Color is twisted on at the imm cologne 2014: Sofa „Swell“ by Jonas Wagell for Normann Copenhagen. Photo © Sabrina Spee, Stylepark
A brighter Modernism
by Thomas Wagner
Jan 17, 2014

Let’s stick with the Jazz beat. And not overly free improvisations and dissonant sounds. No, more the classical type. Let’s simply go for the legendary track “Take Five”, recorded by the Dave Brubeck Quartet back in 1959. As the title intimates it thrives from being written in quintuple time. On the other hand, the rhythm, which revels in almost minimalist repetitions, is repeatedly interrupted by the warm feel of Paul Desmond’s sax and the catchy melody. Ostensibly, Paul Desmond, who composed the piece, was inspired by the rhythmic sounds of the one-armed bandits in the gambling paradise of Reno. He really only wrote the track to get the money back that he had lost that night.

In the trade fair halls in Cologne you won’t hear any of the monotonous sounds of machines. But there’s quite a bit worth winning back here, too. The piece being performed here definitely has a lot in common with the Jazz classic. Because when moving from one booth to the next through the halls you will invariably be comfortably numbed by the monotonous rhythm of the seemingly ever identical offerings. Is there, you will start asking yourself at some point, anything in life other than huge seating areas draped with the most refined of fabrics or covered in leather as soft as a baby’s bottom? They’re large enough to fill a small apartment on their own. And almost wherever you look you’ll spot tables destined for entire extended families made of superbly crafted solid wood and huge box-spring beds into which you would probably sink once and for all. In short, the imm cologne 2014 is (How could it be otherwise, after all it’s a trade fair?) an event that is as monotonous as it is diverse. But what sounds interrupt the repetitive rhythm? And is there some melody or other than covers all the manufacturers, chairs, tables, sofas, and luminaires?

Enriched mixes

Rhythm, or so the famous cellist Pablo Casals once quipped, is a matter of delaying things. Perhaps the strategists in the furniture industry had this in mind. At least, many an observer may now think that the industry has possibly solved a fundamental problem by delaying things, namely that of novelties. Or, put differently, in an age when the economic crisis is still hitting in particular the makers of high-end furniture hard (after several years in which earnings surged, sales in the German furniture industry alone plummeted almost four percent in 2013 to a good EUR 16 billion) they have found a way of enhancing the appeal of their collections without constantly having to field real or purported novelties.

Updating Modernism

Three factors play a key role here. First, products have to be of a prime quality and well established in the market. Second, their colors need to be adapted to the taste of the day. Which means that instead of chrome and gray fabric or black leather you now encounter a whole array of warm, intensive colors. And because wood when worked by craftsmen lasts for ages and possesses a natural aura, it is no longer being concealed, but instead emphasized. And, finally, upholstery fabrics, and likewise carpets and curtains with attractive colors, strengthen the overall impression that living can be free of ideology and in the midst of durable, indeed sustainable products.

Boiled down to a common denominator, the formula the furniture industry is using to chase success in a sensitive late Modernist world is: The new is the improved old. The tried and true, often part of the Modernist heritage, is being updated. Or, to be more culinary: Proven recipes are being re-seasoned.

Skillfully combined

The imm cologne 2014 can therefore be defined as a “not only, but also”. Much of what is on show professes to be modern, but strategically this means: Know your history, your product story, and then step into the future. Of course such an approach can primarily be attributed to the fact that there have long ceased to be uniform interior design styles. Today, anything can be combined with anything else, and this does in fact happen. The diversity of contemporary interiors can thus no longer be assessed by how the old and the new, the inherited and the bought, the colors and the functions get combined at will. Within each respective collection, you’ll also find a veritable plethora of different styles, materials, colors and textures. More than ever, things are being mixed together, potpourris created. Instead of going for an interior firmly cast from a single mold, individuality is judged by the ability to combine things skilfully.

