Innovation & Design

Creative Competition in Furniture Design


Hollywood has agents, the NBA has the draft, and banking has campus recruiting. But if you're a young American furniture designer looking for a big break, you're on your own -- until now.

This year's International Contemporary Furniture Fair, the burgeoning design industry event held in New York each May, will for the first time include a juried program meant to help promising young designers connect with manufacturers. Called ICFF Studio, it provides U.S. designers the support European designers already enjoy -- in the form of government grants and industry advice provided by organizations including the Italian Trade Commission, the Danish Consulate General, and Valorization of Innovation in Furnishing (VIA), in France.

"New talent is the most important thing for us to [be able to] run a viable company on the vehicle of design, as opposed to commodity," explains Jerry Helling, creative director of the North Carolina-based furniture company Bernhardt Design, who conceived of ICFF Studio, and is sponsoring it, along with George Little Management, which produces the fair. Helling adds: "ICFF Studio is helping stand behind that, helping industrial designers, and helping the design community -- which elevates everything, and ultimately makes the general public more aware of design, and less likely to buy the cheapest piece of furniture they can find."

CALL FOR ENTRIES. The idea sparked for Helling when he was approached by a young designer, Andy Personette, for advice on how to strike out on his own. His only advice was for Personette to spend the money and take his prototypes to ICFF. Soon after, he was in Paris listening to people talk about VIA's support for European designers. "I said, this is the way we can really help people: give them a completely professional launch at ICFF."

Following an open call for submissions, a jury of designers and show organizers culled 10 finalists from 298 entries, to be announced next week. The emphasis is on finding designs that can be manufactured and marketed -- rather than the more conceptual flights of fancy typically exhibited by the design schools. Photographs of a built prototype are required, rather than renderings.

WINNER'S CIRCLE. The selected products will be given a spot in the ICFF Studio booth designed by Truck Product Architecture -- which itself began with the smallest booth at ICFF. But the crucial element is that Helling, and Karen Tobin, who coordinates the project for George Little Management, will mentor the designers, prepping them for interviews with manufacturers and the press.

Personette will be there with his own prototypes,even though he ended up financing the $3,600 cost of a 100-square foot booth himself. "If I can get some attention there, then I might have a shot," he said, before sending off his press photos.


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