Tuesday, May 18, 2010


By coincidence, this email message came into my mailbox during ICFF, the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. This is the week when furniture is celebrated, by and large, in glittering showrooms around town. Chairs are always recognized as special darlings of the entire scene, as symbolic objects representing the entire furniture industry –or even the field of design in general.

I have just returned from the fairgrounds, where hundreds of manufacturers competed, trying to convince you to buy their new chairs, proving their necessity, relevance and benefits. At first, I thought the message attributed to DLCC was a spoof. The contrast was just too great:

“The chairs in [our] room are old, red ones left behind by the company that used this office space ten years ago.  They creak.  They're uncomfortable.  One of them is missing its left armrest. But in all my years as Executive Director, no one in this office has ever asked me to buy new chairs.  And we won't.” 

The message was, of course, real, and the description of the tattered furniture meant to emphasize tireless and selfless work the campaigners were doing for their cause. Yet unwittingly it underlined another reality of American life. While clothes, shoes, bags, cars, hi-tech gadgets are considered “essential” necessities, furniture and furnishings of our domestic or work environment are still relegated to status of superfluous objects.
In times of economic uncertainty, they are among the first things to be cut from any budget.

It does not seem likely that ICFF will be able to change this unfortunate belief.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Reality Check

My mother was born and raised in Moscow; she still lives there, well in her 80s.
Until recently, she used to visit me in New York once in a while. Through her spontaneous, always unpredictable reactions to realities of our American life I was able to learn a great deal about my own preconceptions and hang-ups.

I would take her to Soho, for example, and we’d walk among cast iron buildings on cobblestone streets. “What a horrible area to live”, she’d say. ”There is not one tree around, and what about all this noise and crowds.” A classy meal at Jean-Georges would be dismissed as “something strange on the plate – and not too much of it, either.” Did she see something that we were not noticing?

Needless to say, when I showed her my own designs, she was not too complimentary. Often she’d characterize my objects as superfluous, unnecessary, wasteful – well before sustainability became a buzzword among design critics. My award-winning clocks were dismissed as illegible, chairs – as too small or uncomfortable. Even when she liked a thing, such as a set of utensils, for example, there was always a nagging doubt as to what to do with the old utensils people may already have. When, exasperated, I asked her what kind of things she herself considered appropriate and legitimate, I remember the word “normal” used as an operative term. For example, she referred to an apartment building where she lived as normal. Most things she owned or wore she also called normal.

For years, I used to dismiss her every opinion as irrelevant and uninformed. It is with great surprise I now catch myself applying her-style “reality check” to much design around. Going through images and news from the recent Salone del Mobile, or from forthcoming ICFF, I keep thinking about it again.

At this time of great uncertainty and confusion, when hype rules over substance, when everything is possible and nothing is truly exciting, we may all use my mother’s reality check.