ICFF: 20 Years and Counting

On this notable anniversary, we look back at the making of the fair.

A plate-glass chaise longue from England. A totemic media tower from the United States. A metal butterfly bench from Italy. We saw these, among lots of other equally personal and idiosyncratic work, when the first International Contemporary Furniture Fair opened at New York’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in May 1989. Inside the cavernous, artificially lit exhibit hall, the aisles buzzed with youthful energy. Everyone said that a new age was about to dawn.

The exhibitors who unpacked their unusual wares at the Javits represented an adventurous generation of designers and crafts­people, heirs to a revolution in furniture design that had started decades before. In the second half of the twentieth century, movements such as studio furniture, postmodernism, and Memphis fed our collective imagination with creative possibilities. They also challenged how furniture design was practiced and presented memorable alternatives as to what it could be.

By the late 1980s, the American studio-furniture movement was in its fifth decade, with iconic work by George Nakashima, Sam Maloof, and Wendell Castle accenting our visual horizons. Their followers—among them Wendy Maruyama, Forrest Myers, and Rosanne Somerson—were exhibiting in galleries, while sculptors like Donald Judd and Scott Burton made furniture forms that ended up in museums. Formerly drawn to the plastic arts, collectors now bought one-off furniture pieces at art-world prices. Furn­iture departments at design and art schools, by this time well established, produced craftspeople with poise and cultural connections. Young architects, looking for instant gratification, followed the tradition of Modern hero Charles Eames in setting up multidisciplinary studios.

This new generation also benefited from the enlightened legislation passed in the 1970s, during the Nixon years. On top of signing prescient bills to protect the environment (the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts), the administration allocated funds to the National Endowment for the Arts in an effort to encourage popular expressions, including furniture-making.

In addition to these cultural and political milestones, there was a growing dissatisfaction among designers everywhere with Modern­ism’s aesthetic and formal limitations, an uneasy feeling that creativity and self-expression had been sacrificed on the altar of minimalism. And in the United States there was a frustrating lack of interest from furniture manufacturers in young talent; in fact, many fledgling designers trekked to Italy in hopes of catching the eyes of more receptive companies there.

So it is not surprising that the alternatives offered by Robert Venturi, in America, and Ettore Sottsass, in Italy, were embraced wholeheartedly. Both architects pushed for new artistic freedoms that included pattern and decoration, historic references (even those of dubious origin), and expressive forms and materials. In the late 1970s, Sottsass, a seasoned designer of Modernist office furniture and other rational products, helped lead a youthful group of architects in founding Memphis. With their industrial collaborators—Italian manufacturers, known to be enthusiastic supporters of design experimentation—this international group presented small runs of breakthrough designs at the Milan furniture fair. Their wild work, a revelation to eyes grown tired of abstraction, geometry, and restraint, sent a message of inclusion and daring reverberating around the world, broadcast by a press hungry for photogenic forms. Those who followed Memphis thought nothing of combining precious and common materials or building shelving that looked as if it would fly away, chairs that seemed ready to topple, and lamps that might have landed in an aviary.

And so it seemed to us that culture, politics, and design came together on that May morning in 1989 at the new fair. What was also apparent then, and what came to define ICFF, was the entrepreneurial spirit of the exhibitors. Many worked in small studios, garages, or cooperative spaces to produce their one-off personal statements. Most had no business plan and no idea where their enthusiasm, talent, and creativity would take them.

However, some did—like Dakota Jackson, who exhibited the following year. This former magician, who became a designer to rock stars, dancers, and other celebrities, started as an art-furniture–maker. But early on he declared his intention of becoming an “industrialist,” at a time when mass production was held firmly in the hands of a few large manufacturers. By 1993, when the first ICFF Editors Awards were given, Jack­son was recognized for his body of work; later he was among the first independent American furniture-makers to acquire a CNC cutter, thus bringing his factory into the computer age.

