Viridian Note 00241: Furniture Fair 02001

Bruce Sterling <>
22 May 2001 00:19:37 -0000
Key concepts
International Contemporary Furniture Fair, Metropolis magazine, New York City, designers as culture heroes

Attention Conservation Notice: Half-hour Papal-Imperial speech goes on and on, about, well, furniture. Includes tons of time-consuming links that might suddenly empty your wallet.

Links: International Contemporary Furniture Fair (R), Jacob R. Javits Convention Center, May 19-22, 02001. Sponsored by Metropolis, plus Abitare, Domus, Frame, Interni, Intramuros, and Wallpaper*, as well as the International Furnishing and Design Association and the International Interior Design Association. This event is huge. It's whole football fields full of halogen lamps and Italian lounge chairs. Editor Susan Szenasy got me through the door of this massive trade show for her "Business UnUsual" gig. A "visual tour of the fair." Design Within Reach was there, selling the daylights out of their hit of the season, Ross Lovegrove's "Go" chair. It's "organic minimalist" and made out of magnesium. Europe ripostes with the 25th International Chair Exposition, September 8-11, 02001. It features 5,000 "seating products" from Italy's "Chair District." The Tolomeo task lamp by Michele de Lucchi is still the darling of working designers. Check out those cute little clamped ones. Ayse Birsel was making the scene. She's shipping her new office suite for Herman Miller. She's a goddess. Karim Rashid does furniture and made up the term "blobject." I just met him at a big, drunken party in the East Village. What a swell guy. Just moved into a bare, new apartment with nothing but your checkbook and a web connection? Here's all the Italian modernism you can afford and then some! A new Sustainable Architecture book just came out with essays by Viridian icons Norman Foster, William McDonough, and Pliny Fisk. Introducing WorkSpace 2000, "the perfect blend of urban history and modern technology, and a model of green architecture and design." Scandinavian design outfit named themselves "Snow Crash." I wonder why. Stop using woodpulp office paper, and get into weird alterna-parchments like kenaf and banana stalks. The highly attitudinal folks at SHoP / Sharples Holden Pasquarelli create strange cybernetic structures with sophisticated CAD-CAM beta-splines, then they assemble them on-site out of super-cheap cedar battens. To know them is to love them. These happening Filipino guys from "Movement 8" had a very cool neo / moderno / tropical rattan /appropriate / Post Greenhouse Third World thing going on. These London guys had, among their many wonders, inflatable postcards and inflatable salt and pepper shakers. They morph that humble substance, cork, into states beyond recognition. Fire and Water lighting & furnishing. They've been on Viridian List for ages. Hi, David! These Texans retail Joris Sparenberg's "Little Vibes," a candle-powered chime. I'm a fashion-victim for tabletop energy toys. Outlook Zelco sells a stunning variety of polyurethane blobjects, from nutcrackers to bathroom scales. Brass and hardwood lights featuring mobile, stretchy, flame-retardant polyester louvers. Sinister and elegant. Magnificent and uncanny Mexican wooden furniture.

Dawnshine Solar Tech are from Shenzhen. They make solar- powered garden lights from photovoltaics, NiCad batteries and LEDs. They wanted to sell me ten thousand of them at six bucks a pop. Flat D, 25-F, Sea Rainbow House, Seaview Garden, Hua-Qiao- Cheng, Shenzhen, Guangdong, 518053, China They've got it going on with weird, clippy, high-tech halogen stuff on tracks and cables. This gung-ho Vermont guy made a huge metal blobject couch out of thousands of hand-welded nickels. A great gift for the nutcase venture-capitalist in your life. It's a web portal for custom, handmade, haute-bohemian furniture from San Francisco. Work as unusual as his name. No, really. Andrea V. makes big, cool, blobject stuff out of sculptural foam, and she needs a mass-manufacturer. A sure hit with the demented-teen contingent if the price- point is right. Eric Janssen does highly ingenious things with some of the world's cheapest, cruddiest, most omnipresent materials. Every designer in the world does CD racks, but these guys do CD racks that will have you rubbing your eyes and checking your pulse. Up-and-coming Spanish architect does cool biomorphic construction and is landing those big, bust-your-budget, international commissions. Imagine trying to furnish one!

