No sooner had the economy started its decline last year than experts began searching for a silver lining. In the design world, for example, there was believed to be an upside to the downturn: Flamboyance would give way to sober, streamlined style, reminiscent of the work of great midcentury modernists such as Eero Saarinen and Charles and Ray Eames. In a world that had less money to spend on extravagant products, form would have to follow function.
Suddenly, the kind of design that was meant to impress seemed suspect. Stephen Bayley, a British design critic, called last spring “a truly terrible moment for investors in gilt, chandeliers, marble, and lacquer” and “a great one for believers in good proportions and honest materials.” New products would have to hint at austerity—like a chair made from a recycled shopping cart by Reestore. Other products, such as the Vegetal chair by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, for Vitra, tapped into the zeitgeist with its back-to-nature beauty. Despite its high-tech pedigree and healthy price tag ($555), the chair, introduced in Milan last spring, seemed to portend an era of simplicity.
The idea that a pared-down aesthetic would arrive in 2009 was even espoused by The New York Times in an article called “Design Loves a Depression.” Its author, Michael Cannell, argued that in recent years designers, encouraged by greedy gallerists and wealthy collectors, had focused on creating high-priced baubles rather than useful products. He wrote: “The design world could stand to come down a notch or two—and might actually find a new sense of relevance in the process.”
Murray Moss, whose shops in Manhattan and Los Angeles sell more than a few fanciful pieces, takes issue with the suggestion that a depression should lead to simpler design. In Moss’s view, designers should be as willing to create expressive and emotionally resonant objects during economically difficult periods as they would be during more fruitful times, pointing out that “design loves a depression no more than it loves a war, a flood, or a plague.”
Certainly sellers of “design art,” or decorative objects sold as contemporary art, face challenging times. In 2007 art dealer Larry Gagosian devoted his gallery in New York’s Chelsea to a group of limited-edition tables, chairs, shelves, and lamps by the Australian designer Marc Newson that were priced in the six figures. There may not be a similar display anytime soon. But in May, Todd Merrill, a New York dealer in furniture by 20th-century masters like Paul Evans and Gio Ponti, launched a “studio contemporary” line focused on new work by the likes of Joseph Walsh, a designer who, Merrill says, “blends the studio art traditions of the past with futuristic design.” Walsh’s output includes a San Martin dining table for $75,000 and a walnut and lacewood Sanagi coffee table for $36,000—both of which took hundreds of hours to create. Far from being over, “the design-art movement has barely begun,” Merrill says.
Meanwhile, in Milan, where the design world gathered in April for the annual furniture fair (officially the Salone Internazionale del Mobile), signs of a recession were few. For one, changing the direction of the furniture industry is like turning a ship around; companies start developing products three or four years before unveiling them. (Even the Bouroullecs’ Vegetal chairs—undoubtedly a hit at the Salone—required more than four years of fine-tuning.) For another, there is less hand-wringing about the economy in Europe than in the United States, says Arlene Hirst, a journalist who has covered the Salone for more than 20 years: “European manufacturers seem to take the attitude that you have to keep looking ahead. If you have nothing new to offer, buyers will pass you by.”
If Hirst discerned one trend in 2009, it was an emphasis on wood—possibly, she says, because unlike items made from metal or plastic, wood pieces don’t involve huge start-up costs. Two highlights from Milan were Jaime Hayon’s Art Nouveau–inspired Twentytwo chair for Ceccotti and an Allumette table by the Swiss manufacturer Röthlisberger Kollektion, both made of wood.
And in a somewhat surprising move, Italian fashion house Fendi staged a three-day exhibition, called “Craft Punk,” for which ten up-and-coming designers, including Peter Marigold and Simon Hasan, created pieces using discarded Fendi materials such as metal hardware, logos, and Selleria leather. The intended effect was to “put attention on traditional materials and low-technology techniques,” says Silvia Venturini Fendi, creative director for Fendi accessories.
Design historians can offer insight into whether design is facing an era of self-effacement. For much of the 20th century, periods of opulence have alternated with periods of relative restraint. But the relationship between design’s fluctuations and those of the economy is far from obvious. In fact, most financial downturns were too short-lived to be associated with specific styles. Design movements that began in affluence sometimes flourished in adversity, and vice versa.
