how they make sense of change,” explained Ilse Crawford, the British designer who co-curated the Eindhoven show as a department head there. “Design needs to be seen more as a critical process, and less about making things look good.”
The hitch is that “making things look good” has traditionally been the Milan fair’s forte, but designers are expected to deliver more these days. For furniture designers, that means: a) championing sustainability; b) inventing new ways to use digital technology; and c) producing objects that strike an emotional chord with the people who will use them. Some of the most promising projects on show in Milan this week will wrestle with those challenges.
Sustainability has been an embarrassing aspect of past fairs. (Cue cringey memories of woefully unsustainable products amid splashes of green paint, cheesy eco-slogans and tinkling New Age muzak.) More manufacturers are now investing in it seriously, including Flos, the Italian lighting company, whose new products focus on energy-efficient LED and OLED designs.
On the technological front, both Sony and Matsushita, the Japanese consumer electronic companies, are to present the experimental products they have developed with BarberOsgerby, a British design group, and Naoto Fukasawa, a Japanese designer, respectively. Design Miami/, the American “design-art” fair, is showing digital pieces by young designers including rAndom International in London and Beta Tank in Berlin at Spazio Fendi.
As for tackling the emotional challenge, one approach is to design products that are unique, or seem to be so. Tokujin Yoshioka, a Japanese designer, has done this in the Memory Chair for Moroso, by developing a new fabric from recycled aluminum that changes shape whenever anyone sits on or touches it. Z33, the edgy Belgian design gallery, is to exhibit a series of objects, whose form alters according to where they are and how they are treated.
Other designers try to make their work appear meaningful through association, by loading it up with symbolism to make a political point or tell a story. A few years ago, that symbolism tended to be grandiose and fantastical, now it is bleaker and earthier, even dystopian.
Konstantin Grcic, Front, Martino Gamper and the Bouroullec brothers have all designed new products in the Spartan style of the irascible Italian design veteran Enzo Mari, as have newcomers like 5.5, Michel Charlot, Nacho Carbonell, Studio Glithero and Peter Marigold. Other designers have been inspired by vernacular objects: Formafantasma by rustic Sicilian ceramics; Liliana Ovalle by discarded clothing; and Alejandro Aravena by the bundles of cloth that the Ayoreo Indians in Paraguay turn into makeshift seats.
Though the (unofficial prize) for the timeliest theme goes to Droog, the Dutch design group. It has challenged 14 designers to make new objects from stools, towels, dog baskets, flowerpots and other bargains salvaged from liquidation sales
Alice Rawsthorn is the design critic of the International Herald Tribune. In her weekly Design column, published every Monday, Alice explores new directions in every area of design and its impact on our lives. Her column is syndicated to other newspapers and magazines worldwide.
A prominent broadcaster and public speaker, Alice also writes the Object Lesson column for the New York Times Magazine. She speaks at important international events including the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. Alice is a trustee of the Whitechapel Gallery in London, and a member of the board of Arts Council England and of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council for Design.
Born in Manchester, Alice graduated in art and architectural history from Cambridge University. She then became an award-winning journalist for the Financial Times, working as a foreign correspondent in Paris and pioneering the FT’s coverage of the creative industries.
From 2001 to 2006 Alice was director of the Design Museum in London. During her directorship, the number of visits to the museum rose by 40%, participation in the education programme doubled and the Design Museum website became the world’s most popular design site.
An honorary senior fellow of the Royal College of Art and member of the master jury of the 2010 Aga Khan Award for Architecture, Alice has served on numerous arts juries including the Turner Prize for contemporary art, the Stirling Prize for architecture, the British Council’s selection panel for the Venice Architecture Biennale, the PEN History Book Prize and the BAFTA film and television awards. She was chair of the British Council’s Design Advisory Group, and a member of the Design Council’s board as well as of the government’s advisory panel on the BBC Charter Review. Before joining the board of Arts Council England in 2006, Alice was lead advisor on the visual arts to ACE and chaired the Turning Point Review of the Contemporary Visual Arts.
Alice has contributed essays to a number of books. She has also published an acclaimed biography of the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, and a monograph of the work of the designer Marc Newson.