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America’s design community comes into its own

At NYCxDesign, spirited debate, independent exhibitions, and confident experimentation reflected a strong generation of designers.

America’s design community comes into its own
The Finnish Cultural Institute’s Zero Waste Bistro at WantedDesign Manhattan. [Photo: Nicholas Calcott]

A heated plagiarism scandal that rocked design discourse, a splashy return to 1970s maximalism, and independent designs that came out on top. With New York City’s annual NYCxDesign festival now officially concluded, these are just some of the lasting impressions from two weeks that were chock full of events, launches, and installations.

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Held less than a month after Milan Design Week and Salone del Mobile—the world’s largest and longest-standing trade show dedicated to furniture and product design—NYCxDesign is our most comparable stateside counterpart, with several fairs and countless pop-up events spanning the city’s five boroughs. Yet despite the fact that New York is home to a higher density of design professionals than anywhere else in the country, NYCxDesign has often been regarded as an afterthought to industry insiders: Larger brands and furniture houses will often present the same collections just previewed in Milan, and often with activations much less grand than those presented abroad. (It’s hard to compete when Milanese pop-up venues are often ornate, centuries-old palazzos, open to the public just for the occasion.) What’s more, NYCxDesign has rarely been able to contain itself to a single, tidy week—last year, it ballooned to span nearly the entire month of May, making it a marathon event that might dissuade international visitors from being able to take the whole spectrum of events in a single visit.

Jumbo’s installation at Sight Unseen was a show of one of this year’s biggest trends for chunky, tubular forms. [Photo: courtesy Jumbo]

All of those factors, however, also give NYCxDesign some distinct advantages: There’s no shortage of homegrown talent, and with the high cost of attending and exhibiting abroad, many local designers opt to go all in on their home turf. With cross-disciplinary collaborations, spirited debates, and a host of openings celebrating independent work, this year convinced us that American design may have finally, refreshingly, come into its own as a platform where designers can speak to a broader audience. This year’s edition of NYCxDesign genuinely felt like a cultural event, more akin to fashion week or a film festival than a staid trade show. Read on for our top five takeaways.

Installation view of Designing Women II, organized by Egg Collective and Lora Appleton of kinder MODEN.  [Photo: Hannah Whitaker]

Rise of the designer-curator

In the age of social media, are any of us not curators? This year saw a surge in a particular breed of multi-hyphenate—the designer-as-curator-and-exhibitor—with a number of independently organized group exhibitions in a show of tight-knit community. Last year, in the jarring wake of Trump’s presidential election, the all-women design trio of Egg Collective mounted a show of work by women designers in their downtown showroom, in a positive and constructive flex of dissent against the state of affairs. As a follow-up to the widely lauded effort, this year they teamed with Lora Appleton of kinder MODERN on Designing Women II: Masters, Mavericks, and Mavens, featuring an international and cross-generational mix of mixed-media works by Nicola L., Mimi Jung, Mira Nakashima, Bari Ziperstein, and more.

Additional installation views from Designing Women II.  [Photo: Hannah Whitaker]

Installation views from Next Level, a pop-up group show in Greenwich Village, organized by local designers. [Photo: courtesy Eskayel]
Manhattan was particularly hard-hit by the decline of brick-and-mortar retail this past year, with a string of closures in previously high-trafficked districts—look to the formerly boutique-packed stretch of Bleecker Street in the West Village for a prime example of how digital-first commerce has affected neighborhood streets IRL. The vacant storefronts are signs of a changing industry, and for some designers, a serendipitous boon. At the former Superdry clothing store on Broadway—one of several vacancies on the main thoroughfare in Greenwich Village—several studios banded together to present Next Level, a group show of work by their peers and friends, partly looking to channel the cultural fervor that completely overtakes Milan during their design week.

“[Eskayel] exhibited at Salone for the first time ever this past year, and it really opened my eyes as to what was possible,” said Nick Chacona, a partner at the Brooklyn rug studio Eskayel, one of the show’s organizers. “Events are so integrated into the city there, and we wanted to bring some of that approach here to New York.”

