The International Contemperary Furniture Fair (ICFF) is coming around in May. Last year I went with product designer Laura Handler, whose Montana home we posted some time ago. We raced through the overwhelming maze of displays from established designers, manufacturers and companies featuring “cutting-edge” furniture, lighting and fixtures. We’d seen much of the offerings featured on design blogs and were …mostly….disappointed. Up-close-and-personal, they lost the iconic stature that professional photography seemed to lend them,

and too often looked overglossed and somewhat cheap-looking. The most stunning example was Artek‘s fabrications of the wonderful designs of mid-century Finnish designers Alvar Aalto (one of the company’s founders in the 1930’s) and Ilmari Tapiovaara. They were pale imitations of the originals that we’ve admired for years, especially the famous Aalto three-legged stool we love so much. Somehow, in the 80+ years since Aalto helped create Artek, his stool has been “developed” to have a slick, strangely plastic-looking patina —perhaps from the material they use to seal bent plywood—a far cry from the originals.

We’ve noticed that with a lot of licensed designs (most notably those at Design Within Reach), the final product is quite different from the original, due to manufacturing issues and costs.  (The proportion and feel of the licenced Cherner “ant” chairs look and feel very different from the originals we’ve picked up at flea markets. They are much clunkier and don’t flex the way the originals do.) Since you can occasionally pick up the real thing in second-hand stores for the price of a new one, we’d go that route, unless we were SURE the new version was swell.

We like Creative Director Niels Strøyer Christophersen’s very good advice about buying furniture, that we read recently at Kinfolk

He’s discovered that slowly gathering your favorite pieces over time is essential to interior decorating. ‘Try to see it as a process: It’s all right to wait for the right object to come instead of going to a warehouse and buying all of your furniture. Create a nice little museum of beautiful memories.’


There were some exceptions to the overly slick products at the furniture show, like Molo Design’s Softwall, an expandable paper screen that can take endless shapes, or stand on its own as a straight wall. Originally produced in brown kraft paper and high-tech fabric in black or white, Molo’s newest iteration is in a saturated cobalt-ish blue that they call ‘indigo’, and Laura Handler calls “Yves Klein blue“.

indigo soft wall

A blue or white softwall would be a worthwhile (though pricey) investment if you wanted a mutable, storable way to define or separate a space: a popup guest room, for example.

molo softwall

Even though I wasn’t crazy about much of what I saw at ICFF, I’m glad I went for the two BIG takeaways from our adventure there:

Before you buy, try to check out the real thing in person. Photographs often don’t show the reality. Stuff looks different in person. If it’s a chair, sit in it; if it’s a faucet, work its handle, see how comfortable it is to use; if its wood, does it still look like wood, or is it wood so sealed with polyeurathane that it looks like formica (often the case these days), in which case, why buy it?

For me, the most exciting design was not from main stream designers but was to be found at an adjacent satellite pavilion, sponsored by Core77, featuring the work of young designers and design school students. That post to come. The lesson: it’s always a good idea to look beyond the obvious, even as Niels Strøyer Christophersen points out, you have to wait.

ICFF screenshot 1


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2 replies on “Unexpected Lessons of High Design Furniture Shows + Showrooms

  1. I don’t understand, weren’t Artek the original and always manufacturers of the stool 60, and wasn’t Aalto one of the founders of the company?

  2. You are completely right. I should have made it clear in the post and will do that. Aalto was one of the founders in 1935, and the stools have a modern gloss very different from the originals. There seems to be some sort of sealing that a lot of manufacturers are applying to bent plywood that gives them a plastic quality, which the NEW Aalto stools have. A pity.

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