Innovation & Design

Tomorrow's Furniture: Young and Green


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Walking into this year's International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) -- the biggest expo of home furnishings in North America -- it's hard to ignore the bright green carpet that covers the sprawling 475,700-square feet of floor space devoted to the show. The verdant carpet was appropriate, as eco-friendly, "green" goods were clearly a strong theme at the 2006 event, held from May 20 to 23 at New York's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.

Eco-chic was only one of several prominent ICFF trends providing a peek into the future of innovative furniture and home-accessory design. Savvy retail buyers, interior designers, architects, and consumers were treated to stylish children's furniture and nature-inspired decorative elements. They also got a peek at some experimental techniques, like exhibitor Panelite's use of aluminum and fiberglass or resin in a flexible honeycomb structure that both works as a wall and diffuses natural light, cutting down on energy bills.

The 2006 show, which featured 597 exhibitors from 31 different nations, was the largest in the ICFF's 18-year history. The number of exhibitors was up 8% from last year, and the show's organizers estimate that about 21,000 visitors passed through the doors. But the biggest sign of ICFF's growing popularity and influence: Both Ikea and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSO) hosted their own nearby exhibitions.

STYLE ON A BUDGET. Ikea set up a show called "Everyday Fabulous" across the street from the Javits Center, transforming an empty building into a funky contemporary model home filled with inexpensive Ikea tables, chairs, pillows, bookshelves, and kitchen cabinets. There were plenty of imaginative elements to draw viewers and potential customers: a dramatic water fountain made of inexpensive metal colanders; a huge disco ball and thumping dance music; and Ikea textiles, pillows, and duvets flowing forth from the building's upper windows, billowing in the wind.

While none of the goods were for sale, price tags hung on each item to emphasize the affordability of Ikea's sleek designs -- which weren't so different from the elegant, and much more expensive, offerings from high-end labels like Herman Miller or Vitra at ICFF.

Pernille Lopez, president of Ikea North America, says the company views ICFF as the perfect context for presenting the brand to high-end consumers who might not be aware of the sleek yet durable nature of Ikea's furniture. At the same time, Lopez says Ikea's presence near ICFF was intended to offer wallet-friendly, but nonetheless stylish, alternatives to buyers who can't afford a gorgeous Vitra sofa that might cost $7,000 or more. "We're looking to position Ikea as we go forward. We want people to see that Ikea is about the home and turning houses into homes," says Lopez.

TABLE-TOP ART. Ten blocks from the Ikea exhibition and the Javits Center, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia staged its own furniture show at the company's massive office at the Starrett-Lehigh building on West 26th Street. Dubbed "Input/Output," the exhibition displayed experimental furniture by students and alumni from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), a prestigious art and design school in Providence. Like Ikea, Martha Stewart also sought to benefit from ICFF's foot traffic -- and also to emphasize a commitment to nurturing new design talent. The company has a history of recruiting students from RISD.

On view were innovative pieces, such as wallpaper hooked up to motion sensors that changed patterns according to movement in a room and a table linked to a complex computer system that "drew" electronic patterns on the table's surface when an object was placed on it. Also included were earth-friendly experiments, like a gracefully sculpted chaise and side tables made of repurposed cork from material slated for disposal by a cork factory. "As you can see, we weren't really trying for a Martha Stewart look," says Lothar Windels, an assistant professor at RISD who helped to select the pieces presented.

At the main ICFF event, student designs from a spectrum of schools were featured in an official "ICFF Design Schools" section. These included a real-world collaborative project by New York's Parsons The New School for Design, Sweden's Konstfack University College of Arts, and France's St. Etienne School of Art & Design. The project consisted of flat-pack, pre-fabricated dwellings. The pre-fab houses, made of sustainable materials, will be installed on an abandoned bridge in Hallefors, Sweden, offering low-impact housing for the town's citizens.

CHILD'S PLAY. Throughout the show, booth upon booth of both established and lesser-known companies highlighted earth-friendliness. Herman Miller, for example, showcased an anniversary edition of the 50-year-old Lounge Chair by Charles and Ray Eames -- considered a design classic by curators and design aficionados alike -- made from (renewable) rosewood. And a much smaller company, SMC Furnishings, based in Penn Yan, N.Y., showed off residential and commercial furniture that's all made from recycled and natural materials, namely wood.

Furniture makers haven't forgotten their inner child. Even sophisticated companies like Magis, known for their sexy and ultra-modern design, had something for kids. Magis presented a streamlined plastic puppy-seat/bench in bright colors. Other companies, such as Nurseryworks, presented kid-friendly beds and dressers made in bold, geometric shapes, and stark palettes like black and white. And industrial designer Yves Béhar -- known for his very grown-up product design for brands like Toshiba (TOSBF) -- showed off a flower-like highchair (the baby sits in the center of the bloom) designed for Fleurville, a maker of modernist kids' furniture and accessories.

This year's ICFF was clearly a fast-forward look toward tomorrow's generations of student-designers, as well as wee furniture-fans who are only just learning to appreciate innovative furnishings. So take note, retailers and consumers alike: The future looks bright, and its color is green.


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