The Great Depression was the longest economic decline of the 20th century. But when it came to producing product, the thirties “wasn’t a period of design austerity at all,” says Larry Weinberg, an expert in 20th-century design and director of New York’s Weinberg Modern gallery. During the Depression, industrial designers such as Henry Dreyfuss and Raymond Loewy became household names and issued new collections every year. True, their designs tended to be streamlined, bringing locomotive styling to the living room. But that wasn’t so much a concession to economic woes as it was a way to distinguish new products from old ones. During the forties, which Weinberg calls the design decade, the goal was to bolster the economy, not to surrender to it.
The Depression also saw the flowering of Art Deco, beginning with an exposition in France in 1925, at the height of the Roaring Twenties. Fresh as it was, the style relied on rich materials and old-world craftsmanship. Even in New York, where Art Deco reached its fullest expression with Great Depression–era skyscrapers, saving money wasn’t the point. Rockefeller Center, after all, required the work of thousands of stonemasons.
Around the same time, Bauhaus architecture, characterized by white walls and flat roofs, offered an alternative to traditional building types. A few wealthy patrons commissioned houses from Marcel Breuer and Richard Joseph Neutra, who brought their ideas from Europe to America. But modernism never became the style of the masses: Americans have always wanted cozy homes. Besides, as critics of minimalism have long observed, “less costs more.” It was World War II, with its shared sense of sacrifice, that ushered in the heyday of midcentury modernism. New technologies, some developed for the armed forces, paved the way for postwar design classics like the Eameses’ bent-plywood lounge chairs (1946) and Saarinen’s plastic Tulip tables (1956).
In the fifties and sixties, prosperity wasn’t the only factor that influenced design. Others included Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (1962) and Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed (1965), each of which helped shape the public’s attitudes about industrial production. The U.S. economy faltered in the seventies, but there were other events—the energy crisis, for example—that had a greater impact on consumer choices.
Design impresario Sir Terence Conran recalls that in the seventies, when England was in the doldrums, he founded Habitat, a retailer specializing in items that were “good value and simple.” But Habitat’s successor, Muji, a retailer of minimalist objects, became a global phenomenon during the go-go nineties. Muji isn’t a rejection of style so much as it is one style among many. Just as some designers eschewed ornament, others embraced it—with the help of technology. Designers like Dutch artist Tord Boontje, whose Garland Light turns ordinary light bulbs into ornate chandeliers ($75), have found that laser cutters can produce extraordinarily complex objects at a minimal cost.
It may also be true that a tough economy heightens the need for objects that amuse. Karim Rashid, the New York–based designer whose space-age aesthetic is full of wit and vigor, says that in addition to function, “design also brings us fantasy, emotion, beauty, entertainment” and “therefore can flourish in a time when we need escape, we need to feel good about ourselves.”
One thing is certain: With new technologies giving designers the choice of minimalism, maximalism, or any ism in between, it won’t be the economy that styles the objects that fill our homes.
Experts weigh in on what to buy now.
Richard Wright, director, Wright Auction House, Chicago
“Ron Gilad is a conceptual and deep-thinking designer. The Void stool is one of his best designs; he created a version for me in clear glass. The piece is simple, even though the process by which he creates it is quite complex.”
Void stool; 312-563-0020; wright20.com
Ralph Pucci, president, Ralph Pucci International
“West Coast designer William Emmerson just joined the Pucci design team. His creations are new and unexpected. His Slope cocktail table, made from pressed plywood and finished in hard lacquer, is functional and sculptural—a piece of art that will only increase in value.”
Slope cocktail table; 212-633-0452; ralphpucci.net
Sir Terence Conran, founder, Conran & Company
“As provost of the Royal College of Art in London, I’ve seen some of the best young talent before they’ve graduated. I discovered illustrator Adam Simpson, whose drawings are charming and full of imagination but also have a real maturity to them.”
Boundaries illustration; adsimpson.com
Murray Moss, owner, Moss, New York and Los Angeles
“Artist Julien Carretero is engaged in a process by which he explores and rethinks traditional methods of industrial production. The bench from his To Be Continued collection was created using a radical casting process, and the result is both beautiful and unique: No two pieces are alike.”
To Be Continued bench; 866-888-6677; mossonline.com