Viridian Note 00241: Furniture Fair 02001Bruce Sterling <email@example.com>
22 May 2001 00:19:37 -0000
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.
http://www.icff.com 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.
http://www.metropolismag.com Editor Susan Szenasy got me through the door of this massive trade show for her "Business UnUsual" gig.
http://www.hautedecor.com/metropolis/icff/default.tem A "visual tour of the fair."
http://www.dwr.com 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.
http://www.promosedia.it Europe ripostes with the 25th International Chair Exposition, September 8-11, 02001. It features 5,000 "seating products" from Italy's "Chair District."
http://www.olive1to1.com/ Ayse Birsel was making the scene. She's shipping her new office suite for Herman Miller. She's a goddess.
http://www.core77.com/karimrashid/ 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.
http://www.Italydesign.com 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!
http://www.chelseagreen.com/DP/EarthPledge/SustArchitecture.htm A new Sustainable Architecture book just came out with essays by Viridian icons Norman Foster, William McDonough, and Pliny Fisk.
http://www.workspace2000.org Introducing WorkSpace 2000, "the perfect blend of urban history and modern technology, and a model of green architecture and design."
http://www.snowcrash.se Scandinavian design outfit named themselves "Snow Crash." I wonder why.
http://www.rethinkpaper.org Stop using woodpulp office paper, and get into weird alterna-parchments like kenaf and banana stalks.
http://shoparc.com 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.
http://www.cobonpue.com These happening Filipino guys from "Movement 8" had a very cool neo / moderno / tropical rattan /appropriate / Post Greenhouse Third World thing going on.
http://www.inflate.co.uk These London guys had, among their many wonders, inflatable postcards and inflatable salt and pepper shakers.
http://www.korqinc.com They morph that humble substance, cork, into states beyond recognition.
http://www.cyberg.com Fire and Water lighting & furnishing. They've been on Viridian List for ages. Hi, David!
http://www.counterpoint1.com These Texans retail Joris Sparenberg's "Little Vibes," a candle-powered chime. I'm a fashion-victim for tabletop energy toys.
http://www.outlookzelco.com Outlook Zelco sells a stunning variety of polyurethane blobjects, from nutcrackers to bathroom scales.
http://www.weissmanlighting.com Brass and hardwood lights featuring mobile, stretchy, flame-retardant polyester louvers. Sinister and elegant.
http://www.santanooka.com 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. firstname.lastname@example.org Flat D, 25-F, Sea Rainbow House, Seaview Garden, Hua-Qiao- Cheng, Shenzhen, Guangdong, 518053, China
http://www.LightWavesConcept.com They've got it going on with weird, clippy, high-tech halogen stuff on tracks and cables.
http://www.fasterfineart.com 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.
http://www.customfurnituredesign.com It's a web portal for custom, handmade, haute-bohemian furniture from San Francisco.
http://www.TiberioYepez.com Work as unusual as his name. No, really.
http://www.andreavalentini.com 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.
http://www.ericjanssendesign.com Eric Janssen does highly ingenious things with some of the world's cheapest, cruddiest, most omnipresent materials.
http://www.vismara.it 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.
http://www.calatrava.com Up-and-coming Spanish architect does cool biomorphic construction and is landing those big, bust-your-budget, international commissions. Imagine trying to furnish one!
Contemporary Furniture speech ICFF, New York City, May 19, 02001
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
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
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
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
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
Now, I'm not saying this is fated to happen.
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
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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