The ICFF exhibitor also became a bellwether for economic and social movements. For instance, by 1994, when the late-twentieth-century version of the environmental movement was gaining some traction, exhibitors explored recycling, green design, natural materials, and ergonomics. They showed hand-rubbed finishes rather than sprays; knockdown furniture for flat-pack shipping to save on energy and materials; chairs and tables made of native woods; surfaces woven with sea grass; papers made with pressed beans and nuts; and rugs of abaca, sisal, coir, and raffia.

Also by this time, many of NASA’s space-age materials had been de-classified, and “technology transfer” became the buzz phrase of the moment. Ultra-tough ceramics, used in molten-metal processing, captured the imagination of Harry Allen, who carved large industrial sponges of it into delicate lamps, a process that reminded us of other turning points in design history that were defined by bentwood, latex foam, and chrome. Once again, new ma-t­e­r­ials helped foster a new creativity and the optimism that comes with it.

The federal government, under another Republican administration, then enacted legislation that would change the way we thought about the designed environment: the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, an exercise in civil rights, probed the possibilities for creating cities, rooms and their furnishings, and other objects that would support people with physical impairments. And so ergonomics—born from the need to fit WWII soldiers with their war machines and grown popular with office furniture—was now considered important to home design. The new law gave us reason to embrace ergonomics, while the socioeconomic trend of working at home necessitated a new type of residential furniture. Small-scale desks, like Stephen Barlow-Lawson’s 1994 prototype with adjustable heights, signaled the presence of body-supporting, house-friendly work furniture at the fair.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, much-maligned minimalism and the more popular organic Modernism started to reemerge, and an increasing number of new designs were looking strangely like sons and daughters of Eames. In fact, the spirit of Eames has hovered over the fair well into the twenty-first century. Some midcentury Modernists, such as George Nelson and Hans Wegner, were able to come back only through their furniture, but others appeared in person. Vladimir Kagan continued to be as intrigued by organic forms in 1997 as he’d been decades before, when he was a well-known supplier to interior designers. In 2001 Eero Aarnio reintroduced the smooth, orblike pieces that had shown off the virtuosity of molding technologies of the 1960s. And Erwin Hauer updated his mysteriously woven walls, which he hand-chiseled from stone in the 1970s, with computer-aided manufacturing in 2006. These memorable pieces formed a strong formal and aesthetic relationship with the work of such internationally recognized late-twentieth-century designers as Philippe Starck, Ross Lovegrove, and Ingo Maurer, together making ICFF a rewarding source for furnishings that defined contemporary times.

Though the world-renowned Italian furniture industry had been represented at ICFF in previous years by leading firms like Kartell, an impressively large group arrived in 2000. Deter­mined to call special attention to their companies, the Italians surrounded their sleek wares with large white scrim partitions and served pasta lunches in high-tech kitchens. Their dramatic arrival in the United States was well timed: by the turn of the century, brand names like Boffi, Flou, and Flos were known to Americans who regularly visited their showrooms in chic areas of Miami, New York, and Los Angeles.

Not to be left out of the international dialogue of furniture design, which ICFF helped foster, other national groups made impressive appearances at the New York show. Denmark, Spain, and the Philippines were among those showing off their manufacturing know-how, form-making talents, and craft skills. The strong design culture of each of these nations raised the overall quality of the furniture exhibited. Craft in this context took on a different role from what we saw in the early years. No longer the willful self-expressions of in-dividual artists, architects, and artisans, objects were now being designed in the West and made by indigenous craftspeople elsewhere. Patty John­son, for one, traveled from her home in Can­ada to Botswana and Guyana to make her collections, ben­efiting from the artisanship of those African communities while introducing them to a receptive global market.

Today the fair is a lively New York event that reaches out from the Javits and into the city’s dis­tinctive neighborhoods, each with a unique mix of restaurants, showrooms, galleries, hotels, shops, and other points of interest. Design in the early twenty-first century knows no boundaries. It can occupy glittering midtown showrooms, high-style storefronts in cast-iron Soho, and cavernous galleries in the Meatpacking District. And for four days in May, ICFF is at the center of it all.

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