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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  • Goodness. To a bystander like me (and I was there yesterday)…sounds like you need to get over yourself. What place do you have to criticize about the community as a whole? What are you designing? Those who cannot do must blog now.

    • Clark

      I don’t think my voice is any more or less valid than anyone else’s. I’ve been a supporter and member of this community for eight years now and think that criticism is a necessary part of growth for the design community.


  • One could say the same about this blog. We all have bad days (or years). Give them a break, times are tough and those outside have the most to gain.

    • Craig

      People share their thoughts about my blog’s strengths and weaknesses on a regular basis and I always listen to them. I’m not asking the design community to do anything I don’t do on a daily basis. The reason I chose to share my thoughts this morning (which I knew were going to be met with anger and disappointment toward me) is because I don’t think that “giving someone a break” means not voicing a concern or issue. I think I’ve expressed my love and appreciation of the design community here (and every day on D*S) but I also know it’s capable of much, much more.


  • Your sentiments are perfectly reflected in a conversation I was having this weekend with my husband where we were wondering whether our generation’s furniture design legacy will be totally overshadowed by all the heavily mid-century inspired or vintage focused designs that sell in the mass market.

    How can we find a ‘look’ for now that says something about our culture/history/politics ? Also, where is the excitement and enthusiasm of the mass market for ‘something new’? I would submit that this needs to be the biggest goal of the design community today, to make modern design (not reproductions) attractive and interesting to the public without compromising the artistic vision.

  • As a merchant, I get it – give people what they want so you can pay your rent. As a designer and graduate of Product Design at Parsons, it feels like innovation is on hiatus.

    There used to be a certain “cool factor” a designer would obey – if it’s cool, get on to the next concept, fast! (Enough with the neon!) In times of economic hardship or times of new material uncertainty, designers/architects have often referenced the past. Look at Daniel Burnham – architect of the Bklyn Bridge – he reverted to Gothic architecture to lessen the fear of crossing what was the largest bridge. Or look at SoHo – new, cheap, innovative steel construction – but it mimics ancient Greek columns. I wouldn’t be surprised if the first mass-market 3D-printed table ended up being a square-topped version of Saarinen’s Tulip Table. Minor tweaks on a classic.

    From a business perspective, the ICFF / NY Gift Show booth rental + booth design ends up costing well over $5000 – upwards of $10k if you have an absolutely fabulous booth set up, not incl. freight, hotels, or airfare. I agree that we want to see the cool new grads’ products, but it takes more than a cool concept to get you to ICFF; it’ takes a business model.

    Design shows (sadly) aren’t galleries, they’re ways of conducting commerce. (Perhaps ICFF has in the past more or less bridged this fine line between that which is a sculptural product vs. that which is art, but the last 5 years or so designers have obeyed more consumer-driven-design as a means to stay afloat.

    • christen

      i’m a big fan of your work and am curious to get your feedback on this. are there any shows that you think are better for independent designers to participate in? i haven’t been able to attend all the design fairs across the globe, so i’m wondering if you’ve ever seen a show that really manages to combine art/experimentation with more retail-driven work?


  • Grace works so hard to get new design work out there everyday, of course she has a right to expess her opinion on the quality of the fair. The community needs criticism to grow and discussion on these points can only have a positive effect.

  • I rely on people like you, Grace, to tell me about these shows, what’s at them and what you see as the high/low points. I’m not able to go to shows like this either because of location (I’m on the Canadian Prairies) or finances, so having a source who is able to go and tell me what’s what is invaluable.

    That said, your comments are bang on to what I’ve seen online recently. I’m fairly new to this design community, but I’m seeing way too much duplication and very little innovation. I’m not sure if it’s an economy-based issue, where the designers are going to where the dollars are rather than wasting (a) time and (b) money being experimental. I think that over the long run, though, this complacency to just copy what was done 30+ years ago is going to leave us without anything to build off of.

  • Being an interior designer (designed hotels…) turned small biz owner, I see both sides of the coin. I’ve never attended ICFF but I have attended these shows in the past. Unfortunately I think these companies need to play it safe for the purposes of “surviving”. I know that a lot of them had to cut back budgets on over the top displays/innovative design because of the state of our economy. But frankly speaking, unless you are a huge name designer and have big budget clients, there aren’t a lot of clients out there that want the innovative design (at least in my experience). So I see them playing it safe to feed a majority of the market (again, in my experience)….it is a shame because blogs like D*S expose the amazing talent and design daily! So I understand that is can be disappointing but I do think everyone is still be a little cautious right now…just my thoughts! Thanks for sharing yours!

  • Hello, love your blog. I would like to comment on the show from my perspective. We used to do home shows and design shows for our company but quit doing them about 3 years ago. Mainly, because lots of these shows became not only very expensive but more like a flea market with the people particpating in them. We used to spend lots of money for these shows but wasn’t get return on investment so we decided not to do them anymore.