Bruce Sterling

Contemporary Furniture speech ICFF, New York City, May 19, 02001

Hi, I'm Bruce Sterling, I'm a science fiction writer. That's my day-job, I've been doing it over twenty years now, and under normal social conditions, I'm perfectly happy to just sit there typing about Martians. But every once in a while a critical situation arises when it's necessary to ramp up to a higher level and obtain a bigger picture. That explains what I'm doing here with you lot.

    So let me get down to some big-picture, futuristic brass tacks. First, let me tell you where we stand right now. We spent the 1990s chasing the Internet bubble, a very typical American process, "American Technological Sublime" as the historians like to call it. We did this with railroads, did it with aviation, did it with television, did it with the Space Race. At the end of the day, American society metabolizes the change in its technology, and "high technology" becomes a boring, everyday part of American real life.

    That is what just happened to the Internet, and it's fine and dandy, except that real-life, normal, boring industries have returns of about seven percent on investment. So when you get all winded chasing that Techno-Sublime Summer of Love California Dream, you're commonly left with some kind of Altamont situation, saying stuff like: "Hey, where's the electrical power? Hey wow, I kinda forgot to deal with physical reality."

    The Internet revolution was a profound one, and it soaked up a lot of social and creative energy, but it's just one aspect of 21st century society. It's the aspect that had the freshest chrome on it. The World Wide Web still seems rather clean and detached from the everyday. But when you're sitting there in your Steelcase Leap Chair, with your ergonomic laser mouse, trying to point click and ship yourself a blobject Garbo wastebasket off DesignWithinReach dotcom, all of those things do involve big clunky flows of shaped materials, and energy; and not mere immaterial bits. There's still a lot of shipping trucks, and some smokestacks, and assembly lines, and a chief financial officer, and some blue-collar labor, and some routers, and injection molders, and numerically controlled machine tools, and industrial chemistry for the epoxy and urethane and TechnoGel. It's just that we've got a brainy-glasses Web Designer digital front end on it now, so it looks a lot prettier.

    This is a condition like the early days of the horseless carriage, where they used to ship them with a mockup of a wooden horse on the front so they wouldn't panic the horses in the street. It's the streamlined pencil-sharpener mode, where we've got a really cool- looking monocoque shell over our pencil sharpener, but inside it's the same old 20th century grinding mechanical guts. This explains why natural gas companies can show up in Silicon Valley with their big rusty pipelines, and haul Internet startup guys out of their Volvos, and just hold them upside down, and black out both their eyes, and then just kick them and kick them repeatedly, until the platinum VISA cards fall right out of their eelskin wallets. Then these big oil companies just vacuum up all that loose cash, and go back to North Carolina and Texas and the White House. The Web is a layer of veneer over 20th century industrialism, but it's still a thin crispy layer, like landlord paint.

    This situation calls for social actors who are heavier-duty than these software characters. The contemporary situation needs somebody who's got a Silicon Valley level of brio and imagination, but also has a serious engagement with material reality. The standard 20th century methods need a major-league redesign. Not just the standard varnish on barbarism, but a truly deep rethink.

    The 20th century's industrial infrastructure is not sustainable. It's basically a bubble, just like the Internet boom. Instead of being based on a finite amount of gullible investors, it's based on a finite amount of ice in our ice caps, of air in our atmosphere, of free room for highways and transmission lines, and so forth. So in my home town, Austin Texas, we've got a swarm of unemployed dotcommies at the moment; but in the past three years we also had the hottest June we ever had, the hottest July we ever had, the hottest August we ever had, and last Labor Day, it was 112 degrees Fahrenheit in my front yard, which is hot enough to melt transformer cans off the utility lines, and hot enough to brown out the traffic signals. And that's in your President's home town, mind you, Mr. No Kyoto Treaty. This is a bubble system which is manifesting itself in the realm of bad weather rather than the realm of NASDAQ valuations, but from a big-picture historical perspective, it's much the same kind of phenomenon.

    Now ladies and gentlemen, since I'm a science fiction writer, I can recognize a major trend when I see one. In fact, wearing the scary black robes of the Prophet of Doom is kind of a default position in my line of work. But if I wanted to see some effective, upbeat, consumer-friendly reform in a worn-out and hokey industrial system, I wouldn't go hiring any sci-fi writers. No. Basically, what we need at this juncture are culture heroes. Somebody with X-ray spex who can see past the packaging, past the political hype and the finance hype, get down to the level of the hardware and rethink our society's support system so that it's safer, cozier and more ergonomic. We need people of the titanic caliber of Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford, and John D. Rockefeller, because, those are basically the three 20th century guys who got us into this mess.