In East Williamsburg, the tongue-in-cheek design collective Jonald Dudd (no, that’s not a typo) curated Return of the Living Dudd, a group show housed in a recently abandoned, half-gutted 99 cent storefront. Framed as a “platform for dissenting objects,” it was easily the wackiest batch of works to surface all week—ranging from vessels with live-oozing goop in swirling shades of pink and green, to a seatless chair made of square bathroom tile—all placed in a collage-like disarray upon a swooping, cobalt-blue carpeted backdrop that evoked an appropriately internet-bred aesthetic. As the curators Lydia Cambron and Chris Held held forth: “Punx not dead.”

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Views from punk design collective Jonald Dudd’s group show, Return of the Living Dudd. [Photo: Jason Mandella]

Their DIY ethos was a refreshing counterpoint to the hallowed halls of Jacob J. Javits Center—home to ICFF, the longstanding trade show anchor to NYCxDesign—and gave the corporate approach a run for its money. New York’s new class of designer-curator-whatever brought out some of the most compelling work of the festival.

Camille Walala’s building facade mural in Sunset Park, part of WantedDesign’s Brooklyn edition, epitomized the zeitgeist for vibrant supergraphics. [Photo: courtesy Industry City]

Fashion, design, and internet culture collide

Chunky geometries, tubular forms, furry surfaces, and supergraphic patterns were all out in droves this year. It was a signal that 1970s maximalism and a fashion-influenced approach to interiors are still driving many independent designers. Was a secret memo circulated to all of the cool young makers, or has the Internet given birth to a globalized ur-aesthetic? Seen at the various booths of design fairs WantedDesign, ICFF, and Sight Unseen OFFSITE alike, it stood up alongside the enduring popularity of midcentury and Scandinavian modern design. Seemingly more concerned with form than comfort or function, many of these works channeled an approach to furniture and interiors driven by fashion.

Designs from the debut furniture collection from Kamarq, a Netflix-inspired startup, kicked off NYCxDesign with a heated plagiarism scandal. [Photo: Travis Chantar/courtesy Kamarq]

The idea of how fashionable trends spread, particularly in our internet-driven society, became a topic of heated debate after Kamarq, a Japanese startup aspiring to be the “Netflix of furniture,” was forced to cancel its debut collection within hours of its launch, after copycat claims on Instagram went viral overnight. The designers of the collection, fashion personality and former Lady Gaga stylist Nicola Formichetti, and PJ Mattan, a consultant behind brands like Hem and Bezar—neither of whom had previously ever designed furniture, and extolled the idea of a “fast fashion” approach to home interiors—suggested their tube-and-slab forms were so basic so as to allude authorship, while many others (including this writer) saw undeniable likenesses to a 2015 Matter collection by independent designer Ana Kras. The Wing cofounder Audrey Gelman, artist Katie Stout, musician Dev Hynes, and Hem founder Petrus Palmer were among the many creatives who commented to weigh in on the controversial topic that, fittingly, cemented Kamarq as a “fast fashion” brand indeed.

Swiss fashion house Akris teamed with Vitra on a collection of clothing and accessories featuring the illustrations of midcentury legend Alexander Girard. [Photo: courtesy Akris]

In general, the fashion world played a significantly direct influence in NYCxDesign this year, with trendy downtown boutiques Philip Lim, Creatures of Comfort, and Opening Ceremony among the many fashion fixtures that teamed up with local furniture designers as part of Sight Unseen‘s curatorial project Field Studies, which paired creatives across various disciplines to produce unique one-off pieces, with proceeds going to a range of charitable causes. Even the big brands got cuddly with the fashion world: Swiss furniture juggernaut Vitra launched a limited-edition gift set and series of leather accessories with Akris, featuring iconic patterns by the legendary midcentury textile designer Alexander Girard. The collaboration followed the fashion house’s Spring/Summer ’18 collection, which was also inspired by Girard’s work and on display at Vitra’s pop-up showroom.

