Opinion: New York's design scene would benefit from looking outward and engaging with America's manufacturing centres further west, says Alan G Brake, who found a lack of originality at the city's design week this year.
New York's design week has just concluded, revealing once again the promise and limitations of the city's design scene and its relationship to the American and global marketplace. The prevalence of maker/DIY/designer-owned production, particularly among New York City's most prominent younger and mid-career designers is at once a canny response to the reality of living and working in the country's most expensive and space-constricted metropolis, but has also lead to obvious repetition of ideas, forms, and object types as designers compete for the same pool of wealthy buyers.
Like its corollary in the food world, maker-driven design is both profound and precious. The slow/local/artisanal food movement has had an undeniable impact on American cuisine, primarily at the high-end. But it speaks to a narrow demographic, while most of the American diet is shaped and dictated by agribusiness and Big Food. New York design week is, perhaps, still too narrowly focused on a narrow clientele, and the relatively small presence of major manufactures and brands at the various New York fairs indicates a similarly modest influence of the city's designers on the national and global marketplace.
New York's design week is actually two weeks long. Four years ago the City of New York created an umbrella organisation for the various fairs and events under the name NYC x Design (the "x" meaning "by"), formally asserting New York's design week as the most important in the nation, and the city itself as the country's design capital. The city's role primarily seems to be hosting a website and hanging NYC x Design banners on light poles around town.
It begins with Collective Design, a four-year-old fair that coincides with the Frieze New York art fair, which is geared toward wealthy art and design collectors. This tag-along strategy mirrors Design Miami's relationship with Art Basel Miami Beach. Vintage galleries from around with world are mixed with contemporary galleries selling limited edition, usually extravagantly expensive pieces—what used to be called "design art," now more commonly "collectible design". These pieces often use rare or unusual materials or labour-intensive production processes and the results range from the inventive to the fetishised to the absurd. One trend at Collective: furniture that looks like rocks.
For the second year in a row, Collective featured a focus area organised by Sight Unseen, which itself hosts a fair the following week (a first sign of the repetition to come throughout the next two weeks). Other first sightings at Collective that would recur a week later: handmade Calico wallpaper and a stuffed fabric and furniture landscape by Print All Over Me.
Collective is followed by BKLYN Designs, a small starter fair in the Greenpoint section of the Brooklyn, sponsored by the borough's Chamber of Commerce. Though Brooklyn is touted as the creative centre of New York with a growing design industry, the fair struggles to attract attendees and attention, and few of the most prominent Brooklyn-based designers show there. Also in Brooklyn, the Industry City edition of Wanted Design hosts events and showcases designers, many of who are located in the massive warehouses on the waterfront in Sunset Park.
The main events come the following week with ICFF, WantedDesign, and Sight Unseen Offsite. ICFF is by far the largest, oldest, and most commercial of the all the events. Formerly known as the International Contemporary Furniture Fair, it now just goes by the acronym and bills itself as the "high-end luxury furniture fair". Last year, it added a second floor at the Jacob Javits Center, but rather than demonstrate the growing clout of the fair, the expansion signalled a drift from the "contemporary" label. More exhibitors mostly meant room for more mediocrity, more décor, more of what we don't need.
Among the strongest work at the show, yet again, was lighting. Lighting, especially expensive, statement chandeliers, has become a lifeline for designers and designer-owned brands. The pieces are often designed and assembled by the designers themselves, allowing many designers to sell directly to high-end consumers or the interior decorators and architects they work with. Rich Brilliant Willing, for example, has reconceived themselves as a lighting company with their own showroom. This year they showed their own work and introduced a line of fixtures designed by the architect David Rockwell.
Apparatus, Stickbulb, Allied Maker, Rosie Li Studio are just a few of the New York designers working mostly in brass in a similar vein of statement chandeliers, pendants, and sconces. The made-to-order approach many of these designer-owned brands deploy doesn't guarantee control forever, however, as Lindsey Adelman's branching fixtures have now been widely knocked-off by mass market retailers like West Elm and Anthropologie. (Also, Calico Wallpaper showed off their wares, again).
Wanted Design, located a few blocks away, occupies a space known as "the Tunnel", once a storied nightclub, which was originally designed to accommodate trains running though the ground floor of a massive warehouse building. Wanted is arguably the most international of the fairs, often showing groups of works organised by country (and often paid for by their governments). The Norwegian exhibition A Few Good Things was a standout, with a range for products from prototypes to mass-produced items with an emphasis on the useful and the liveable. Last year included strong collections by Mexican designers and Polish graphic designers, but beyond these national displays, Wanted can be scattershot.
Sight Unseen Offsite is considered to be the most interesting showcase for emerging designers. While much of the work here was targeted at a youthful audience rather than the one per cent, a timid sameness reigned. Textiles and furnishings with white and watery blue geometric patterns. Plant stands. Lumpy ceramic tableware. More lighting, though here mostly made from paper rather than brass. Many pieces could have been swapped from one booth to another and only the designers would have known the difference. Still more hand-painted wallpaper from Calico, and another pillow and fabric landscape from Print All Over Me.
For one notable and focused collection, called Furnishing Utopia, 13 designers and studios reexamined and reinterpreted Shaker designs working in collaboration with the Hancock Shaker Village Museum. While much of the work elsewhere in the show followed a similar set of trends, Furnishing Utopia asked its participants to look again at a the enduring elegance and functionality of the Shakers, and provided a creative frame and a set of constraints that proved to be generative.
New York is distant from the major centres of furniture manufacturing in the US, which is concentrated in the Midwest for office furniture and the Southeast for carpet and residential furnishings, each of which are served by their own trade shows. The leading designers of the New York scene don't often engage with these vast segments of the market, preferring to produce the work themselves. This intentionally niche approach reflects the ethos of the times, and has its merits, but I wonder when a more ambitious, and influential, spirit will return to the New York design scene. America, at least, would be better for it.
Alan G Brake is a design journalist, editor, and critic. Formerly US editor for Dezeen, he has also been executive editor of The Architect's Newspaper and has written for titles including Metropolis, Architectural Record and the New York Times.