    So why bring this up to furniture designers? Well, I'm not claiming you guys are destined to save the world, though you're clearly much, much better at it than sci-fi writers are. No; it's just that furniture is a great place to start if you want a fresh perspective on industrialism. You don't want to start from the top by ideologically re- educating the consumer to become some kind of rigid, hairshirt, New Soviet Green. You want to start with ergonomics, with the human body and its affordances, with our health and our ease and our comfort, with our working environment, our home environment, with our lungs, and our skin, and our bones.

    For instance. What's the most genuine interface between the computer and the user? Is it really all that dancing Flash animation that Jakob Nielsen likes to complain about? Or is it our wrist tendons that blow out from carpal tunnel syndrome, and our lumbar vertebrae that give out from bad office chairs? Did you ever see these masters of the digital universe, the heavy-duty programmers who are building and maintaining the Internet? Those portly guys with the wrist supports, kind of pear- shaped, with thick glasses and midlife heart attacks? They weren't born that way. They didn't get that way by accident. They got that way by chronic, repeated abuse. That's not a digital problem, that's a furniture problem. It's about an industrial system that cruelly sacrifices human flesh for the sake of dysfunctional machinery.

    So why don't designers just charge out there and fix all that up and save the world right away? Sounds simple enough! I'll just get Stumpf, and Chadwick, and Ayse Birsel, and oh, uh, Lord Norman Foster and maybe Frank Gehry, and we'll break out the old man-in-the brown-suit Henry Dreyfuss ergonomics bible, and we'll have a conference call, and we'll save the planet. Well, yeah, sort of. That's like saying that we'll call up a bunch of topflight Hollywood screenwriters, and we'll write the ultimate movie and save the movie business. After that, no one will ever have to make or watch another movie again, because now we've created the perfect one.

    There are two sets of problems here. First, there aren't any perfect design solutions where form follows function, because the functions keep changing along with our changing society. And second, designers don't call the shots in industrialism, any more than screenwriters do inside movie studios.

    Before the advent of streamlining in the 1930s, there were basically no such things as industrial designers. There were just eccentric guys like Norman Bel Geddes and Henry Dreyfuss who were doing set design for Broadway stage shows. And they went along to these robber baron tycoons of the 1930s who were grinding the working class underfoot as the shadows of fascism lengthened in Europe, and they said, "Hey Mr Capitalist, you want to sell some stuff in the middle of a global depression? Why don't you make it make it shinier, sleeker, and easier to use?"

    And these oppressive running-dog bosses from Westinghouse and AT&T said, "Why should I pay some clown like you anything, when I can just have my idiot nephew figure out how the product should look?" And being Raymond Loewy or Norman Bel Geddes, you replied, "Because I am a glamorous visionary genius!" Actually, if you were Henry Dreyfuss, you were even cooler than that. Henry Dreyfuss would just dress in a suit and go to a meeting of the board of directors, and he would draw a picture of the new product redesign on a table napkin, only UPSIDE-DOWN! It takes about a week to figure out how to do this == drawing upside down == but the psychological effect is just stunning. Before he drew the picture upside down, they said, "Who is this Henry Dreyfuss, he's some kind of Broadway character, he's probably Jewish," but when he drew the product on the napkin upside down, they waited until he left the boardroom, and then they told *each other,* "He's a supreme visionary genius!"

    Now, I'm not claiming that designers really are supreme visionary geniuses. In fact, even though they have a rep for being kind of flaky, arty, and temperamental, since I myself am a science fiction writer, I can see that designers are actually cram-full of stony common sense. I actually trust designers. I think designers are the salt of the earth. I have a better opinion of designers than designers have of themselves.

    Why? Well, let's imagine I'm in some really terrible, science fiction-style crisis. Let's say that I just fell halfway off a cliff, and I'm clutching on by my fingernails to this long root, and below me there are three hungry tigers just licking their chops. And then two evil buzzards show up, and they're pecking, pecking, pecking away at my root, and I can't climb up and I can't climb down, and my doom is clearly at hand, and I'm sweating all over in desperate melodrama peril, and then an industrial designer comes along. Hope dawns, ladies and gentlemen. Not because he's a saint, or a hero, or a moral good Samaritan or anything. It's because designers just can't resist problems like that. Those buzzards, the tigers, that root with its modulus of elasticity; an industrial designer is just bound to get all interested and intrigued.

