Only history is rich! – or so one might be prompted to exclaim now and again in this day and age of fools so hell-bent on being contemporary that they’ve forgotten such a thing as history even exists. And it almost seems as though suddenly someone has heard the call. At any rate, one of the surprises at a reinvigorated imm Cologne is that this year many furniture designers and manufacturers have remembered just how rich design history is. Optimizing and improving topped the agenda, often with a light touch, a sense of ease, and without being dogmatic.
Now it is not as though redesign rules rampant. By no means. In many instances, something familiar from the past has been subtly modernized, that is, circumspectly adjusted to meet today’s functional and aesthetic needs. Which means nothing less than proven typologies and approaches are returning to greet us, having been overseen in recent years owing to the at times exaggerated euphoria for the new.
Certainly, much that has proven its worth never actually disappeared. So-called “design classics” have always been cherished, from Eames to Panton and from Eileen Gray to Hans J. Wegner. What is now happening is, however, signally different: the classics in the sense of constant quality, of timeless pieces is not returning in the guise of some past saint on high, but as a remix or as a systematic concept, measuredly transformed into current design, a trend possibly fostered by the success of a secondary market that thrives on “vintage”. Copies are rarely involved. The re-engineered revivals of today are different. They make use of new materials, rely on new technologies, and even when it comes to aesthetics they differ from their predecessors down to the smallest detail. Striking elements are reworked, time-proven items transformed, and in this way continued. There is no mystification of the past here, let alone any irony toward or travesty of the general trend to live in splendid feelgood isolation.
That said, the spirit of a different, more constant age persists in many things – in a manner that refers as much to the present as it does to the past. Think of a Porsche 911 and the way it has metamorphosed down through the decades and you will immediately understand what I mean.
At the latest by Milan’s Salone del Mobile, where the greatest number of novelties are displayed, we will see whether this tendency has gained sway or we have simply deluded ourselves. What is for sure: the revivals and pastiches of 2013 have little in common with the reliance on historical shapes in the sense of what was once called Postmodernism. Mannerisms tend to be the exception rather than the norm. Many of these new designs have confidently drawn on different epochs, taking up ideas, patterns and solutions of the 1940s and 1950s as they do those of the 1970s. Or should we somewhat more critically say that furniture design is becoming more “bourgeois” again, more strongly aligned to users’ needs and less experimental?
Renovating the past
Let us study a few examples. Such as Flötotto, who show the past can successfully be brought into the present: Werner Aisslinger takes the good, old tried-and-true profile system of the 1970s and in the form of ADD (yes, that’s what the name means) has it re-emerge fresh and boasting ingenious details, such as side sections that are fixed by push-buttons. Moreover, the new system also features a newly-developed connecting element, leaner profiles and new colors, while still remaining faithful to the original idea. As yet, only prototypes are to be seen. But we can look forward with bated breath to what comes out the other end. Indeed, even if not everyone may have noticed, furniture systems are becoming ever more flexible, and that includes the sofa islands that paradoxically are nevertheless becoming ever more expansive.
In the case of Richard Lampert, it’s the “Eiermann Shelves”, originally created in 1932 for the Berlin “Das wachsende Haus” show, that are now subject to modernization. Because the shelf has to be fastened to the wall or ceiling, Alexander Seifried has reengineered the archetype as a single piece of furniture – sadly not in an utterly convincing way, as while the basic principle has been upheld the charm of shelves slotted into two chromed metal rods has been forfeited. Seifried has done a better job of drawing the past into the present with “Little and Big Tom”, a stool and a bar stool. Three upholstered cushions are positioned like three colorful splashes on a tubular-steel frame and exude a strong 1950s feel, inspired by Herbert Hirche’s “H 57” armchair (noticeably a 1957 product), with the smaller version functioning as an Ottoman.
