It's hard if you're condemned to sit on a school bench, as is the bench. Even if the formerly hard bench has long since given way to a just-as-hard and rigid chair made of wood, sitting comfort in schools at usually turns out to be wishful thinking. In many cases, things are no better when it comes to the aesthetics of classroom furnishings. What might seem more obvious than to see this as a challenge for design and to change things. Especially in times when politicians preach education as a key resource of the future and everyone now knows that life is going to be a life-long learning curve. Nevertheless it's quite a sensation that at imm cologne one of the innovations on show there addresses the practical side to the problem of how to harmonize sitting and learning.
Design for the class room
To put it bluntly: the "Pro" chair series presented in Cologne and which Konstantin Grcic has developed over the last two years for Flötotto, who have traditionally been associated with the topic of "school chairs", cuts a good figure not only in class rooms. The chair is light and comfortable, with the seating shell's explicit S shape it supports "active sitting" and permits various sitting positions – you can even straddle it, as the upper edge curves backwards. It looks sharp, is anything but banal, and comes in six fresh colors and not only with a so-called "C Frame" for school use but for other versions to. Available are also school desks to fit. The development started with the "Flötotto Formsitz", patented back in 1952 and since sold worldwide over 21 million times – made of so-called "pagwood" and with beech plywood steeped in phenol resin. It was eventually replaced with a view to better moldability and greater flexibility by a polypropylene shell made by injection molding – which give the chair a special note.
Grcic designs, Toscani photographs
As if it were not in itself enough to have wooed on board Konstantin Grcic, a world-famous designer and an ideal partner for such an ambitious project, "Pro" is now also being presented by a series of photos taken by no less a photographer than Oliviero Toscani, notorious as the man behind the camera for many a controversial Benetton campaign. He had the mainly youthful models simply sit on the chair, balance, do gymnastics, pose, talk or play music, creating a range of zestful portraits that are as dynamic as they are humorous. Easy to imagine that learning this way would be fun.
Something every design aficionado can learn from: committing "pro" education can be a highly exciting task. And photos can show that furniture is more than a functional object and sits pretty with those who use it for this, that, or the other, thus breathing life into it. And finally, Konstantin Grcic has once again managed to find a convincing and surprising contemporary solution for a design brief that defines everyday life for many of us in the affluence bubble. Education and aesthetics, here they really do sit down together.
The return of Scandinavian values
How fitting that Finnish company Artek has centered its Cologne display around the "Domus" chair and armchair created back in 1946 for a student hall of residence in Helsinki by one of the pioneers of Nordic Modernism, designer and interior designer Ilmari Tapiovaara (1914-1999). It's a stackable all-rounder with short armrests, a frame made of solid birch or oak and with a seat and backrest made of press-molded plywood. In its day it was the first chair to be used in schools, universities and in private apartments, and certainly shows that aesthetic poignancy and longevity are not a matter of fashionable highlights. Moreover, the chair, which thanks to its renown in the United States is simply called the "Finnchair", demonstrates how much more mileage there is in the democratic and social side to Modernism. Beyond all superficial blather about sustainability to heard in recent years, Artek's slogan "Buy Now Keep Forever" certainly fits the year 2012.
One could also say that Scandinavian interior design is back, even if its basic thrust (combining sound craftsmanship with mass production) is now practiced not just in the Nordic countries, and not just using wood as the preferred material. Thus, Carl Hansen & Søn (in the Designpost) parade a chair created by a famous designer and long since out of production. The mastermind was Hans J. Wegner and his "CH_33" went into production in 1957 – but only for a decade, as it went out of fashion. One specimen survived in Wegner's studio because when his eldest daughter Marianne turned 12 she was given a room of her one and was allowed to choose one of her dad's chairs – she went for the "CH 33" in dark orange. Now, 40 years have passed since production was discontinued and the slender dining-table chair with the arc shaped backrest is back – resplendent in new colors and wood combinations, with or without upholstery. And has truly forfeited none of its qualities.
