Universal Reflections

Three major international fairs not only showcase new innovations in design but demonstrate the changing dynamic of art and commerce.

This spring marks the opening of three important international design expositions: the Stockholm Furniture & Light Fair, Design Shanghai and the Surface Design Show, London. Each holding a specific focus, together they highlight the most recent technologies, innovations and designers emerging internationally. Compared to premier showstoppers such as ICFF New York and IMM Cologne, these three take a novel approach, carefully carving out their own niches within the market. The evolving market for art and design, especially as related to new innovations in technology and construction, ensures that these will be closely monitored by press, architects, interior designers, and, ultimately, home-owners.

The Stockholm Furniture & Light Fair is one of the oldest events of its kind: Stockholmsmässan organised the first in 1951. It is also the most domestic in terms of participants, with 80 per cent coming from Scandinavia; this is in direct contrast to Design Shanghai, which has 30 per cent domestic exhibitors. The Swedish event creates a one-stop shop for those interested in Northern European design, whilst also offering international appeal through their annual “Guest of Honour” programme. This prestigious title is awarded to international designers or studios; the winners are invited to create an installation in the convention centre’s entrance hall. This year, Spanish artist-designer Jaime Hayon (b. 1974) has been selected, having previously been showcased by a long list of institutions including Mak Vienna; Groninger Museum; London’s Design Museum; Gallery Thomas, Munich; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Centre Pompidou, Paris; and Art Basel, attracting the attention of collectors worldwide in the process. Hayon Studio, which began operating in 2000, was chosen by a list of industry professionals, and the organisers say they “look forward to seeing playful expression, spiced with humour and innovation. We are convinced it will inspire, challenge and be appreciated.”

The Swedish fair, which invites 700 representatives from 32 countries, is first and foremost about trade. Its timing coincides with Stockholm Design Week and ensures that visitors from around the world get the full experience – the evenings are crammed full with viewings, parties and exhibition openings. This is where the parallel to Shanghai becomes more apparent. As Creative Directors Darrel Best and Ross Urwin note: “It’s about the entire city embracing creativity for the week, spreading the excitement, being inclusive and allowing a large number of visitors to interact with different media. It’s a celebration of the metropolis and the growing appeal attached to art and construction.”

Led by Best and Urwin, originally the brainchild of Media 10, China’s leading expo integrates designer brands alongside new international labels, ensuring a diverse mix of organisations all seeking to share their love for creativity. The fair has grown at an impressive rate (indicative of the growing Asian market), to the extent that this year they have introduced a new collaboration with Shanghai Xintiandi, offering a pedestrianised entertainment and cultural area. Shuttle buses will stop off at showrooms between the two locales, allowing buyers to come and view all the collections with considerable ease. Minotti, Hay, Maison Dada, Strong CASA, Domus Aurea, Senab and Social Design Street have all agreed to participate in this newly recognised model. For smaller labels, such as Mumoon (which will be offering the Geometry Pendant Lamp by Peng Zeng), the occasion is a unique opportunity to make sales but more importantly is a chance to build their brand and its presence in the marketplace. Having previously attended Furniture China, China Import and Export Fair and Hong Kong Lighting Fair in 2016, Mumoon will make its mark in Shanghai. For Mumoon, like many other independent businesses which have only an online presence to date, participation in such events is integral to building up a market and a following, perhaps more so than the larger more established names.

Design events also represent a movement away from the traditional “bricks and mortar” gallery or shop, with the participating studios acting as travelling merchants, all with the intention of shifting products and increasing exposure. For their clientele, it is a preferred method of “shopping”; offering the convenience of being able to view and sample a wide range of new materials and blueprints, and ultimately meet the creative minds behind their purchases, and means that the culture of browsing and shopping is moving away from individual studio visits and towards larger, more convenient methods. The additional expense associated with travelling to trade events means that for the companies, as well as the time away from their production, they are financially under more stress. Ideally, their attendance will return sufficient nancial benefits to make it worthwhile.

Surface Design Show (SDS), London, has played on this new adaptive model by using the allocated time and space to present two product-specific exhibitions: the Light School and the Stone Gallery. Introduced to ll the void in the UK for events specialising in these two product types, the former is now in its fourth year and the latter in its second year, demonstrating that these kinds of specialist complementary programmes can be successful and mutually beneficial.

