Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Clean Up That Message

It was really something else to see the difference the economy made on the ICFF this year. It really was a kindler, gentler trade show than in years past. It's especially amusing in light of the booth representative critiques I wrote last year. There was practically no attitude at all this year, everyone was remarkably nice and helpful. There were still the low-key approaches of allowing me to freely browse without interference, but quite a few reps were nearly stumbling all over one another to attend to my needs and talk up their product. 

I was also shocked to discover how much smaller it was. The whole southwestern corner of the main exhibition space was virtually empty of exhibitors. The auxiliary exhibition space to the south, hall 1D, was very sparsely devoted to designs from Japan occupying only the very center of the large room in a little cluster and a small bit of its perimeter. It made ICFF 2009 much more easy to manage without Design Overload, but it was a bit hard to take in much the same way as my reactions to the downscaling of BKLYN DESIGNS. Hall 1D is normally stuffed full of smaller booths for up-and-comers and craft artisans. Those smaller designers and companies are often my favorites, the ones doing far more interesting work than the big multi-million-dollar corporations, and much more deserving of mention here. Clearly, they just couldn't afford it this year.

Nonetheless, I'm happy. I'm happy because I truly believe that it's starting to happen. It seems like lately, everyone I talk to has something Green on their lips. Not only that, but they talk about it with an air of pride and accomplishment and--dare I say, one of the few cases I feel its justified--a slight tone of self-righteousness. Perhaps I'm kidding myself, and it's only because I live in a city like New York where we're maybe more surrounded, confronted by progressive thought than in some other parts of the world, but I'm hopeful that's not the case. I think we really are, collectively, embracing this direction for our future. I think we're realizing this is the way it has to be, and not only that, but also that we're starting to really enjoy the possibilities and the satisfaction of doing it. Truly, it feels better.

So on that note, I'd like to start my posts from the ICFF with a designer from Spain who I've written about in the magazine, whose work has always impressed me, and who presented one of the most extraordinary pieces at the whole show this year: Nani Marquina. Coincidentally, the Cooper-Hewitt included one of her pieces in their Felt show, which I was excited to see.

This rug was right out in front of her generously-sized booth, "Global Warming":
Click that.
It's beautiful, poignant, disturbing, and most of all, a responsible statement about where we stand. Anyone who's watched a nature show any time recently recognizes what this is, and many of us can't help but be filled with a sense of anger and sadness about the fate handed to these poor creatures by human recklessness.
I have the utmost admiration for Marquina for doing this, and I'm so glad to have seen it.

She's also unveiled a new line with less baggage attached to it, but also very cool. This is her "Folk" line:

It's easy to see it here in smaller images, but it's interesting that in a full size rug, seeing it fairly close up, it wasn't immediately obvious that this is a traditional folk rug pattern blown up to huge proportions. I sort of did a double-take and was like, "oh, wow!" It's sort of Pop in its own way, but such a great idea. It makes these patterns, which recreated regular size would be something from a tacky bargain housewares catalogue, into an amazing graphic element. The folk quality of it isn't lost in the translation to something far more cool, however, and these still have that kind of warmth and comfort of something familiar. Unlike a lot of things I talk about here that I love and think are ridiculously awesome, this is something I would totally put on my own living room floor.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Monday, May 25, 2009

Port's Eyed


Portugal's Boca do Lobo was another company I wasn't sure about at first, but the more I looked around at their pieces, the more I started to appreciate what they're doing. There's something quite clearly 1930s about the work, and I'm sure that were Helena Rubinstein transported here, she'd adore this stuff. There's also something completely Rococo, over-the-top, and gaudy about the pieces, which was what initially put me off. But once I got used to that, I realized that they have great balance and proportion at the same time, and a careful handling of different textures and forms. In other words, BL is blending disparate and terribly loud forms, but they do know what they're doing with them.

They have three lines, first is the SoHo Collection. I really enjoyed this mirror, "Apollo":
Click images for larger.

And a desk, "Trinity," which is representative of some of the more remarkable work below, but I'm not convinced the silver leaf is is enough to make this more than an interesting novelty piece:
It somehow doesn't go far enough to make this piece more obviously a product of the current century. Nonetheless, the repetition of the crazy hardware--in the perfect serial amount: three--thankfully dampens its ability to appear obnoxious. The fact that the silver hardware is given a similarly silver ground shows a certain restraint, as well. There's a sophistication in the handling of these elements at work here.