At the downtown boutique Retrosuperfuture, design studio Slash Objects presented an artful installation that incorporated reused tires and rubber waste, shredded to resemble pebbles of a rock garden. [Photo: Sean Santiago]

The ecological imperative

The model of a circular economy—by which resources and materials are continually circulated, from by-product to manufacture, in order to drastically reduce waste—has been simmering within critical design discourse for the past several years. And while such thinking has begun to infiltrate even Milan’s luxury-focused design week, it emerged in top billing at NYCxDesign, where some of the most highly attended projects applied the progressive model toward working proofs of concept.

At Sight Unseen Offsite, designer Kim Markel reused pink packaging from the beauty brand Glossier to create a resin-like material for these upscale, candy-like creations. [Photo: Charlie Schuck]

At the sunglasses shop Retrosuperfuture, architect-designer Arielle Assouline-Lichten of Slash Objects presented an installation inspired by traditional Japanese rock gardens, but traded stone for rubble-like mounds of shredded tires and recycled rubber. Designer Kim Markel, who often works with discarded plastic bottles to mold translucent, candy-like creations, paired with cosmetics brand Glossier to create a luscious armoire with pink-tinted panels made from the company’s packaging, saved and collected for months by its employees. For her spindly side tables, she lathes spun stone dust, the powdery composite waste left behind from stone cutting. And in Brooklyn, the MINI-backed design incubator A/D/O continued its recently launched, year-long program tackling the global clean drinking water crisis.

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At WantedDesign Manhattan, the Finnish Cultural Institute of New York presented a Zero-Waste Bistro, with all surfaces of the pop-up space made entirely from recycled post-consumer waste. [Photo: Nicholas Calcott]

Communal dining proved to be the basis of a winning engagement at WantedDesign Manhattan, a smaller trade show of international exhibitors, where the Finnish Cultural Institute of New York hosted a working pop-up cafe called the Zero-Waste Bistro (full disclosure: this writer will be participating in a program with FCINY this year). Designed and built entirely with recycled materials, it also served a revolving tasting menu of delectable, prix-fixe meals minimizing scrap food waste, with dishes like coconut husk ice cream and chopped asparagus salad, from the chefs of the Helsinki-based concept restaurant Nolla. The project was co-curated by Harri Koskinen and Linda Bergroth, who also designed the space using recycled and compressed Just water bottles and TetraPak waste to dazzling effect, like a pointillist tableau or digital rendering made real. The pop-up bistro was, above all, a tasty sight and experience to behold. The future of design must be ecological, that much is sure—and, as the event’s sold-out seatings proved, style and taste need not go by the wayside to achieve an environmentally responsible outcome.

Downtown at a gallery storefront, Brooklyn-based design studio Coil+Drift explored the performative power of objects through live choreography and short films in Home Unimprov. [Photo: Sean Davidson]

The performative power of objects

The demands of maintaining a creative practice in a highly digital, politically asinine time is not an easy task—which may be why many designers also took to physical works to explore performative and expressive narratives. While also exhibiting at ICFF as part of the curated Collective Concept presentation, Brooklyn-based designer John Sorensen-Jolink of Coil+Drift—a former dancer turned furniture and lighting maker—presented Home Unimprov at a Soho gallery. Bringing both sides of his work together, the show explored our bodily relationship to designed environments, combining live choreography and short films centered around a trio of conceptual chair designs.

In an age of uncertainty, Colony, a co-op for independent designers, presented works exploring the theme of Balance/Unbalance at its Chinatown showroom. [Photo: Alan Tansey]

Over at Colony, an independent design cooperative in Chinatown, founder and curator Jean Lin presented works by Fort Standard, Meg Callahan, Moving Mountains, and more, under the overarching theme of Balance/Imbalance, both physically and sensorially, through color, form, materiality, shape, and even sound. “Perfect balance is a lie, but magic can be found in the space between balance and imbalance,” says Lin, who last year organized a show around the theme of lightness, in response to the tumultuous and heavy American political landscape.