On the one hand, the importance of light to surface was realised early on in terms of highlighting originality, so it seemed an obvious focus to the show’s organisers. Additionally, the Stone Gallery features not just natural materials but new innovative and sustainable alternative to traditional stone, like the SilicaStone by ALUSID, a new and exciting medium made from recycled elements. Including fused glass and ceramics, it has been manufactured as an adaptable alternative to natural stone products. Attendees are constantly looking for original methods of production and experimenting with materials; for example, Baranska Design, a Polish glass studio, will be presenting decorative glass surfaces, which are made by a process of layering in order to create a 3-D effect resembling frozen water. These kinds of new intricate possibilities represent one of the most significant developing architectural trends, and SDS is capitalising on this through its selection of participants.

Smaller in comparison to Shanghai, which had over 45,000 visitors last year, and Stockholm, with 40,000 visitors, SDS’s niche approach allows it to successfully compete against other worldwide fairs. Director Christopher Newton says that the primary drive is innovation: “We regard it as a key role for Surface – to assist emerging and innovative businesses to reach the community. We have created an Inspiration Centre so that start-ups can contribute on a low cost, no frills basis in order to meet our audience.” Unlike its Asian competitor, which has a more established roster of participants, SDS looks towards a younger generation for inspiration whilst keeping its own list tightly targeted. Newton says: “Our audience of practitioners know that they will be able to see, compare and specify materials used only for surfaces.”

The Stockholm event, like SDS, uses ancillary themes to attract a wider audience and, in doing so, make the entire experience more desirable. Where the focus for SDS is on stone, for Sweden’s capital it is on wood, with Welcome to Woodland presenting short videos on innovative aspects of public and private construction within a setting designed to resemble a “forest clearing”. A collaboration between the Swedish Association of Architects, the Swedish Institute, C&D Joinery, White Arkitekter and the Stockholm Furniture & Light Fair, the occasion highlights ideas around environmentally friendly design. Curved banisters and stair railings demonstrate intriguing shapes and solutions, injecting interest back into the landscape and mirroring the minimalist clean shapes always associated with Scandinavia. Throughout the event, elements of nature are presented in domestic interiors and curated spaces alike, as a constant reminder of the sheer abundance of beauty and clean lines, which is to be found naturally occurring on our planet.

As Cecilia Nyberg, Project Manager, asserts, adaptive methods “remain an important topic amongst practitioners, producers and consumers. We will raise questions about everything from gender equality in the industry to ecologically friendly materials, sound production methods and sustainable architecture.” Drawing up dialogues between questions of adaptability, responsibility and ecological awareness is something that has come into focus across the board for all three fairs, whatever the material; take, for example, Zero Lighting, which uses local subcontractors in order to create an environmentally sound model of manufacturing, and the previously mentioned ALUSID.

The evolving contemporary market is competitive, and becoming even more so with new events popping up yearly. In March 2017, the National Gallery of Victoria (in collaboration with the Victorian Government) launches Melbourne Design Week, an extensive programme which includes: curated collections within the Australian gallery and other venues; local and international guests and keynote speakers; business-to-business programmes; product launches; and children’s projects. Similar to the initiatives undertaken by its sister cities in other continents, Melbourne focuses outside a singular vision, looking to the city’s own populations for support this ambitious cultural venture.

This concept of the community in assistance to commercial cultural ventures in itself illustrates a new movement in terms of the value given to creative credibility for cities. More and more corporations are looking towards urban locations that have a strong cultural scene when selecting locations and setting up new headquarters or offices. A strong cultural identity also proves very appealing for courting talented individuals to lead these companies, and this is illustrated in the widespread support of design weeks. The industry of art will be something to watch closely in the immediate future, with the changing models of selling, the ever-growing importance of online presence, contrasting with the face-to-face encounters of the new model of expos.

Surface Design Show runs 7-9 February; Stockholm Furniture & Light Fair runs 7-11 February; Stockholm Design Week runs 6-12 February and Design Shanghai runs 8-11 March.

Words Niamh Coghlan