    • cejay

      can you tell me more about the ROI? were you not getting any orders? did you get press or any attention that made up for a lack of orders? i’m really curious to hear about the seller’s perspective and whether or not it’s possible to get enough orders to make up for the large investment. i’m guessing it’s possible or people wouldn’t do them, but maybe the difference between investment and profit is too small to make it feasible for smaller, independent designers? i just hope these shows don’t turn into rows upon rows of huge companies because that’s the only group left that can afford to show.


  • I absolutely gazed at the idea:

    “Three pins featuring photos from abandoned houses.”


    «…a ghostly empty convent in sepia
    ‘anarchy’ graffiti on floral wallpaper
    an overgrown shack with a tree emerging from the roof

    The pins are 1.5 inches round and arrive bundled with a snippet of antique book as shown in the last photo.»

  • I’ve never beent o ICFF, but I’m am intrigued by this conversation. I love the honesty. As an artist, I know how helpful a true and honest critique is! This is how we grow and push each other. Critique is just as important from a fellow artist as it is from the general viewer. I also REALLY appreciate that you, Grace, are calling ICFF to find creative solutions to include young, up and coming designers who have NEW and BOLD ideas. Isn’t this what design is about? Indeed, having both established designers with new designers is the equation for creative energy and healthy competition.

  • Grace,

    There was no mention of it… but did you visit MODEL CITIZENS NYC (http://www.modelcitizensnyc.com/) by chance (May 13-15 @ the Chelsea Art Museum this year)? It was the 3rd annual exhibit and this year’s show featured 90+ independent designers showing furniture and other design objects… it was thoughtful, experimental, eclectic, inspiring, and garnered a great crowd each of the three days it was up. It was established with the intent to support and foster a collaborative forum for independent and emerging designers!!!

    The NY Design Week calendar is FULL of great events / parties / pop-up exhibits … while ICFF is held in the Javits Center (i.e. $$$$) after all.

    • Vanessa

      I’m heading over today after a glowing recommendation from the Pratt Profs ;) The off-site shows have been great this year. I really loved the Noho shows and am excited to check out MC today. I guess I just hoped that more of that independent, experimental spirit would creep into ICFF. Maybe it’s too much to hope for in a tough economy like this. I just hate to imagine not going to ICFF because it’s all too corporate or retail focused.


  • Thanks Grace!

    I don’t want to be known as an “independent designer” just because I didn’t invent bent-ply or haven’t been featured on the cover of Elle Decor (yet!). I studied mass-market product design, learned a great business foundation at my parents’ successful housewares shop that sold handmade products from all over the world, and feel that a designers goal should be to create something so fabulous that everyone has to have it. My goal is to grow my small company (not even a year old yet) into a large company bridging handmade, skilled craftsmanship and modern design. I too am reverting to the past, but from a production standpoint more so than a design standpoint.

    That being said – so, say there’s a fabulous 20-something who just graduated top of their class at Parsons/Pratt/RISD/etc. Unless they have a trust fund or worked 2 jobs for three years and saved every darn penny (that’s how I launched), how the heck does one make it? And say they get into ICFF and get some orders – have they even thought about actual order fulfillment? Factoring your prices based on making onesie/twosies yourself in your school’s prototyping lab between shifts of waiting on tables does NOT constitute a business plan. And if you’re that small, your prices are probably astronomical – and having worked for a very high-end interior design firm, if a client is going to drop $5000 on a chair, they’re going to want to have some celebrity designer behind it – “oh, it’s a limited edition by so-and-so.”

    I don’t want to be harsh on “independent design”, but being ”crafty” does NOT make you a designer. There are great craft fairs and things like Etsy and the Bklyn Flea that feels more or less like independent design (to me). I truly don’t know how someone can succeed if going the independent route, unless it’s just a hobby.

    Thankfully there’s an abundance of bloggers now who are this new layer of mass-media/support/press for smaller names/brands. Perhaps we can actually thank ICFF/NYIGF for being expensive, weeding out the companies that are simply too small to make it in a global mass-marketplace, but we can however look to the panel who juried companies and designers and question their judgement.

    • christen

      that’s a really interesting perspective. to me “independent” and “crafty” aren’t the same thing at all, and to me “independent” doesn’t mean you can’t have mass-market appeal. i’m trying to separate the huge design houses (herman miller, roche bobois, etc) that have a lot of money behind them from the people that aren’t part of a larger backing company or corporation. i don’t think one is necessarily better than the other, just that both deserve the right to be present at the fairs.

      i feel very differently about student design though. i’ve seen several student designers launch at ICFF and go on to be successful independent designers. they may not have the same traditional business plans as larger companies, but they’re living comfortably and producing things that are both interesting and selling. i think what i’m looking for is more “grey area” in this show. it feels very black and white right now- all high end, big name things or really small scale, whimsical fun pieces that aren’t really ground breaking either (but are still more appealing to me). i’d love to see people thrive who aren’t producing those $5,000 chairs, but aren’t producing smaller $5 pieces either. I hope that there’s a market to support people making things in the $500-$2500 range per piece. And I hope there’s a desire from both buyers and makers to avoid either extreme for the sake of sales.