Polish studio Kosmos Project’s latest collection, Future Illusions, creates algorithmically generated rug designs based on a set of the user’s data points. [Photo: courtesy Kosmos Project]

At WantedDesign Manhattan, Polish design studio Kosmos Project presented Future Illusions, a collection of illustrative landscape rugs inspired by video games, complete with a participatory, choose-your-own-adventure element. The designs can be purchased as-is, or uniquely customized through a series of personality quiz-type questions that algorithmically generate a unique variation on a theme. The overall concept, the designers said, was to show both sides of the coin when it comes to big data–and ultimately make viewers more aware of their consequential choices.

Experimental studio The Principals teamed with musician Angel Olsen to create a custom 3D-printer that rendered frequencies of her voice into wax-form casts. [Photo: Charlie Schuck]

Toying with tech

While big consumer tech brands made a splashy arrival to Milan‘s traditionally furniture and interiors-focused design week last month—with high-profile activations from Google Home, to Sonos and even Instagram—in New York, technology found its way into design shows with a decidedly more homegrown and experimental slant.

These cast-aluminum candle holders, made from 3D-printed wax forms rendered by musician Angel Olsen’s voice, presented a striking and synesthetic form of making. [Photo: Charlie Schuck]

At Sight Unseen’s highly curated satellite show of emerging talents, Drew Seskunas of The Principals teamed with musician Angel Olsen to create a custom 3D printer. Sound waves of the singer’s voice were translated into physically rendered wax forms, which were then used to mold aluminum candlesticks—rigorously traversing from immaterial to material, it was an undeniably engaging experiment: call it design synesthesia. Hailing from Warsaw, UAU Project exhibited a more market-friendly approach to 3D-printed wares, with a colorful range of lights and small tabletop objects made from a reused corn byproduct. They were available for cash-and-carry, or, for a reduced price, as a digital file compatible with any desktop 3D printer.

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Lighting studio Rich Brilliant Willing presented a set of cutting-edge prototypes made from pliable OLED strips wrapped in 3D-knit textile sleeves. [Photo: courtesy Rich Brilliant Willing]

Darlings of the hospitality and contract market, lighting studio Rich Brilliant Willing wowed with a series of conceptual, working prototypes exploring the new formal possibilities of OLED technology and 3D-knit textiles. The team took a minimal, sculptural approach to thin, pliable strips of OLED, which read more like ambient surfaces or screens. Unlike traditional bulbs or LED diodes, partner Theo Richardson explained, OLEDs naturally emit soft, diffuse light—meaning no shade or additional element is required. Instead, the studio added its first experimentation with 3D-knit textiles into the mix, sheathing each of the OLED strips—molded and hanged to gently bend by the weight of its own heft—with translucent, graphic-patterned sleeves.

Design Within Reach presented the group show Hands at Work, the third iteration to come from Furnishing Utopia. [Photo: Charlie Schuck]

Not all young designers embraced new-fangled technology; some even eschewed it the name of mindfulness. At Hands to Work, the third edition of Furnishing Utopia, a now-annual group show sponsored by Design Within Reach, dozens of designers were commissioned to develop simple, useful items and tools with an intent to engage and transcend the tradition of Shaker design. The overall vibe was gleefully analog, as visitors were invited to engage in “sensory isolation,” and left to their devices in an all-white room containing only a tidy tray of gravel and an immaculately designed dustpan and brush. Among the wares displayed on the main exhibition floor: a wheeled planter by Jamie Wolfond, a basket bound with cable ties by Shigeki Fujishiro, and a wooden dish rack by Studio Tolvanen.

All conveyed a cheerful attitude to hand labor and daily chores, with the exception of a tongue-in-cheek piece by designer Pat Kim: a handsome cherry wood casing for an automated Roomba vacuum, which amused visitors as it made the rounds and reminded us that not all labor is sacred.

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About the author

Aileen Kwun is a writer based in New York City.

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