Decoding Design

Five trends worth noting from New York's Design Week

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Noting key trends observed at New York's International Contemporary Furniture Fair and its satellite events can provide helpful research for designers--and businesses.

It's been a full week since the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF), a leading annual design trade show in New York City, ended. But clear trends valuable to businesses are coalescing.

Some of the themes and concepts that emerged at ICFF could prove to be valuable insight for those executives and designers researching future products or even retail environments. Furniture design can offer timely inspiration, as it often involves adventurous experiments in materials and engineering--that must also result in practical objects such as chairs and tables.

More than 26,000 attendees from 34 nations participated in the 2012 edition of ICFF, which took place at the Jacob K. Javits Center in Manhattan from May 19-22. Simultaneously, numerous parallel events and spin-off fairs took place, a phenomenon that design industry insiders refer to as New York's "Design Week," even if not officially so. (Note: there is an initiative underway to form an official "Design Week NYC," set to debut next year with a structure similar to that of Fashion Week.) Making it to many of the product-launch parties, lectures, or even to all 535 booths of ICFF alone is humanly implausible. But getting an overview of trends is possible by analyzing how leading publications known for their design coverage documented the events.

Here are five trends worth noting from this year's ICFF and concurrent Design Week happenings in New York--as rounded up by numerous in-the-know editors and writers who have, collectively, likely seen it all.

  • Design is a part of the "smart" conversation (and vice versa). Wired Design's Alan Rapp was wise to analyze ICFF through the lens of the smart home. Rapp wrote his review as a vision of the "home of the future." In years to come, he noted, we'll find ourselves in houses with sensor-driven building skins that adjust temperatures via programmable patio shading and window screens; haptic (interactive, touch-responsive) remote controls incorporated into furniture systems; and various 3D-printed decorations. All of these were on view. Once the subject of science-related journals, these technologies are increasingly being given an aesthetic and functional context by designers.
  • Retailers can successfully take cues from art galleries. Design and lifestyle publication Wallpaper named its pick of New York's design week: a presentation of offerings from Matter, a hip SoHo design shop and manufacturer. During Design Week, as Pei-Ru Keh reported, Matter staged a two-part exhibition called "Next World," one part in a "crumbling," off-site retail space that was quite unexpected and dramatic. Its offerings of beautiful pieces by a variety of talented designers, some inspired by the simplicity of Shaker furniture, were showcased (and marketed) as if parts of a stunning art installation. It would be fascinating to see big brands experiment with such an approach.
  • Hands-on demos break up trade fair monotony. Trend site and consultancy PSFK was smart to highlight the trend of pop-up craft workshops at ICFF, which broke up the monotony of row after row of booths filled with furniture. As Dave Pinter reported, these workshops included a demonstration of a 1,400-year-old Japanese technique called Kumiko--a style of carefully joining pieces of wood without nails or glue to fit together on a sliding doors or screens.
  • Keep an eye on France. Perrin Drumm, writing on leading design blog Core77, highlighted how a wave of entrepreneurial designers from France promises to gain visibility and respect in the U.S. and beyond. Drumm reviewed a touring exhibition called "Nouvelle Vague: The New French Domestic Landscape," which was on view at the Wanted Design fair, staged at The Tunnel, a former night club. The show illustrated that French designers generally have a playfully poetic approach to chairs. On view were a skull-shaped seat and an arm chair with built-in, giant light on one side. While the first example might seem somewhat gimmicky, the second shows an awareness of clever hybrid furniture.
  • Handmade trumps sleek and chic The New York Times' Julie Lasky observed that "craft, with its quirks and nicks, threatened to overshadow the sleek machined goods that are a calling card of the 23-year-old event. Wafting through the convention center and satellite design exhibitions around town was nostalgia for preindustrial and early industrial technology." Citing objects such as a handmade, steam-engine inspired chair made with wooden legs and cast-aluminum seat, Lasky suggested that the trend of slick, mass-produced mid-century modern style that characterized the tastes of the 2000s might now be outdated. Instead, authenticity--or at least perceived authenticity--is in among forward-thinking designers.

Admittedly, New York's Design Week doesn't often grab headlines beyond the design press. (Although this year it did, unexpectedly, when Japanese-born designer Takeshi Miyakawa was arrested after being suspected of planting bombs as he was hanging lamps made from shopping bags on New York streets). But for curious trend hunters, noting design experts' highlights from ICFF and beyond could serve as helpful research, and fresh ideas gathered could certainly be applied in numerous fields.

Image: Cristinabe/Flickr

Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure