By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / May 26, 2011
NEW YORK — In the not so distant past, the International Contemporary Furniture Fair was a sprawling ode to space-age decor that more than lived up to the contemporary slice of its moniker. The fair, which takes over the imposing Jacob K. Javits Convention Center every spring, revealing the design trends that will soon fill decor stores around the country, was once a hub of amoeba-shaped sofas upholstered in electric shades of citrus, tinted Lucite dining room chairs, and traditional baroque arm chairs coated with layers of blue rubber. In other words, visible natural materials were as scarce as muscle shirts at a country club.
Contemporary furniture goes with the grain
Scrap wood wall paper designed by Piet Hein Eeks (above), and more.
But slowly these chilly Euro designs have diminished, and an increasing number of contemporary furniture lines are being rendered in wood. We’re not just talking about the bones of these pieces. The grain of the wood and veneers is not only visible, it’s the focus. These are not your grandmother’s Shaker style tables or Windsor chairs, but natural wood and even plywood that has been handcrafted, bent, and stacked into striking contemporary forms. A walk through the massive convention center revealed a forest suitable for the most modern homes. Too rustic to be associated with the Scandinavian style, but too stylized to be at home in the country, this new wave of design combines, to cite just one example, the organic forms of tree trunks and wood planks on top of chrome table legs that resemble over-size paper clips.
There are elements that recall the molded wood mid-century style, which first appeared in the 1946 work of Charles and Ray Eames, or the hairpin metal legs that were a staple of 1960s dinette sets. But in the current incarnation, there is also an emphasis on showing eco-friendly elements along with the modern design.
“That incorporation of wood and metal, we like to refer to as honest materials,’’ said Providence-based Asher Dunn, who heads up the small firm Studio Dunn. Last year Dunn took the prize for best new designer at the fair. “I think a lot of this has to do with a new era of American design.’’
Dunn points to growth of this particular style after an article in the design-oriented Metropolis Magazine in September 2009 posed the question, “Where has American design gone?’’ At the time, European design dominated the contemporary furniture universe, not just at the fair, but at tony furniture shows. Those plastics from overseas became the muse of interior decorators, who prowl the aisles of the International Contemporary Furniture Fair for monied clients. Much like the fashion world, high-end design trends eventually make their way to mass market retailers.
“We first saw the combination of wood and metal in limited numbers a couple of years ago,’’ says Boston-based designer Meichi Peng, who caters to a high-end clientele. “But I was there this year, and it’s everywhere. Once someone sees a look that they like, everyone starts copying it.’’
There was no end to wood and all its form. One company wove birch veneer into sleekly modern light fixtures that resembled a serpentine ball of ribbon candy. Others stacked and lacquered layers of plywood in different shades of tan, brown, sand, and milk chocolate, creating the effect of a wood grain made from trees harvested from another planet. There was wallpaper fashioned from slices of scrap wood. An iPad stand, crafted of hardwood to resemble a 1950s television set, was a particular crowd pleaser.
The Plaistow, N.H., firm of C.W. Keller & Associates created an undulating wall of plywood veneer that looked like a placid slice of ocean. Vice president Shawn Keller says technological advances, such as three-dimensional modeling, have paved the way for this new era of design. C.W. Keller has created furniture for the architecture firm Office dA, and in June, the Harbor Park Pavilion, featuring a roof Keller fabricated out of complex curved plywood used to cast concrete molds, opens on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway near the New England Aquarium.
“Plywood allows us to contour and make some very interesting surfaces,’’ said Keller.
Dunn says the combination of modern and rustic is helping American designers stand out against European competition.
“I think after a few years of vinyl and plastic people really started to go back and ask, ‘What do people value?’, ‘What is the furniture that gets handed down from generation to generation?’ ’’ he said. “A lot of the furniture that’s being created right now is the kind that will hopefully be around for many years.’’
Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com.