    Since I love designers so dearly, I want to see them get richer, more powerful, and more famous. Traditionally, designers have a narrow little window in the value chain of industrial society. You think up the chair and draw its picture, but you don't cut wood, you don't smelt metal, you don't design the assembly line, you don't package it, ship it or promote it, you don't junk it and recycle it. Those other realms of activity belong to other, older professions, such as capitalists, miners, lumber companies, labor unions, ad agencies, and government bureaus. There are enormous sunk costs and lock-ins in this traditional chain of production.

    This is not a new problem in the design profession. This is pretty much the oldest problem there is. It dates way back to William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. This William Morris character, who made furniture and was the greatest wallpaper designer probably ever, tried his best to foment a transformation to a better society by striking at the heart of the industrial process. Which is to say, the alienation of the worker from the products of his labor. William Morris, this guy who made furniture, had this problem pretty well figured out. A gal who is making a tapestry on a hand-loom, working in her own little parlor, making a tapestry thread by thread, is a lot more emotionally and physically engaged with that tapestry than some oppressed child laboror in those giant cotton mills who is churning out yard-goods industrial carpeting for the export market and the general store.

    The reason that William Morris wasn't bigger than Henry Ford is that assembly-line standardized production beats the living daylights out of making stuff by hand. The only way to make stuff by hand is to recruit people who are ideological lunatics, like Pre-Raphaelites, and hippie leathermakers, and the Amish, and the Shakers.

    I'm a novelist who writes with a computer. So I'm not going to pay a thin dime for a goddamn Shaker chair! My health has improved radically since I bought a Stumpf and Chadwick Aeron chair, with its mobile armrests, and resilient pellicle, and recycled aluminum frame! Every Shaker on the planet couldn't build me this thing! This product is beyond the ability of any human hand to mimic. That debate is over.

    So what's wrong with my attitude, huh? Why aren't I a happy little consumer about this Aeron chair, why am I demanding more, more, MORE? Well, I've got three big problems, basically. First, I have to adjust it. Because it wasn't built just for me. Ideally, it shouldn't say "Herman Miller Aeron" on it. I resent that. It should just say BRUCE STERLING on it. What's with this Herman Miller guy getting top billing? He didn't think it up, he's not the auteur here. I don't care about his relationship to my chair, he can't help me. If I want to consult with somebody about my Aeron chair, I want to talk to Stumpf and Chadwick. You can't pay me to talk to Herman Miller; on the contrary, Herman Miller pays to get access to me. That's what the advertising industry is for, that's why the airwaves and the urban landscape and even the Internet, fax machines and cellphones are saturated with hucksters demanding my attention and trying to shake me down. Is this a proper civilization? No.

    Now, if it were really about what I want as a consumer, the ultimate source of the revenue stream, then the furniture industry would look like this. First, all my furniture would be the peripherals of a household system. It would surround me like a kind of digital Gesamtkunstwerk. Then when I wanted a chair, it would be manufactured for me, to my measurements, in a production run of one, which I get to watch, kind of like a hungry guy watching a Benihana chef. This would be "transparent production," a chair as a kind of entertainment destination, a delightful novelty display, in which I am absolutely assured that my chair does not harm my flesh or my environment in any way. On the contrary, every single aspect of the entire product stream has been designerized; I got designer lumberjacks, a designer fabric factory, a designer fabricator plant, designer shippers in designer trucks on a designer highway system; I can point and click on the whole shebang at any moment, and when I see something going on that I particularly like, I can click and buy stock in it.

    Then when my new, super-personal chair arrives, they also take away the old one, which is dematerialized as "smart garbage" and refolded back into the production stream without effluents or pollutants of any kind. I'm probably not even paying for the chair. With any kind of luck I am paying for my relationship with the designer. The whole system hinges on the designer's charisma and leadership! We've finally brushed away all that dead mechanical clutter of the 19th and 20th centuries, and we are paying directly for imagination and ingenuity. I've gotten right to the source, the primal wellspring of innovation.

