icff 2011: thoughts on this year’s show…

by Grace Bonney

I wanted to start off this week’s ICFF coverage with something uplifting and exciting and full of exuberance about what I’d seen at this year’s show. But sadly this year’s ICFF wasn’t the show I hoped it would be. I spent most of yesterday agonizing about how to handle the coverage and at the end of the day (literally) I decided a video response felt like the best way to talk about what I saw. When I came home I felt agitated and frustrated and disappointed at what I felt was a show of people mainly playing it safe. Either by failing to push trends further or by leaning too hard on classic designs that have been staples since the 1950s and 60s. And that’s not the design community that I know and love. I know that there are amazing designers out there, pushing themselves to do something different and innovative. A handful of them were at the show this year, but for the most part it felt like those people doing exciting things weren’t (or couldn’t be) there.

I will the best first to admit that I have high standards for the design community. I have those standards because I have seen how inspiring this community can be and have been continually pushed and excited by this community’s work for my entire working life so far. So rather than just being disappointed I wanted to discuss these issues here this morning in hopes of starting a dialogue. A dialogue about the state of the design right now and the state of design fairs/shows. After thinking about the issues with yesterday’s show for hours and hours I came away wondering if this wasn’t just a symptom of a larger issue: younger companies not being able to afford to participate in these larger shows. So I sat down in my bedroom last night and recorded my thoughts in hopes that you’ll join me with your responses. My biggest issues are:

  • Are large (and expensive) design fairs obsolete? Are their costs so high that smaller/independent/innovative designers can’t participate?
  • Is there room for creativity in a tough economy? Or should we expect less innovation when people might need to play it safe to pay the bills?
  • Should design fairs have an online component that allows these younger or more innovative companies to have a voice on this bigger platform?
  • Should we expect less excitement from these shows and rely more on the edgier off-site shows for the big “WOW” moments?

I’d love to hear your thoughts this morning. Did you attend the fair this year? If so, what did you think? And more importantly: where do YOU think innovation is happening and what do you think the future of larger design fairs is? I hope this dialogue can spark some ideas that help shows like this stay alive, stay relevant and stay exciting. I would love nothing more than to see platforms like ICFF thrive and continue to be a place where people who love design can come to be inspired and excited and leave feeling hopeful about the state of the design world at large.

All this said, I did see some things I liked at the show this year and will start that coverage next. I wanted to get these thoughts out of the way first so I didn’t have to bring any negativity or doubt into a post about design I really enjoyed. Thanks for listening and thanks for your feedback. xo, grace

UPDATE: Megan Auman did a great response video here.

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  • Grace – I enjoyed hearing your thoughts on the show, and I agree with a lot of what you said.

    I just wonder whether your disillusionment is a reflection in a change in ICFF or your growing experience in the design community. Eames chairs were new to me when I started reading design blogs 5 years ago…but they’re still weren’t *new.* It amazes me that a 50 year old design is still labeled as “modern,” isn’t it time to come up with a new term?

    That’s a bit of a tangent and I’ve never been to ICFF, so this could be way off base. Yet, I can’t help but wondering if your impressions now come from experience, just as much as the merch on display.

    If this were your first experience at ICFF, would you feel the same way?

    • brigitte

      i understand your point completely, but i think that “wow this is all so new” glow wore off after the first few years. this was my 8th year attending ICFF (the first 2 years were with my old PR firm) so i feel like i have a good grasp of what to expect at the show. sadly it just wasn’t happening this year :(


  • Grace,
    I find your review to be spot on. I work in a corporate company, as an art director, creating design product. I have found that within the past 3 years it is all about the bottom line, how much you can make for little cost, how fast you can create something and total fear within innovation (what if it doesnt sell, ect). I feel like im at a cross roads and find some sort of satisfaction in knowing that is happening nation wide in the design community. I think it is super sad, a true reality of our times-and also now more than ever feels like an important time to be creating unique innovative work. Everything i see these days seems to be some sort of take on already proven classic-and i am bored. and sad at how much power corporations and big companies have.

    Thank you for your honesty. It is refreshing.

  • I went to ICFF this year for the first time in a loooooong time. I am a bit older than most I imagine commenting on this blog :). I had the same impressions as most. However, I think the New York Times home section this morning hit on much that was the important direction and one that I thought would be more prevalent at the show…..product that was the outcome of sustainable supply lines or a handmade type of thinking. This is turn led me to think about “what is contemporary?” what does it mean?” and does it have to look a certain way? I feel the slick “modern” look had run it’s course and we might be in a transition period. I am from DC, so hunted down other things to do and did the NoHo shows, which, I thought were the best. Really cool stuff. Design, marketing and consumerism runs its cycles and perhaps ICFF had peaked in a way. I would like to have, as someone else suggested a compilation of other shows that are going on during this week. And a way to find out what they are….would like to exhibit myself in a small less bottom line oriented venue. Thanks for putting this on the table.

  • The Ambiente fair at Messe Frankfurt awards free booth “scholarships” to young student designers who’ve displayed talent, so that they can meet buyers and consumers and get their foot in the door . . .

