Was this the year the ICFF lost its fizzle? America's foremost design event had always seemed like more than a trade show. It had a certain critical energy in those years when design strode jauntily at the forefront of our cultural life, and in recent years had taken on a more worldly foreign aspect.
The mood was cheerful enough this year, and there was enough good work, such the Divis table by Mike and Maaike (above) to keep editors working the aisles. But there were no molten-hot objects of desire this time around, and the whole affair felt subdued and reduced. The corridors were shortened, with a big empty stretch at the back of the Javits Center, and a certain vital energy was missing, like when the home team is losing and the fans eye the exit. Philippe Starck left for his hotel on Friday night after an obligatory showing at the Conran Shop to promote his new wireless speakers, and flew out the next morning without even going to the show.
ICFF, which closes today, has the misfortune of falling a few weeks after the Milan Furniture Fair, where design's big dogs—Marcel Wanders, Patricia Urquiola, Tord Boontje and the rest—introduce new work before packing it up for New York. As a result, ICFF can feel like watching a good movie for the second time—you may still enjoy it, but the anticipation is gone. After you subtract those significant introductions, what's left is a preponderance of needless spin-offs of aging design trends—frilly draped chandeliers, felt pillows with nature images and laser cut patterning, as in the chair shown above.
Given the show's diminished ambitions, it's fitting that miniaturization was one of this year's trends. The Vitra store in the meatpacking district displayed miniature modern furniture, and the Stilvoll booth in Javits had tiny replicas of its fold-up desk. It was as if the replicas would stand-in for the full-size classics, which now feel like Design Beyond Reach.
I heard no talk this year of limited editions, the recent incursion into the art field that had designers dreaming of art world prices. "As with so much else in today's world, all that feels like the excesses of some ancient regime," Julie Iovine wrote in The Architects Newspaper.
Limited editions frothed to the fore at Art Basel and Milan over the last two years as acquisitions without concern for function. But modern design was founded on functionality, and it may now have returned to its rightful focus with new works like the rainwater collector (above) by Hero Design Lab. This year's ICFF demonstrated how thoroughly the conversation has shifted away from luxury goods and has refocused itself on the pressing matters of efficiency, production and sustainability.
In keeping with the new emphasis on the cheap and reusable, cardboard was a conspicuously popular material, as in the flat packed light by Chun Wei Liao (above). How far we've come from 2001 when Ross Lovegrove introduced Go, which was much ballyhooed as the first chair made of magnesium.
It may have been a down year for business, but if anything the mood was merrier. Like a host resigned to a disappointing turnout, the ICFF crowd seemed to relax and enjoy itself at the cocktail receptions spread across the city, and some visitors lasted long enough to the after hours gatherings at 24 Prince organized via Twitter.
You can't compare one show to another, Chee Pearlman, a design consultant, told me over beer at one of the many late-afternoon parties. "Each show has its own mood," she said, "and the impulse is forever optimistic."
Read more Fast Company stories about ICFF 2009
Read more Fast Company stories about Milan 2009