Colors brings warmth to the coldness of society

The joy in combinations goes so far that the agenda is to replace the strictly Modernist by re-editions and remixes of it. Not just in art, as here, too, Modernism turns out to be our Classical Antiquity. And the makers seem to be hell-bent on reviving it. The updates are ready and can be downloaded in Cologne. Thonet, for example, shows how this can be achieved. People had as good as forgot that the Modernist items made of chromed tubular steel, bent plywood and black leather were not authentic, but a development of later years. In the beginning of the revolution triggered by architects and designers such as Mart Stam and Marcel Breuer (in Thonet’s case at any rate) stood lacquered frames made of tubular steel bent cold. Even if different colors and tones are now used, to this extent the fact that frames are now once again being offered in different colors, as they were in the late 1920s, is not only historically correct, but a long overdue development.

Ideology-free interiors?

One different should not be overlooked: What today is solely a matter of refreshing the furniture was part of a fundamental movement back in the 1920s that was inextricably linked to the “New Building” movement. Back then the idea was to create an affordable and different form of architecture and interiors for the “new man”, the revival today is simply an interior design trend. But who knows, perhaps this time the interiors will feed back into the architectural domain? Be that as it may, many “classics” and more recent models suddenly appear fresh and contemporary, even if they lack the social and aesthetic sounding board of changed architecture. It certainly does the clear and functional shapes no harm that they no longer take their cue from the no-frills Modernist style for interiors, originally forged to be simple, restrained, transparent and utilitarian.

Woolen nets instead of digital surveillance

As regards the color lines, the colors above all counter the coldness of a Modernism many feel is short on emotions. In the case of Thonet, but not just there, the attempt is surprisingly successful. As with the high-grade leather upholstery already introduced for the cantilever chairs, the colored lacquer makes for a warmer climate. Only with Marcel Breuer’s “B9” table sets does the combination of dark wood and lacquered frame seem a bit artificial, or it at least needs getting used to. Be that as it may, there seems to be a need to make Modernism often derided for the coldness of its glass facades and gleaming chrome, more human, to breathe warmth into its cool rationalism.

Evidently, the world of financial scandals, with its overly scheming feel, and the all-defining economy have left people crying out for an emotional counterbalance. And on the home front, in the feelgood cocoon of your own four walls, warm colors and metals now promise to deliver it, along with refined woods, coarsely spun fabrics and finely knotted or woven carpets.

What nevertheless applies over and above all such symbolic aspects: It’s not too colorful. We feel molly-coddled by the new colorful wraps, and they brighten the mood. The carefully calibrated and skilfully mixed colors for frames and upholsteries are destined to create a fresh, happy, and indeed joyous mood.

At the Vitra booth the path to colorfully refreshing the tried and true has been broadened – it was first trodden along with Hella Jongerius at the Salone del Mobile 2013. For example, a seating group in the still quite new “Alcove Plume” sofa line designed by the Bouroullec brothers gleams in the rich colors of spices that could be viewed as Mexican, or perhaps Indian, and at any rate as pleasantly exotic. The “Wire Chair DKR”, the version that is also fit for outdoor use, is now also available in crème and dark gray, and the shape of the upholstery called “Bikini”, which is likewise available in new colors, has been thoroughly revised, as has the “Eames Storage Unit” which dates back to 1949.

As if all that weren’t enough, where things have to look superlative and dead serious the upgrading process is being supplemented by side tables, sofa bases, armrests and chair frames, tablets and luminaires in copper or brass. As if to show where we’re heading, the Vitra booth boasts a completely copper-coated bicycle. Upgrading the simple and adding a shot of Orientalism. Meaning we’re now seeing an epidemic of what above all Tom Dixon has been propagating for years and has offered in many variants. In recent years the price of copper as a commodity has risen, leading to the railway authorities being hit now and again by the copper-wire thieves – and the symbolic qualities of its warm color have also been increasingly appreciated. Gold is swiftly considered kitschy, meaning copper is emerging as the emblematic metal of the day.