  • grace-I got to the show this year and thought the only interesting stuff was the student work. Why don’t you initiate an off site show in the next year or two? Everyone knows in Milan that the off sites are the way to go there. you would be the perfect one to orchestrate it.

  • the gap between independent designers and the larger design companies has never been so vast. you’re right, there are so many amazing things happening in american design but many of these designers hit a road block when it comes to production strategies. if we could solve this, large companies would be forced to focus on innovation in order to stay relevant. until then – smart, young designers aren’t enough of a threat to their profits so they will continue to be safe.

    once again, you’ve started a great conversation – THANK YOU!

  • hm. I disagree. The gap is wide, but it’s not perceived that way by some retailers and direct customers. For example, independents are struggling to compete on price, to ship as fast as the bigger brands, and to get a piece of market share that the bigger brands have heretofore had sole access to.

    Bigger brands are allying themselves with the independent designers in an effort to opt in on the trend-forward audience.

    The line has blurred, and while that is great in some ways, it’s also something to be careful of.

    As an independent designer I am trying to re-examine what my edge is in the whole environment. If it is not price, or speed…or…size…what is it?

    And how do I make that apparent at trade shows? And are they even relevant for me if I can’t?

    This is so interesting…I’m so happy to see the conversation here. Again, kudos for great, thought-provoking, leading content d*s!

    Also,”innovation” takes many forms, and it might take one form for a student…but another for a designer with an established business/clientele to sustain. I filmed a little (very pedestrian!) segment about that on my own blog.

  • #1 – It’s a TRADE show. That’s why people “play toward retail”

    #2 – Trade shows aren’t about innovation, taking risks, or “wowing” a blogging community. Bloggers don’t buy things, retailers buy things. This is not meant to belittle the “digital curators” out there—I just think as a online culture, we’re reaching at a dangerous point where we consume a massive influx of new things everyday, without considering that our aesthetic consumption is outpacing the realities of the industry that makes them real.

    #3 – Just like in Milan (and London), the interesting shows are offsite. That’s where the students, young designers, and brave businesses go to show.

    I think the main point here is that trade shows aren’t going to house the work you’re looking for. But the offsites are. And as a journalist, I think you’re misrepresenting “ICFF” by reflecting (and ranting) about what happened at the Javits, without considering the broader set of shows around the city.

    • craighton

      icff is billed as “North America’s premier showcase for contemporary design”. were it to be billed as “North America’s premier showcase for sellable retail furniture” i wouldn’t have high expectations. but after 8 years of going i think i have a pretty good grasp of what to expect- and the show has gone down in quality for a few years now.

      i completely disagree that trade shows aren’t about innovation. many trade shows are entirely about that. and this show used to be a place where you could see innovative materials and techniques applied to beautiful home goods.

      yes, seeing a lot of options online every day does make me more critical of what i see in the market, but i consider that to be a positive thing. i’d never feel confident voicing disapproval of the show if i didn’t feel like i knew what was in the market and how much of it was absent from the show this year. i think web burnout is an excuse a lot of people use when they think someone’s being too critical or harsh toward a community or designer. i feel it’s quite the opposite- i know that there is exciting design out there and i love it. i was just sad it didn’t have a voice at the show this year (and yes, i feel like it has in years past. that’s why i hope for it every year at icff)

      in terms of milan, i’m sad because i DON’T want what happens in milan to happen here. NYC is a young, vibrant and artistically supportive community that cares about supporting independent and up and coming designers. so to see that community absent from the show seems wrong. unlike milan and the paris shows, nyc is a city that isn’t totally dominated by large corporate furniture makers. it’s a place where indie design thrives and receives mainstream press attention. i’d like to see that reflected in the show. and, even despite the bad economy, i don’t think it’s too much to ask the show to support these emerging designers more, and to expect the talented designers already exhibiting to put their considerable skills to use to find a way to blend excitement and innovation with something that isn’t too “out there” to sell.


  • Grace, Thank you for your comments related to ICFF. I visited the show for the first time this year in the hopes of finding interesting, thought provoking things for my new retail store. I was sorely disappointed. I entered the show with gusto thinking, “Oh, don’t waste too much time on something you don’t love because there must be so many great things here”. Sadly this didn’t happen. That is not to say that I didn’t find a few good things but considering the cost of traveling to NY to visit the show I would have to question it’s value. I
    I think that you are spot on when you mention the internet. Obviously I prefer to see things in person and to observe the quality, ask questions etc I feel I have been more successful combing the internet to find great talent. Thanks to blogs like yours, I find great things all the time right from the comfort of my home. This is obviously very time consuming and it would be helpful if there were a platform. I wish this was happening at trade shows like ICFF because nothing beats the feeling of excitement and buzz around innovation and other people finding things they love.
    I was most inspired by the off site shows in around La Gaurdia Pl. downtown. If trade shows become something for big box stores and safe design, surely there are savvy innovators out there that can develop an online trade show for young designers. As much as I would love to see these things in person, I would certainly help retailers like myself who want to support the design community but are compromised when they have to pay $400 for airfare, $400 p/night for hotels plus all other expenses.
    Thank you for starting this conversation.