Next there's the Coolors line, which is a bit more intriguingly edgy. Here's an end/occasional table, "Zaragoça":
Now, the color is something, and it's pretty unusual for sure. That alone wouldn't get my attention, however. I'm sure about a third of all Lower East Side apartments have a piece of old furniture found on the street that some art school student thought to salvage and paint some funky color or another. Clearly it's the amoeba shaped top that sets this one apart, its color just adds to the almost surrealist quality of it. There's the taste of traditional ornamentation, of something homey and familiar, but all together the table is without question a product of our times. It's a theme that I realize comes up here a lot; it's not interpretations of history, but rather reinterpretations that I find most inspiring.

"Tower" is one of my favorite pieces of theirs:
It exploits the most luscious contrast between the stark, rectilinear, Mondrianesque pattern of shelving and the curvaceous, traditionalist base, and in perfect measure. That is to say, for me the base goes a lot further, speaks a lot louder than the modern sharpness of the cabinetry, and therefore, being a much smaller adornment at the bottom gives this piece incredible balance and proportion.

This "Boulevard" desk is also a great piece:
It is definitely interesting, but I don't consider this a tour de force. The best part about this is obviously the mirrored filing cabinet. But a lot of things have gone wrong, and a lot of opportunities were missed. Firstly, paper files are a thing of the past or at least most certainly should become so. I would be a lot more excited about this if it were a compartment for a CPU. 

Secondly, I wish the mirrored surface were accomplishing more, interacting more with the desk proper. There was a wonderful opportunity to create some kind of a surrealist effect here, especially as seen in this studio shot where the mirrored casing almost wants to disappear altogether. I'm tempted to fantasize about the undersize of the desk being mirrored, as well. There was also the opportunity for a display of real attention to detail, had the underside of the desk reflected in the mirror had some incredible inlay--either something loud and flashy and acid orange, or something so small and subtle it would be visible only upon very close inspection. 

Lastly, the claw feet are doing the file case no great favor. They ruin the effect of it having a mirrored surface, and its ability to contrast the hardware of the drawer pulls. I'd much have preferred the file case to have hidden legs or none at all, with even more robust hardware and woodworking on the body of the desk. If the claws absolutely have to be there, then for sure they need to be much, much larger and more ornate. As it is, they feel like an afterthought.

And then, Boca do Lobo's Limited Edition pieces, which are completely insane. Here's their "Victoria" cabinet:
This has a lot of the same qualities going for it as "Tower," with the geometric, crystalline pattern on the cabinet and the curvaceous, Baroque base. Here, though, the balance comes from the cabinet being so big and black and monolithic. It very interestingly casts the base in a light that reveals its delicacy. Nonetheless, the base is utterly obnoxious, and I love it. For that reason, I think black was the perfect choice for this. I don't think this could have worked nearly as well in a soft color--or any color at all, for that matter--and definitely not white. The only colors that could have this kind of impact would be bright primaries, and I can imagine that'd push this way too far.

Their "D. Manuel" cabinet displays a wonderful handling of texture:
The solidity and vertical force of the cabinet beautiful counteracts the swirling complexity of the legs. At the same time, the legs are uniform enough to dampen their intricacy. The choice of two basic tones, gold and gun-metal gray, also show a restraint that gives the piece elegance and simplicity, despite its complex forms.

One of their more shocking pieces is this "Mondrian" console:
It's like a bunch of drawers from different pieces of furniture fit together like a puzzle inside a clear Lucite casing. It's a brilliant idea, really, totally insane, and nicely useful in a situation where you need to store lots of different types of objects. However, I think I'd like it a lot more if some of the drawer faces weren't patterned with the BL logo.
I'm already not convinced logo patterns need to be on Louis Vuitton handbags, much less furniture. At the very least, I think for a logo to be successfully extrapolated into a pattern, it needs to be widely recognized beforehand. It also seems like a strange form of decoration on a console unless it's being used in their own showroom...or by someone with those initials, Bruce Lee? They also offer this one in black with silver hardware, but I honestly can't decide which I like better.