Bright-minded zeitgeist

Zeitgeist loves more than just the spirit of combination. With its thirst for variety and emotional and atmospheric color tones it extends to the widest range of different aesthetic programs. For example, Swiss maker Lehni, closely familiar with strong colors from manufacturing Donald Judd’s aluminum furniture, offers its “Stack” shelves not only in cool aluminum, but also in signal white, anthracite, pillar-box red, orange, bright blue, bright green, pistachio, vanilla or any other color requested. And because the aluminum shelves designed by Andreas Christen (Lehni’s classic) turns 50 this year, the company is also launching it in “eloxy bronze”, a refined, dark champagne hue. Once again, while things remain functional, they are now a little less strict in look.

Seating groups – upgrade or downgrade

On the topic of functions. Seating groups not only come in modules that can be adapted at will and are tending even more expansive. They are also any number of added-on functions. It doesn’t suffice to simply sit on a sofa. You need to be able to put up your legs or even lie flat – with your juice, wine or cocktail always in easy reach and your iPad in the drawer. Which can all too often culminate in over-elaborate sofa settings. A sofa is then no longer a sofa but a mutable wellness machine, with fold-out rests, pull-out and swivel upholstery, add-on head-rests and add-in tables. A society en route to immobility.

Albeit what also applies here is that there’s more diversity now in the world of sofas and seating groups. On the one hand, couches that will engulf you, on the other filigree insects. For we are also seeing a renaissance of the slender two- or three-seaters that let you sit up straight. Friendly coexistence. Massive, but not inelegant DeSede’s cubist, modular “DS-88” by Alfredo Häberli with its characteristic stepped leather; or, at Artek, the decidedly unpretentious, almost self-denying, but extremely comfortable “Kiki Sofa” designed by Imari Tapiovaara in 1960. The Arne Jacobsen and Flemming Lassen “Mayor Sofa AJS” at &tradition is typically Nordic. And Walter Knoll presents not only the advanced “Grande Suite” version, but has complemented the re-edition of the “Haussmann 310” armchair with a fine sofa that has the great charm of a Chesterfield, but has adeptly pared it down, with a touch of irony, and added filigree metal feet. Wittmann shows two great ways to give the salon a contemporary feel: Jörg Boner’s actually shell-shaped “Oyster” group, and Marco Dossi’s elegant “Odeon” sofa. Or you simply go for a version from the garden of Eden, meaning the “Paradise” collection consisting of the “Eva” and “Adam” armchairs and the “Paradiset Sofa. To be found at Gubi’s and designed by architect Kerstin Horlin Holmquist back in 1956-7 for NK-Nordiska Kompaniet.

In the face of so much nostalgic salon furniture Artek’s relaunch of Yrjö Kukkapuro’s fiberglass armchair “Karuselli” is as good as sensational. At Ligne Roset Didier Gomez shows with his “Hudson” sofa that you can’t go wrong with a clear, geometrical and functional shape (quoting the 1950s classics by Mies van der Rohe and Florence Knoll) if you combine comfort with colors and stylish stepped textures. Whereas with “Cosse” Philippe Nigro opts firmly for soft roundings and a floating sense of lightness. And last but not least Cor demonstrates how in times of diversity and “not only/but also”, not just the well-established and constantly refined “Conseta” model (now celebrating its 50th birthday) is the key. For it is also presenting Jehs+Laub’s “Elm”, a new upholstered furniture program that with its decorative wooden frame takes its cue from Scandinavian classics without making too much of them.

A house for the community at large

“The House”, this year’s variant on an exemplary home, fits all of this. The brainchild this year of designer Danish Brit Louise Campbell, it’s a grand job. While in past years the “vision” tended to get lost and the exemplary notion of the “house” submerged under an overly great number of furniture items by just as many makers, Campbell has managed to find a face for her vision. Her approach is as simple as it is compelling. Essentially she takes two long houses with saddle roofs and inserts the one into the other, and then stages different perspectives on living under the title “0 – 100” as a complex network of extremes.

