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There must be something about spring in the northern hemisphere that brings the best out of the design world. Just one month after Milan, Manhattan opened its doors to North Americas biggest design event the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF). ICFF is held annually in May at the heart of New York City since its inception in 1989. It attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors and exhibitors from across the globe. And while it still remains in the cast shadow of the worlds premier design event il Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan there are key differences that set them apart in many ways.
Where Milans Salone is the global runway for new ideas, ICFF is often where smaller international designers and established companies (who have already launched in Milan) can connect with the US retailers and try to break into a larger and equally significant market. But while there are hundreds of international exhibitors at the ICFF, the fairs real strength lies in its ability to attract exciting young local designers due to its affordability. Hence, the ICFF has become a vehicle for emerging designers in the worlds largest economy to showcase their work to architects, retailers and global media alike. These young companies often cant afford to launch their products at Salone and most certainly cant compete with the savvy marketing campaigns of designer brands in Milan, which have been known to run into the millions of dollars each year (just to launch the new). Presenting at ICFF is an achievable goal and hence it has become the best place to discover the contemporary US design sensibility and uncover the young American design spirit.
What is exciting about the current US design mentality is that it demonstrates how the full force of the worlds most extreme economic shift has affected the world of design. Theres a sense of understanding and reactionary thought in this case.
From the work that was presented at ICFF it seems that US designers have learnt from their culture of consumerism and credit-driven need for new objects that ultimately plummeted the world into crisis back in 2008. Their reaction to this event is now seen in the philosophy of an emerging group of American designers and craftspeople. What is interesting about this is that the American design mindset seems to be diametrically opposed to the European sensibility displayed in Milan. As Stefano Tonchi observed after visiting the 2011 Milan fair, the design world has become, for better or worse, part of the fashion world collections of furniture objects and lighting now change with the rhythms of the seasons we replace them with almost the same frequency and enthusiasm with which we swap our winter wardrobes for the spring.
The macro trends coming out of the ICFF from US designers couldnt be further from the culture of the new that was seen in Milan. ICFF saw strong themes towards carefully crafted bespoke pieces, designed to last a lifetime. For those designers struggling with the oxymoron of their new beliefs in an anti-consumer culture, whilst remaining a creator of consumer objects, the solution has come via the design of thoughtful, quality items that arent disposable after one season. As US designers Rich Brilliant Willing articulated, the first question we ask before we design something is: do people really need this new thing?
Many of the objects and furniture at the fair were also made from natural materials sourced locally and used small-scale production methods, with designers having no interest in up-scaling to CNC routing and Chinese factories. As they see it, working locally means not only greater control, shorter lead times and superior economic gains, but also a contribution to the rebuilding of their own economy. These designers may have had no control over what the banks or the government did economically, but they felt power through supporting their own community. The economic downturn, it seems, has inspired the return of the American craftsman and with it a sense of utility, skill and a pluralist attitude where all voices are relevant.
This movement towards a local economy has also created a sustainable social economy, through the ties made through communication and good relationships between designers and local suppliers and factories. This positive network of support is central to the survival of small creative businesses and is also what makes the ICFF such an important event on the US designers calendar. This is why, even despite the prohibitive costs of presenting in Milan, many young designers arent interested in presenting there at all. They are, however, present at ICFF to connect with a local community of like-minded creatives. These designers also understand that the European market is oversaturated with seasonal objects, and that perhaps a more thoughtful, quieter object is more likely to get lost in the fray.
But lets not get carried away here, ICFF is still super-sized in a way that only the Americans know how. Its held in the huge Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, and with its hundreds of thousands of designer objects on display the fair is a sensory overload to the extreme.
This wasnt always the case though. Two years ago, in the midst of the economic crash, the fair was half its size. A great wall was erected down the middle of the huge space in an attempt hide the fact that the economic meltdown had seen international support from the design community all but vanish. However in 2011, in a sense of renewed faith, the fair was (almost) full again, with big names such as Marcel Wanders and Tom Dixon returning. Energy was high and buyers had returned. Satellite shows popped up all over Manhattan, and like all good designer events, parties abounded. This incredible bounce-back is due in most part to a reviving US combination of nationalistic spirit and a sense of undying hope. As Machiavelli once declared, never waste the opportunities offered by a good crisis. The American craftsman has returned and serves as a good example for us all.
 W Magazine, May 2011
Sian Pascale graduated from her Masters of Architecture at the University of Melbourne in 2008, specialising in sustainable prefabricated buildings. She headed to New York to uncover the mystery behind why she had never heard of the second biggest furniture fair in the world and to be inspired (and exhausted) by the city that never sleeps. She is currently working for Foolscap Studio, writing about design that inspires her and crafting for her blog.