I think this one has to be my favorite of all of them, the "Diamond" console:
The shapes of the casing are conceptually simple but visually fascinating. The choice of color is striking but not at all offensive to the eyeballs. And those feet. Those feet are just beyond bizarre, to the point that they're almost creepy, I love them. 
To be honest, I have a very hard time imagining an interior scheme that this piece would fit comfortably into, right off the top of my head. I'm sure one exists, though. If nothing else, it's so utterly unusual and unique, I can't help having the suspicion that it is, in fact, quite visionary.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

When You Smile, You Can't Take It Back

I'll have to say I was kind of saddened by the BKLYN DESIGNS show this year. Not that there weren't some fantastic things on display, as always, but because it was so much smaller than it'd been in years past. It was not much more than half the size that it was last year. It hits harder for me when it's these smaller, independent designers from such a vibrant design community being held back by the Great Recession than some colossal, far off auto manufacturer. Of course I feel for the auto workers; they don't deserve the hardship dealt them any more than anyone else. But I've come to know a lot of these folks, and I'm very much in support of what they're doing. So many people I was hoping to see there were unable to exhibit. ICFF was an even bigger shock, but that's for another post.

To start out, I'd like to show you this Media Cart by Horgan Becket:
Click for larger.
It was probably the one thing at the show that struck me the most. The aesthetic I can best describe as hyper-industrial, except for one extraordinary moment. This embellishment:
This one small, simple element carries the whole piece over the edge. At this moment, they've made it perfectly clear that this is a design object--that is, a designed object--that the aesthetic is entirely intentional and hand-crafted. If not for this, the uninitiated eye might simply pass over the piece dismissively, with the thought "oh, cool, they salvaged some stuff from an old warehouse to hold their TV," which would be satisfactorily interesting on its own. But this is something more, it's been given a voice.

Incidentally, Horgan Becket also took part in the renovations of Paul Rudolph's apartment, an incredible honor, if you ask me.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Monday, May 18, 2009

American Dream

I have been consistently impressed by Cadillac's design for a good many years now. Their big land-yachts, designed no doubt for the conservative, rich, and elderly are expectedly safe and don't really do much for me. Their smaller offerings, on the other hand, have some of the best styling out there, as far as I'm concerned, and totally distinctive. Head of design is Ed Welburn keeping design quality high, but the transformation from their mediocre looks in the mid-1990s appears to have been the work of Wayne Cherry, who Welburn replaced in 2003.

The most disturbing of their models, of course, is the Escalade. Not only is it a complete behemoth, but making matters worse is that it's also got such caché and remains such a popular status symbol. I suppose they should be commended at least a little bit for offering it as a hybrid:
The hybrid gets, at the most, 21mpg on the highway, which is completely ridiculous. The fact that even in a hybrid model, this monstrosity still gets no higher mileage than that proves without question that you should be ashamed of yourself for even thinking of driving one, outside of a few very peculiar situations.

The CTS-V, though, is truly gorgeous:
I always tend to like the original lines without all the spoilers cluttering it up, but still nice. It has 556hp, which is completely insane, and it does 0-60 in an astonishing 3.9 seconds, making it the fastest in its class. It gets 24mpg on the highway, which isn't too bad for a car with so much power, but it's fairly pathetic in the city at 15mpg.

My favorite of them is the XLR:

Click images for larger views.
I think it's one of the most beautiful cars on the road, but for more than just its silhouette. I mean, if I were to be purist about it, the XLR can't hold a candle to Pininfarina:
--Photo courtesy Drive.
Of course, it's not 1969 anymore, either. The XLR isn't voluptuous, it's sharp, like a knife slicing down the road. Its hard lines converge into almost crystalline formations, and rise up into the most regal peaks. The taillight looks like a finely cut ruby. It's the formal language of luxury, at which Cadillac has often been one of the best. All together, the fact that it so much looks like a Cadillac is what I love most about it. With no crest, you still know immediately that this is no Ferrari, or Jaguar, or Lexus. It has a very distinct personality, something so many manufacturers sadly lack in their cookie-cutter offerings, one easily interchangeable with the next.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Chi's Take


Leslie Webb is another one of the younger designers from Philadelphia whose booth caught my eye this year. She doesn't yet have a huge body of work, but what she does have shows terrific promise.

