ICFF – Is ‘Blah’ a Trend? Or a Trait?

09-icff-logoMay 16th saw the opening of ICFF 2009, the International Contemporary Furniture Fair held in New York City every year.  And unfortunately, as has been typical for the ICFF, it failed to impress.  Or, really, even hold a candle to Milan’s Salone Internationale del Mobile held in April.  The Salone is the benchmark.  The mother of all furniture fairs.  A huge event that takes over Milan with, not only the fair itself, but hundreds of related exhibits and events around the city.  Furniture companies launch new collections at Salone.  Big names like B&B Italia, Kartell, Porro and Moroso spend lots of money and build big, flashy show stands.  Major name designers are trotted out and feted for the press.  Unknown designers are discovered at Salone.  New companies launch at Salone.  The ICFF… is a different story.

As the ICFF is only three weeks after Salone, many people that attended the Milan fair don’t bother going to New York.  And those that do can’t help but compare it to what they saw in Italy.  And what does the ICFF have to offer by comparison?  Not much.  Held on the lower level of the Javitz Center, one cannot help but notice that the Stationary Show on the main level is twice as big, with its roving packs of middle-aged women dropping the building’s overall ‘hipness’ quotient precipitously.  Not only is the overall fair small but the big name design companies have booths that are not much bigger than your parents two car garage.  And why would they do any different really, after having blown the budget on pyrotechnics and parties a month ago in Milan?  Not to mention that the thoughtful, new, modern design, recklessly mixed with a frightening amount of Crate & Barrel-ish flotsam and jetsam steadily de-motivates the fair go-er to turn the corner and walk down the next aisle.   And the biggest bummer, by far, is how the ICFF treats the students and young designers.  The Milan Fair’s ‘Salone Satellite’, a full pavilion dedicated to design students and young designers ‘chasing the dream’, is by far one of the highlights of the entire Salone.  The enthusiasm and energy evident in the design work and in the atmosphere of the Satellite pavilion itself is contagious.  The ICFF, on the other hand, had sequestered a handful of young designers to a few feet of under lit table space at the back of the hall.  The lineup felt like an afterthought on the part of the organizers. 

The outside exhibits and events around town are, while in general more energetic than what is in the Fair, still not anything to miss your boxing class for.  This may have something to do with the problem Americans seem to have compartmentalizing design professions.  But that is a topic for another post.  And it still seems that a pile of repurposed shipping crates is considered interesting.  Now there is a design shortcut with some legs.

I could go on but I won’t.  In the 13 or so years that I have been attending ICFF I have seen very little growth.  Maybe even some shrinkage actually.  It seems ICFF has not learned any lessons on how to foster excitement and attract crowds.  Salone has grown.  It has even relocated into a huge gleaming new fair grounds.  London’s 100% Design has grown.  It is not only housed in the Earl’s Court convention space but now also has branched out to a large complex of young designer and art exhibits centered around the East End’s Truman Brewery on Brick Lane.  And, of course, the pinnacle of all growth stories, Art Basel Miami has gone from 0 to 60 in a few short years and is now one of the high points of the art world calendar.  But has ICFF learned anything from these, and many other, examples?  Unfortunately no.  For New York, one of the world’s capital cities of creativity, it’s showcase of new contemporary furniture design should be much much more than what the ICFF has put together.  Why can’t the design world look more like the fashion world, where New York, Paris and Milan, the hubs of creative energy, manage to each draw huge crowds by retaining their own particular vibe and creative point of view?  Here’s hoping ICFF figures it out soon.