  • After just exhibiting at the stationery show, walking many ICFF shows, and observing other shows the last 7 years as a designer… we need better curation on what gets into the shows and fewer vendors as many shows are WAY too large. Buyers, exhibitors, and press get exhausted walking these things. I am over how GLM runs the shows. I think NSS should be moved to another location where you have standard walls like ICFF so everyone exhibiting looks somewhat clean and simplified with the work showing more than the actual Javitz center which is so unattractive. Back to ICFF… there is no floor plan organization which breeds exhaustion and overstimulation hindering what you might like more if you could really absorb it. More vendors does not equal better. We need to edit everything right now. It is sensory overload and there is also a lot of copying and fabrication amongst creatives. Since we hit the stream of start your own business mode in the last few years everyone thinks they are a line, a designer, or a name. We have to get back to quality and structure not only in our design but in our thinking.

    A lot also comes down to money. People are scared to push a little harder right now and the trade shows are taking the money out of our hands so fast in addition to enormous exhaustive costs to make and produce, ship and store. I think many of us are really overworked. The collective energy a few years back felt more fresh and invigorating but the times were different and design is always a reflection of current consciousness even if you are drawing on creative artistic ideas from 100 years ago.

    We are currently in a very challenged collective consciousness that has to do with how we view the world which ultimately incites how we view ourselves hence producing creative concepts that are uniquely conceptual and remembered. I think everyone needs to ask themselves who they really are, what they really want to make, why they are making it, and the trade shows need to get off the big profit wagon and focus the show more on a gallery show of the best and innovative rather than squeeze in anyone who wants to show. If GLM does not start to curate the stationery show better or take care of us (as the roof leaks) I will never go back as a designer. Honestly, it is not just a lackluster feeling show that many felt but a lackluster energy. The stationery show felt like zombie land even with many talented people nearby. The energy was way down from last year and some great buyers I saw last year did not even go. It is an expensive far trip for them and I know that for a fact as I talk to my buyers and they spend a lot of time flying in, paying for a hotel and then have to walk through 3000 booths to see people. There are too many people showing and not enough editing making the design standard fall. We need a standard. Or, we need a new show, a smaller show, that can set a high standard. Both for ICFF, Surtex, and NSS.

  • Maybe we don’t see eye to eye on what “innovation” means in design. My experiences in Milan and London have echoed the same feeling about NYC: the trade show is about selling stuff, the offsites are where the exciting work is. It’s not a bad thing. Offsites are just better venues for expressing a creative vision–more inspiring spaces, ability to have parties, more control over how you present yourself. Convention centers are bland–they optimize for accessibility and density. Should there be better work at the show? Of course. But don’t look for innovation there. The last time I was in Milan I only went to the Satellite, and skipped most of the rest. After years and years of heading to the Javits, I haven’t even stopped by the past few years, I showed work offsite both years instead.

  • “Bloggers don’t buy things, retailers buy things.”

    Well, in some sense that’s true…but I can say as a business who launched thanks to this blog…and several others… that blogs certainly *sell* things. Not to mention, raise one’s profile…and build audience. So, wowing bloggers is something maybe more people at tradeshows *should* consider! It’s part of the bigger picture.

    I also think it’s kind of sad to say that offsites are where the real designers are. Good design, whether done for your tiny artsy company, or on a huge scale…is hard. Innovations *always* stand out, whether they’re in the hipster nabe or in a huge convention center.

  • I agree with Susyjack (and watched her video) when she was mentioning that innovation may take form in subtle ways, and the meaning may differ from manufacturers to designers. How much innovation are we seeing these days though, is the real question.

    Like you, I notice mid-century designs are gaining prominence and while that’s all and good (more exposure means new variations and better price points for consumers) there needs to be a point where people toss ALL of it away and start afresh with new ideas and technologies. Either that, or they’ll combine existing technology to create something new.

    Some firms are merely riding the wave to wring profit from the trend. And partly because they know that it will sell, it would make for a profitable venture to exhibit at a trade show. The ones who are doing design innovation – they’re in the basement, tinkering with their creation before they bring it to a select few shops to test their orders and see if it would sell. And if it doesn’t, they’ll just tinker with it some more to make it better. That’s where innovation’s at – grassroot designers who constantly make things better, and in the end, more sellable. Just because they’re not at big trade shows doesn’t mean they’re not around (as you’ve already mentioned).

    A bigger problem is that if they exhibit too early, big manufacturers would probably rip off their ideas because smaller firms don’t have the economics of scale to compete on manufacturing.

  • I was about to write my blog about ICFF 2011 when i came across your post.I have been to the ICFF twice once in 2010 and again this year. Last time i did not go to the pre launch party but this year i did. Which was the best part. You are very right about a lot of things being repeated this year also and being copied. i only have to wonder what was it like in 2009 and before that .
    I also wanted to go to NEOCON this year but i did not due to work and family obligations.
    Ill keep my fingers crossed for next year .

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