Here's her "Linda Lou" rocking chair:
Very simply elegant, warm, and without pretense. She tells me that all the pieces ended up being named for her friends and family.

Here's the "Lindsay II" room divider:

One of my favorites is the "Carter" entry dresser:
It was inspired by a photo by Edward Burtynsky (though not necessarily this one):
Rock of Ages #2 (1991, chromogenic print)
--Image courtesy Paul Kuhn Gallery.
He really has to be one of the most incredibly talented photographers alive today, and I do hope he'll consent to be interviewed here at some point (he was unavailable when I inquired previously). Webb's piece has a wonderful contrast to it, though: the uniformity in the size and proportions of the drawers gives it a rigid formality, while the seemingly haphazard arrangement of them gives it a casual playfulness. There's also the subtle element of gravity defiance making it that much more dynamic, but all together it's restrained and doesn't smack you in the face. I quite like it.

The other piece that struck me at the show was the "Lainie" dresser:
I really love this as a cabinet for storing clothes, because it looks like a piece of fabric as seen under a microscope. The spaces in between offer great little nooks for the display of art objects, or to rest jewelry, watches, cufflinks, whatever. I also assume that two or more of these could be butted together and the "weave" would appear to continue unbroken on a longer stretch of wall. Extremely clever, and a beautiful piece.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Monday, May 11, 2009

Clear Skies Ahead

When this whole mess started, I really thought it would be the younger, smaller companies like Saturn that would be in the best position to ride out the storm. They don't have a century of bad business practices to restructure when things get bumpy, and would be more flexible to change, I'd think. Who knows what will happen to Saturn; GM is almost definitely selling the brand, to whom we can't quite be certain, yet, from what info I can find. Roger Penske, the US distributor of Smarts appears to be interested, but mostly as an increased distribution network.

I've never been a huge fan of their styling, to be honest. I find it to be a little on the bland side. The 2009 Vue is a nice enough looking vehicle, though, and is available as a hybrid:
I find it kind of unfortunate that the hybrid is more expensive than the gas guzzling packages. It's second in expense only to their "luxury" Red Line package (however much a Saturn can be "luxurious"). This is another case where I believe the government needs to step in, to make it economically desirable to purchase more fuel efficient alternatives right from the get-go. Consumers will already be trepidatious enough about technology not time honored developing mechanical problems and being difficult or costly to repair, not worth the savings at the pump, without the greener alternatives also being so much more expensive at the dealer.

On the design front, at least, I am quite impressed by the Sky, which is looking extremely sharp this year:

Quite reasonably priced, too, at around $30k. The Red Line with 260hp turbo engine gets 28mpg on the highway, which is actually better than the non-hybrid Vue. There's something very fun about its lines, in an almost beach buggy sort of way.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Silent Beauty


I really wasn't sure whether or not to discuss Denver, Colorado's Newell Design. They're here, though, because it's quite obvious, even in photographs, that their detailing and craftsmanship are absolutely stunning.

Here's their "Interlocking Sideboard":
Click images for larger views.

The "Longboard Sideboard":

This is the "Gazelle Desk":

And last but not least, the "Reve" line, a desk:
End table:
And a dresser:

Now, the pieces are gorgeous, clearly, and have wonderful proportions and restraint, the materials are luxurious and refined. The problem I have, though, is that any one of these pieces could quite easily have been designed and created as much as eight or nine decades ago. Of course I love the Art Deco and Moderne eras, and if you live in a sleek house built in 1930, the style would work wonderfully. For me, personally, I think I'd just suggest seeking out some relevant and unique antique pieces instead.

The fact is, it's 2009, not 1929 or 1949. What would excite me a great deal more, especially considering that their detailing is so very impeccable, is if they would play with it, experiment, and take a few design risks. I want to see a group of craftspeople with this caliber of expertise look more closely at what it means to build, detail, and adorn a piece of furniture, examine what the rules are, and then start breaking those rules. As beautiful as the pieces may be, they're not really saying anything to me, they're not challenging me to see design in a new way. It's always equally unfortunate to see a group of designers with amazing and innovative ideas who don't have the skills to pull it off, but these people definitely do.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


I was somewhat impressed this year by Mitsubishi. They were showing their Lancer Sportback Concept, slated for 2010:
It looks a little bit like a Volvo that had cosmetic surgery to look more like a Mercedes, but a very handsome vehicle, nonetheless.
Especially seeing the back end, it has a very nice balance between hard, sharp edges and smooth contours.