e15 is among other things expanding the collection it dedicated to German architect and designer Ferdinand Kramer, who died in 1985 – on the occasion of his 115th birthday. Kramer was very influential in the design of the New Frankfurt. The existing FK 06 and FK 07 tables are now joined by other Ferdinand Kramer designs: the “Karnak” chair and “Aswan” (FK 02) stool, the “Calvert” (FK 04) and “Charlotte” (FK05) couch sidetables as well as the “Theban” daybed (FK 01) dating from 1925 and consisting of interwoven leather bands inserted into a wooden frame. While the “Senckenberg” (FK 11) chaise longue, the “Westhausen” (FK 9) sofa and the “Weissenhof” (FK 10) armchair are classic re-editions, they likewise prove the vibrancy of the spirit of change still wafting from Modernism and its various subcategories into the present. e15 is also expanding its range of steel-and-marble side tables to include a dining table and has created a stacking side table called “Fortyforty” – an open cube that, hardly surprisingly, has side that measure 40 centimeters. Not only is it available in different colors, it is also available with extension panels made of steel, marble or wood. Furniture in a Modernist spirit that is as plain as it is striking and elegant, now that has always been e15’s secret recipe for success.
Rolf Heide actually took the job to modernize his stacking recliner made in 1966 for müller möbelwerkstätten into his own hands and used the principle in question to create a slender sun lounger called “Solaris”. Anyone preferring the original chic of the 1960s and 1970s can drop by Verpan for some eye candy: glittering luminaires, mirror elements, sofas and even the “Panto Pop Chair” by Verner Panton – leading one to ask when someone is going to tackle the Pop era and playfully use the shapes and colors of that age to create something new. In terms of colors, which are now all leaning less toward tender pastel tones and are proving more “strongly expressive” instead, the path seems to be leading via grass green and sunflower yellow back to that old, and yet new, sense of freshness. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the legendary aesthetics of America’s Pan Am airline are now making a comeback, albeit unfortunately only in the guise of the profane aluminum serving trolleys? Under the slogan: “Where the Jet Set started.”
Mommy’s tummy and carpet dripping
In the meantime you may be a little taken aback to read on the wall of a booth: “Living as in mommy’s belly”. Evidently, the children’s room is construed as an extension of the womb, as the personal surrounds and closeted confines of something somewhat lacking in independence. At the next corner what catches the eye is that carpets are ever more clearly becoming “images”. Meaning it’s doubtful whether anyone will even want to lay them on floors. The differences are meanwhile incredible. The spectrum ranges from high-end knotted wares through to tufted home comfort, from lily-pond colors through to trivialized paintings. Where carpet magician Jan Kath pimps his themes with motifs from folklore or has patterns frazzle out into traces of color at the edges, others such as Vartian take the plunge into painting completely, taking Abstract Expressionism and Action Painting on board along the way. Jackson Pollock, who produced his “drippings” on the floor of his studio, would definitely not have liked these over-eager grids of color.
But back to the furniture. If we take things without a pinch of salt, then there are two extraordinary innovations to be seen in Cologne. One contributed by Konstantin Grcic, the other by the Bouroullec Brothers – who were just named “Designers of the Year” by German design journal “A&W”.
Konstantin Grcic’s Barcelona Pastiche
Once again it is Konstantin Grcic leading the way with something as surprising as it is impressive. There’s no other way of putting it: we all know that Grcic is a master of his field; but that he is also superbly versed in how to go about creating a wonderful pastiche is a veritable sensation. Because what he has thought up here (and it’s no real coincidence that the idea was dreamed up for “bd Barcelona”) is just as utterly persuasive as a product as it is as a concept playfully squaring up to the past, not without a streak of irony. To be more exact: it nods to Mies van der Rohe’s “Barcelona Chair”, devised for the German pavilion at the 1929 World Expo in Barcelona to serve as seating for the Spanish King and Queen at the building’s opening ceremony.
In literature, film, music, or architecture for that matter, a pastiche (the word derives from the Italian “pasticcio”, meaning a pie) is an artistic work that refers overtly to a piece by a preceding artist and more or less imitates it in the process. What is easily forgotten in times when everything gets copied: The form of imitation often shows in what high esteem the prior artist is held and thus hinges on an homage. Even where the whole thing starts to become satirical or a parody, reverence is still paid to the forbearer.
There can definitely be no talk of satire here. With his “Bench B” as part of the “Extrusions” collection Grcic has created an homage that is as masterful as it is devil-may-care, dusting down Mies’ armchair and taking it further. What he has kept are the curved and intersecting lines of the frame, which immediately and manifestly bring the original to mind. Like the entire bench they are now made of aluminum, which gives the piece as a whole a completely different character. Be it an armchair or a bench that can be up to six meters long, be it in bare polished aluminum or upholstered, Grcic’s Barcelona bench is an ingeniously simple product and also a lot of elegant fun.
Grcic recounts that in the park of the Villa Massimo in Rome he spied park benches made of band steel, that had been painted green and were very comfortable. He has now taken the same shape and principle, adapted it, and hot-wired it with the Barcelona Chair. Or, to put it differently, Bench B is a hybrid of the furniture seen in a Bavarian beer garden and a high-end lounge chair, an admixture of simple garden bench and a famous piece of furniture, meaning, yes, a blend of past and present. And, as is often the case with Grcic, it is suitable for both indoor and outdoor use, with or without armrests, is well thought through and realized with ultimate precision. There’s a small stoneware bench to go with it, an ideal, heavily solid supplement to the Barcelona pastiche, which is so light and so utterly contemporary in feel.
Grcic proves once again that design is not just there to continuously invent the new, but to advance existing things. And he manages this with as Marcel Duchamp would have called it, a shot of “meta-irony”, meaning irony “on something” as in when something is a variation “on” a theme.
Curtains up – with the Bouroullecs
The second highlight is something brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec dreamed up for Kvadrat. It’s called “Ready Made Curtain” and is as simple as it is entrancing. In fact, it is such a synch that you might easily ask why no one thought of it before. The principle has been known for ages. But it was the Bouroullecs who thought it through and optimized it. Once upon a time, a piece of thread or a steel wire was taken, mounted on two hooks above a window, rings were clipped to an old sheet, and, hey presto, you had a cheap curtain. Albeit not a particularly convincing one in terms of the aesthetics.
With the “Ready Made Curtain” the Bouroullecs’ have once again proved their love for the principle of “bricollage”, along with their sure feel for materials and simplicity. For the suspension system they have chosen wood, while the long slender clips are made of plastic, dyed in various colors. Furthermore, it can be bought as an all-in set that can easily be carried home and even includes a range of high-grade fabrics. They only thing they could perhaps work on would be the price, which, if the product becomes the intended success, should hardly be impossible
Learning to lie
No, not only are recamières (French simply sounds better) and daybeds in vogue again, sofas are expanding and extending too, seats are made to fold over and swivel until you are lying half-ways or completely flat. “Learning to lie” is the new trend, and not just any old lying, but on solid at times very refined seating islands and sofa systems. Perhaps it’s because of the big flat screens we watch intently until our eyelids droop?
For example, Walter Knoll sets the pace with “Yuuto” by EOOS, showing what a contemporary sofa group can look like and how it should be made. The upholstered cushions (each an item in its own right) seem to float on the upholstered base-frame, that even extends to rests and tables. If needed, “Oki” side tables can be slotted on the front or back between the backrests.
And even if you can’t lie on but only sit at the dining table, another Knoll novelty is “Kyo”, revisiting the 1970s PearsonLloyd scooped armchair, taking us back to the idea of “pasting the past into the present”, which can likewise be applied to “Liz”, Claudio Bellini’s upholstered chair.
At many booths, such as Poliform or Di Padova, you soon see that the seating groups are also taking up ever more space, rounded out by upholstered squares or rectangles without backrests. Here, too, the small armchair seems to be back in vogue as an add-on, be it in fabric or leather. It’s just the apartments that are rarely large enough to take it all in. Wittmann has at any rate remained faithful to the traditional seating group – with “Amber” and “Joyce”. And at Ligne Roset, which customarily fields a whole host of new products in Cologne, the focus this year is on two new lounge chairs, a version of “Togo” expanded into a recamière and “Nils”, a sofa made of rectangular upholstery blocks reduced to the essentials.
And before I forget: the opening evening (officially termed “Cologne Design Night 2013”) was somewhat submerged by the drone of many voices in the entrance hall to the Rautenstrauch Joest Museum, owing to the lack of any acoustic dampening. Although various prizes were being bestowed, Best of Best for the Interior Innovation Award, the D3 Contest, the A&W Designers of the Year, and the Audi Mentor Award, no one has been able to tell me who other than the Bouroullecs won what. And, last but not least, Luca Nichetto put a lot of effort into his version of “The House” in the mist of the slightly confusing Pure Village. Nevertheless, it was still too hard to discern the respective concept, because it had became cluttered up by too many furniture items from certain makers. Which is why, not only the past but also the future will bring much-needed clarity.