    And so has the designer. Instead of fighting his way through the usual thicket of numbskull capitalists, he is busily aggregating his own worshipful cult of demographic consumers! Instead of lecturing off of a podium like me and William Morris, he can lecture right out of his forks, chairs, and teakettles; all I have to do is click on his hotlink, and bingo, there I am at Taliesen West, the Frank Lloyd Wright indoctrination compound. And I follow this supreme visionary genius as his fan and devotee, not because he's a grand Broadway showboat, as he obviously is, but because he can demonstrate the kind of truly profound insight that it requires to manage a system of this sophistication and complexity; he really is a visionary genius.

    Now, I'm not saying this is fated to happen. I'm merely saying that I want it, and it could occur. Thanks to computer aided design and manufacturing and the advent of the Internet, a window has opened that could allow this. No one is going to waltz up to designers and give this kind of power to them; if designers want this level of command and control over the infrastructure of society, they are going to have to seize it. Basically, designers would have to rise to greatness by growing with the scope of the challenge. They would have to break the old-fashioned limits of the design profession, and by the time they were done with this, they probably wouldn't even be called designers. They'd be called something like, say, designer-tycoons or designer-moguls. But some transformation along this line is definitely in the works; our industrial system is so old and creaky now that our technical problems are our political problems.

    Our President is trying to define himself in office by rebuilding the electrical net. While the other guy, the guy who got more votes but isn't President, he tried to define himself by inventing the Internet. Any number of power players could move into this space: it could be venture capitalists, or politicians, or non-governmental organizations, or even the military. If designers are going to get there, they'll have to play from their own strength, which is ingenuity and visionary charisma, an ability to define the times on a material level, a unique combination of free-form thinking and physical practicality.

    It's been a long time since designers were this audacious, but it's not unheard of. I'm not saying that you should do this just because I'm standing here ranting about it. Instead, I would cautiously suggest trying it out a little, running the experiment, and seeing how it looks-and-feels. Like, next time some journalist is interviewing you about your colleagues, let's say, Karim Rashid and his "Plob" exhibit, instead of saying, "Yeah, Karim, the stackable plastic Oh chair, he's really out there, he's not hokey," you can kind of clear your throat and lower your voice and say, "I consider Karim Rashid the prophet of a new and better way of life."

    And when you're on some panel at an IDSA gig and somebody says, "blobjects," you might say, "Blobjects are the harbingers of a new and radically flexible means of production." And when somebody asks why on Earth they should pay ten bucks for an Oral-B radically ergonomic toothbrush, you can kind of draw up your scarlet cloak in this gush of dry ice and you can declare, "Every tool is a handle at one end and raw possibility at the other!"

    And that will probably work great. Why? Because Internet hype is all used up now, and without vision, the people perish. That's why. There's a major hype famine right now. There's a lot of loose money around that has suffered a loss of direction. The stage is empty and the first crowd with a really compelling, out-there pitch gets all the VC money they can eat.

    Now, I'm not saying this accomplishment is easy; if you live by hype alone and drink your own bathwater, it tends to end in tears. I'm merely saying something very plonking, simple, and obvious, which is that it is entirely possible to utterly destroy the twentieth century industrial paradigm and establish a new set of standards for performance that radically improves our society's accumulation of wealth and power. Simple. Necessary. Gotta get done.

    Most people aren't up for this level of strenuous activity, but some few people in any society generally are, and when I look across the contemporary social landscape, I'm thinking, hey man, designers. It's those war stories that attract me, really. It's like Henry Dreyfuss used to say about Norman Bel Geddes. He said that Bel Geddes always had his desk facing a blank wall. Now, Norman Bel Geddes was a top-end Broadway set designer, he knew what a window treatment looked like. Norman Bel Geddes could have had any kind of office he wanted, so what's with the blank wall? Because that's where Bel Geddes got his really big ideas, that's why.

    I have to go along with Henry Dreyfuss in considering that an act of raw courage. Man, that was moxie, that was the holy grail, that is the stuff we need. We need a lot more of that stuff, boyo. Somewhere out there in today's designerland is a guy who can really do that. I want to know about that guy. I want the world to shower that guy with riches, fame, and power. I want to talk to that guy, I want him to meet all my friends. I want to buy that guy's products. I want him to get traction, horsepower, juice of every kind, and major command-and- control. I want to see him as a superstar.

    Thanks for your attention. Have a great time at the fair.

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