Male logic and female intuition are united here under a single roof, the subdivision into individual rooms has given way here to an open area suited to all activities in life. A wall full of tools symbolizes independent action, building and repairing things, and a love of technology. At the same time, the stringency of measurement gives way to the succor of a bed that extends on one side across the entire length of the room. And in the center a large table invites everyone to gather as a community. What Campbell presents with her fine feel for detail and mood is nothing less than a communal house for the 21st century. An old South Sea wisdom would have it that “if you love a person, then gift him a boat so he can leave you.” And thus Campbell has hung a canoe high up in the rafters of her communal house.

Charming repetition

Perhaps, or so one could think on leaving this year’s imm cologne, if what has stood the test of time or evolved over it is constantly updated is quite an acceptable price to pay for bidding farewell to the New. One could easily speak of a second, third, or fourth Nordic Modernism being on show here. Sound, happy, colorful, nature-loving and social. A bit escapist, to be sure. But certainly leisurely. How long will it last? Need we fear the dawn of new age of banality? Not really. Where diversity rules, alternatives are always round the corner. After all, we always prick up our ears on hearing a new melody. So: Take Five!

MORE on Stylepark:

Selected manufacturers at imm cologne 2014: An exhibitor schedule presents the most important manufacturers.
(09 January 2014)

Eye-catching concept: The Featured Editions at imm cologne offers a marvelous wealth of original ideas.
(14 January 2014)

The updates are ready and can be downloaded in Cologne: „Onkel“ by Simon Legald for Normann Copenhagen. Photo © Sabrina Spee, Stylepark
Walter Knoll has complemented the re-edition of the “Haussmann 310” armchair with a fine sofa. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Massive, but not inelegant: “DS-88” by Alfredo Häberli for DeSede.
Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Reminding the history: at the booth of Gubi. Photo © Sabrina Spee, Stylepark
Everything is quiet colored here: “Oslo“ Sofa von Andersson & Voll, “Around L“ und “Around S“ von Thomas Bentzen, beides für Muuto. Photo © Sabrina Spee, Stylepark
Charming repetition: „Boomerang Chair” by Richard Neutra, 1942, re-editioned by VS. Photo © Leyla Basaran, Stylepark
„Eames Storage Unit“, 1949, revitalized by Vitra. Photo © Martina Metzner, Stylepark
Covering in the wellness cocoon: ”Mangas Plait Modules” by Patricia Urquiola for GAN/Gandia Blasco. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Knitted accessories everywhere. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Poetry on a carpet: at the booth of Jan Kath. Photo © Sabrina Spee, Stylepark
“Alcove” by the Bouroullec brothers for Vitra wears Indian spice colours.
Photo © Sabrina Spee, Stylepark
Juice, wine or cocktail always in easy reach: at the booth of Brühl.
Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Shimmering attire: „Clara“ by Ligne Roset. Photo © Sabrina Spee, Stylepark
The Arne Jacobsen and Flemming Lassen “Mayor Sofa AJS” at &tradition is typically Nordic. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Wittmann shows two great ways to give the salon a contemporary feel: Jörg Boner’s actually shell-shaped “Oyster” group… Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Louise Campbell has doing it right way: „Das Haus“ in hall 2.2.
Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
“If you love a person, then gift him a boat so he can leave you.”
Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
All metals: „Layer L” by Sebastian Herkner for Pulpo. Photo © Leyla Basaran, Stylepark
As if to show where we’re heading, the Vitra booth boasts a completely copper-coated bicycle. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Soft seating pleasure: “Cosse” by Philippe Nigro for Ligne Roset.
Photo © Sabrina Spee, Stylepark
…and Marco Dossi’s elegant “Odeon” sofa. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Louise Campbell in her „Haus“. Photo © Martina Metzner, Stylepark
What Campbell presents with her fine feel for detail and mood is nothing less than a communal house for the 21st century. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark