Breaking Away

Young designers bring derring-do into a marketplace starved for fresh ideas.

Some 30 young designers crowded around as the presentations kicked off. Elisa Strozyk was in the spotlight, describing the carpet she crafted from delicate geometric wood shavings. Around us, interested but tense faces anticipated their own rapid-fire presentations. These designers were working hard to convince the judges (I was one of five) that their prototype should get top recognition and a cash prize.

We were inside one of the sprawling exhibition halls at the IMM Cologne fair on a snowy January day ahead of the show’s opening, listening to English laced with German, French, Dutch, Swedish, and British accents. The gathered designers were either recent grads or in practice for three years or less, and were culled from nearly 650 entries from all over the world.

I was most attracted to work that showed the enthusiasm, the creative daring, and, yes, that tinge of craziness only young designers can bring. This is their moment of fearlessness, before they’re dragged into the realities of a middlebrow marketplace. I was looking for imaginations running wild, searching for innovation in our innovation-starved times: a new way of looking at a material, a novel use for a familiar technology, a provocative form. A sense of humor, a facility for self-expression, and a lively personality were also helpful.

These skills came in handy at the show, where designers spent market week networking, as guests of the Cologne fair’s organizers. I’m hoping that Strozyk convinced a manufacturer to use laser cutting and computer fabrication to make those gossamer wood rugs that, when bunched, have the presence of sculptures. That an adventurous firm found Pepe Heykoop’s captivating story of how he was inspired by James Gulliver Hancock’s drawings of real and imaginary chairs, and used children’s building blocks to build both a seat and a chandelier onto a stable frame. And I expect that a lighting manufacturer was as intrigued as the judges were by Rémi Bouhaniche’s sensuous lamp, made with a stretch fabric that changes its shape when the slim metal rod is pulled to adjust the light’s intensity. The fair gave these designers exposure, access, and time to connect to their future—and ours. I think they did.

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