But more interesting to me is the unveiling of their new i-MiEV:
The unfortunate thing is that it's near impossible to find any images of it not plastered with all kinds of logos and text, which make it look like a rolling billboard and make it extremely difficult to imagine what it'd be like to actually drive around in it oneself. I really do love the concept drawings, though, because in them you can see exactly what the designers were going for in the design, and what they like to accentuate about it.
It looks ridiculously cool and futuristic there.

Anyway, it's an all electric vehicle with a lithium-ion battery and a 64hp motor. Its distance is 80-100 miles per charge, which seems a bit limited to me, unfortunately, for anything but making a quick run to the grocery store or similar errands. I'm at a complete loss as to why it isn't coated in photo-voltaic cells, and for that matter, I see no reason why when it's parked, you couldn't raise a small wind turbine on the roof.

The other problem I have with them, and I find it so surprising that no one has ever mentioned this before: if you have to plug your car into an electric socket when you get home, and your power supplier is burning fossil fuels to power your home, what on earth is the difference? My own answer to that question is that I'm certain big power stations use fuel far more efficiently than an equivalent number of individual gasoline automobile engines to generate the same amount of power. In addition, as I've said before, your car is one part of a much bigger picture, your power supplier is an entirely different part. And certainly if you're lucky enough to happen to live in an area generating its electricity by wind or solar power, this car is the way to go.

The other good news is that--according to a recent NYTimes article--this charismatic Israeli guy is perfecting a robotic battery-swap station that could slip under your electric car, pop out the depleted battery, and very quickly stick in a freshly charged one. The idea is to have these recharge stations at intervals along highways where drivers could get stranded and presumably at gas stations. But if these recharge stations were wind and/or solar powered, aside from routine maintenance, the "fuel" would be virtually free. If the government got smart and subsidized them or actually built them instead of leaving them to greedy private corporations, we could conceivably be recharging our electric cars for like a dollar per visit.

These are the kind of changes we need right now.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Monday, May 4, 2009

Hide and Seek


Brooklyn's Palo Samko is another designer I've been keeping my eyes on for a few years. A similar thing happened for me with him this year, where I believe his body of work is now large enough that a true voice has begun to emerge that hadn't been quite prominent enough before. What I began to notice is a sense of mystery and discovery in his work that I think is just fantastic. 

The first thing I noticed was the "Constellation Dining Table":
The legs evidently have birds on them, but I can't find them. The great thing here though, is a bunch of tiny watch gears inset into the top of it:

All his work is doing this kind of thing. You won't catch it just out of the corner of your eye, but if you really look closely, there are all these fun, cool little things to discover. 

Here's the "Beam Dining Table":
You see the legs have these nice stripes to them. Well, they're actually made from individual pegs of different woods. But that's not all; he has them piercing up through the top surface of the table, so the mosaic-like pattern of different woods creates a decorative element at each of the four corners.
Then hidden under the table there, invisible from one direction, are three swinging birds. You'd have to be sitting on this closer side to even know they were there.

The birds are more obvious, but no less delightful, in the "Clara Coffee Table":

I'd like to think that, on a breezy summer day with the windows open, they'd swing and bob on their own, giving this piece a kinetic personality.

The "End Grain" desk and coffee table both have secret compartments in the top:

I'm a sucker for secret compartments, don't ask me. But if you look closely, they both have cylindrical "pencil drawers" you can pull out from the sides. The "Constellation" table has one, too--which I'd assume could also hold silverware--and at the show, if you opened it, you'd discover there were little cows or something in it. I thought that was awesome. But Samko's whole booth was great. The table had a tiny bicyclist on it pulling a blimp:
Click that.
The way the pieces were displayed and accessorized really pulled his vision into sharp focus. His booth was a lot of fun.

He was also showing this "Propeller Lamp":

The propeller is just such a great, whimsical detail with so much character, but it's also a small drawer:

©2009, Ryan Witte