Which Way Design?

The headlong pursuit of individual design statements made for some splashy displays, none more flamboyant than Philippe Starck's gold-plated gun-shaped lamps for Flos. Predictably, there was outrage along with the chuckles, as viewers debated whether the collection, "Guns," with pale graveyard crosses drawn on its shades, was antiwar décor suitable for the living room, collectible art or publicity stunt.

Of course Mr. Starck wasn't alone in offering razzle-dazzle in place of substance. At Moooi, Marcel Wanders, the Dutch designer, had his girlfriend, a choreographer, swing by her legs in a white bikini from his Living Chandelier. Chances are that not a few viewers were too distracted to notice the collection of wallpaper-embossed metal bureaus and sheep's-wool couches.

Such stunts tended to obscure quieter design achievements, such as Kris Ruhs's lacquer-finished three-legged stools for Cappellini and Jean Nouvel's aluminum table with flush wood surface at Unifor. But if Mr. Starck's guns smacked of gimmickry, there were also more earnest efforts to address anxiety and fear.

In a small exhibit at the Paul Smith showroom sponsored by the Design Museum of London, Matthias Megyeri, a 2003 graduate of the Royal College of Art, took on matters of safety and design. His lace curtain woven to look like a security fence would probably fool any burglar at a distance, while a formidable cast iron fence bore spikes with cast aluminum cartoon heads. "People have a huge desire for cuteness in their lives -- thus the smiley face -- but there is also this immense paranoia and fear of terrorism," said Mr. Megyeri, 31.

Since appearing on the Internet at his Web site (www.sweetdreamssecurity.com), his fencing has attracted attention from, among many others, homeowners in Pakistan and fashion shops in Tokyo. Mr. Megyeri's designs -- he calls them "placebo products" -- were snatched up by Paola Antonelli, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, for a show on "emergency design."

Apart from bravura design statements, plenty of serious rethinking of home design was in evidence, especially in a new collection by Vitra, long associated with such designers as Charles and Ray Eames and George Nelson, who understood that true innovation need not shout for attention. Last year, after a long detour into office design, Vitra returned with a home collection that now includes new work by Frank Gehry (a paper cloud lamp) and Herzog & deMeuron (an African-inspired stool), as well as such younger talents as the Bouroullec brothers, Werner Aisslinger and Hella Jongerius.

Focusing on technology, Vitra had over the years retreated from the home front, said Rolf Fehlbaum, its chairman. "But now that technology and work and leisure are all fusing together,"' he said, "the home has become a more interesting and active place again."

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Some of the strongest work on display melded technology in invisible ways with appealing soft-edged form and often a sense of craftsmanship. Many of these designs were by women, whose influence even in the challenging realm of high-tech plastics has grown steadily in recent years. The Milan fair -- and design in general -- has always been dominated by men. "Design is a macho field," said Patrizia Moroso of Moroso, who is a daughter of the company founders. "And so women have to work that much harder to make a difference. Their work is often more surprising, in more subtle ways."

She might have been speaking of the Aqua Table by Zaha Hadid, who last year became the first woman to earn a Pritzker architecture prize. Manufactured by Established & Sons, a new company dedicated to British design and local production, the conference-size all-white table looked both molten and tough, with legs that seemed to ooze like droplets. Made of fiberglass, it was entirely molded and sculptured by computer. An optional gel mat turns the surface irresistibly tactile.

Ms. Moroso could just as easily have been speaking of Patricia Urquiola, a Spanish designer who lives in Milan and has emerged as a powerhouse designer with Moroso and B&B. Her T-Table for Kartell has a one-inch slab of polycarbonate, either crystal clear or shiny black; it is ornately carved, casting a fantastical pattern on the floor. "I was thinking about fossils or even Baccarat," Ms. Urquiola said. (The T-Table, in four sizes and four heights, will cost $400 or $500 for the smallest to $1,200 for the dining table; www.kartell.com)

Hella Jongerius, the Dutch designer, works with technology in subtler ways. Equally adept at harnessing new methods and manipulating experimental materials, as in her squishy rubber sink for Droog some years ago, she is at her best when transforming everyday essentials by making their debt to craftsmanship visible.

For the Dutch porcelain maker Royal Tichelaar Makkum (www.tichelaar.nl), she made a series of majolica plates, partly stone-glazed and partly painted to reveal that they were hand-dipped. At Vitra she presented a sofa with tufted buttons sewn on irregularly as if by someone's granny in a big rush.

"I hate sofas," Ms. Jongerius said. "They are so expensive. You have to be careful what you buy, because you're going to have it for a long time. That's why everyone gets the exact same thing. They are afraid to make too much of a statement. But why shouldn't sofas have a little character?" Her sofa is made in five shades of green, with one arm wide enough to perch on and each feather-filled cushion a slightly different size.

As designers and architects tried many roads to good design this year, one thing seemed clear: the best new furniture has a sense of technology as well as of craft; a suggestion of ornament, but not at the expense of modesty; a grasp of function; and a whiff of surprise. In the meantime beware the gold-plated gun lamp and other fleeting blinks of the eye.

But New Yorkers don't have to go to Milan. This year for the first time a traveling version of I Saloni, featuring 60 of the most recognizable names in Italian manufacturing, will be exhibiting the latest wares on Piers 90 and 92 from May 14 through 17, to coincide with the International Contemporary Furniture Fair at the Javits Convention Center (www.isaloniworldwide.com).

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Source : http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/21/garden/which-way-design.html

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