Not only furniture for schools and colleges or the return of such design classics, but also the new designs and innovations show that where the focus is on unadulterated and possibly luxurious contemporary interiors, there a bit of a sense of calm in Cologne. Manufacturers and designers are no longer acting nearly as hectically and no longer seem to be excessively intoxicated by a thirst for innovation after innovation as they were only a short while ago. One could also say that, for all or because of all the talk of crisis a new leisureliness seems to have spread in the course of which the one or other overheated emphasis has started to cool. (It'll not until after the Milan salon that we can see whether this is just a spur-of-the moment thing or a trend.) At any rate, we can clearly see a return to a certain normality, which for many a manufacturer means remembering their history and strengths. This means that much which recently seemed over-cooked and trying too hard (and rarely as extravagant as it purported) is now taking a backseat.
Tastefully modern, and not just from the Élysée
The fact that a maker such as Ligne Roset (which traditionally launches its innovations in Cologne) is for 2012 showcasing not only a massive 60 novelties by 40 designers, but is in the process cautiously taking its cue from Nordic and Japanese ideas. The tasteful and well-conceived that lasts for more than a season has gained ground again here, too, without seeming out of date. On the contrary, such that the "Élysée" seat which French master designer Pierre Paulin created in 1971 originally for the Georges Pompidou's smoking room at the Élysée Palace, now stand around like tasty slices of fruit. Soft, but not doughy the upholstery, they certainly invite you not just to stop and light up. And the rocking chair "Dérive 2", which Paulin made in 1985 for the president's wife, Claude Pompidou, who wished to gift it to composer Pierre Boulez for the latter's 60th, definitely doesn't hide its qualities, either. That's not just the best French design tradition, but also has a decidedly high-class feel, seems fresh and contemporary again.
Downy upholstery for the sofa to keep it warm
A fashion also widespread in Cologne is less convincing. I do not know whether it was Patricia Urquiola who started with it, or some designer who sat on his down jacket for too long when on a skiing vacation; the fact is that many designers are now squeezing thickly upholstered and quilted inserts into the seat shells of chairs, armchairs or loungers that they have already made or have only just made. It's one of those fashionable horrors that, as always, spread like an epidemic. Hardly any of the armchairs, such as Urquiola's "Husk Outdoor" or Alfredo Häberli's "Take a Line for a Walk", look good in their thick coats. And the brand new "Serpentine" chair by Eleonore Nalet is no exception. Another thing to watch will be whether the trend to ever more little tables and side tables persists, and even more nobly Ottomans and spherical seats, with or without drawers – or whether they are just a flash in the pan.
Swissness and an Indo-British "house"
Even for skeptics like me who do not (or no longer) believe in national stereotypes or design idioms, the compilation of renowned Swiss manufacturers such as Baltensweiler, Création Baumann, Lehni, Röthlisberger Kollektion, Thut Möbel and Wogg in the midst of the "Pure Village" is charming in a way. Especially as precisely here there are other examples of truly long-living design. For example, Wogg is showing as Christophe Marchand's "Wogg 54" a truly beautiful small desk, as elegant as the workmanship is perfect, created to supplement the "Wogg 52" shelving system. And the latter can now be had with a new black lacquered steel frame, that enables the individual elements not only to be combined, but gives the set more lightness of touch and height. At Lehni there's "Flex", a fabulous brand new aluminum table by Hanspeter Weidmann, into the surface of which, flush with the frame, you can set a thin top made of linoleum, artificial resin, wood, or Eternit.
The non-Swiss members of the "Pure Village", such as Thonet or e15, would have been better off on one of more expansive stands in Hall 11 – instead of pressed into the furniture village, which also houses the [D³] Young Talents. Thonet is fielding "Pure Materials", new versions of the Marcel Breuer cantilever based chair with eco-friendly tanned leather upholstery and untreated armrests along with side tables treated similarly; e15 has new small side tables with a powder-coated metal foot and a marble top on offer. However heterogeneous the "Village" still is, in the one or other cube you can still discover real gems, such as the astonishingly flexible and diverse shelf system by the small Italian label "Extendo".
Not to forget: "The House" by Doshi Levien on the village square. It is a hybrid collage, is definitely multicultural, and in its different living zones there's a joyful admixture of furniture by the Indo-British designer duo are on show along with old and young furniture classics by international makers and any amount of colorful accessories. Let's leave the zeitgeist to its pleasures. After all, what Friedrich Schiller once said of the artist in his justly famous letters on the "aesthetic education of mankind" counts mutatis mutandis for the designer, too: he is "admittedly the son of his age, but bad luck for him if he was also its offshoot or even favored by it." Which brings us back to education.