      That said, if nothing else, I’ll continue to be happy and proud to be a part of the media community that supports great design wherever it is, shows, off-site events, student fairs, studios and flea markets.


  • Having just come back from KBB (Kitchen’s, bedrooms and bathrooms) Trade Show in London I do understand how frustrating it can be to not see much innovation at shows. However, for me shows are often a chase to just “catch up” with old or long lost suppliers and are not always about forging new relationships with innovation. I love shows like TENT in the UK that are all about innovation and graduate work etc but often as a designer it is so frustrating to go and see this amazing innovation – and then realise that they haven’t thought about how to market it, price it (both for retail and trade), ship it… it is a tight rope between innovation and practicality. For me, as someone who actually buys and uses these products for actual clients shows (both trade and open to the public) need to be more practical than simple innovation.

    **Note on KBB: wasn’t particularly exciting as a show but was useful as someone who actually buys products and managed to find a few new suppliers who are doing the same kitchen designs as the old one but either quicker or cheaper**

  • The cost of these shows is a huge factor. When designers are laying out so much money thy can’t afford to take risks. Javitt’s and ICFF aren’t going to lower the cost of the shows, so most likely the answer is smaller more independent shows elsewhere.

    • raina

      i’m curious about that idea and i wonder if it’s feasible. do you think store owners and designers would go to all those shows? i’m always interested in having more small, regional shows but i wonder how practical it is for store owners to be able to go to them all…it’s tough. that’s why my brain keeps going back to having an online component somehow…


      • a quick note to everyone reading- i’m running out now to cover the national stationery show. i’m going to check comments and reply as often as i can until i get home. but if you don’t hear from me for an hour or two please don’t assume i’m ignoring your comment or don’t have a response yet. i’ll get to any questions, comments, etc as soon as i return from NSS today.

        thanks for all your feedback,

  • I’m missing ICFF this year, so I’m experiencing it through others’ coverage. Your comments are really interesting. Did they have the section for younger, emerging designers? I’m usually most excited by what I find there and from the big yet innovative companies like Alessi and Design House Stockholm. I’m never that jazzed by the large middle.

    • caroline

      there are student sections mixed throughout but there’s not really a younger, emerging section anymore. i wish there was. normally the british design section feels like that but i wasn’t feeling that section as much this year.


  • In all honesty Grace, I think these big shows are becoming irrelevant in may sectors/industries. I work in the software industry and people have been pulling out of shows for years because they’re expensive to attend and the ROI can minimal. They seem to be big parties/social events at the most (which on the other side of the coin could be good for networking I suppose…). Either way, it can get pretty costly! I’m not sure what the alternative is but I love your idea of having a pre-show with videos etc — at least that medium is affordable for many artists/designers.

    • lealou-

      that’s interesting to hear about another industry having the same issue. i’m really anxious and curious to see what the alternative is, in and outside of design.


      i think part of loving a community is being honest about when a part of it (i’m certainly not saying all of it) is struggling. i’ve had readers point out issues we’ve had with the site every day for 7 years, so i guess a part of me is used to constant feedback, good or bad. i know people are going to be angry at me for saying what i did in this post/video, but i don’t feel right not being honest about what i saw at the show and about my desire to see the community push itself further. it’s certainly not a new sentiment, and it’s something i’ve heard people say in private circles for years now. at the end of the day i really love this community more than words can describe, and sometimes being honest about a community’s weakness is the only way to get people talking about solutions. and that’s my goal here- to discuss solutions to this design fair issue and see if there are ways people like us can help make sure innovative and independent design has a voice on a larger stage.


  • WOW Grace you’re amazing. SO brave. I would have been nervous to post this video… you are a braver blogger than I! Congrats for not being worried about a bit of controversy or fallout! The points you raise are so great and so timely. Nice work. I vote for a D*S annual online design fair!

  • I’m sure there is a lot of commentary about ‘why’ the show was less-than-super this year, but this is perfectly normal. Even the best trade shows will have some lackluster years. Still, the ICFF’s organizers will need to be creative so the show doesn’t become stale, by encouraging emerging designers to exhibit. The Fancy Food Show (which has been running for decades very successfully) maintains a good mix of mainstay exhibitors (on the main floor) and a healthy ‘what’s new’ segment that attracts new, start-up companies that otherwise couldn’t afford to exhibit. This keeps the show interesting and accessible to all, which in the end, attracts visitors.

  • Any show, large or small, is an innovative and exciting as the people behind it and if Clark and Craig are representative of that group, there is your answer as to what happened this year.
    We ask much from the designing community because they spoil us time and again with their mastery and artistry. And like any other industry, it should be honest with itself when a part of it is not up to par.
    Just my two cents.

  • Thanks for your critique and your willingness to start a dialogue about these shows. It seems perfectly logical to me that as shows get larger there becomes less room for innovative, cutting edge work. It’s somewhat unfortunate but the real question is whether there is innovative, cutting edge, challenging work being made and shown – who cares if it’s at the Javitz Center? As long as there is space to show younger, more challenging work somewhere in New York during design week then I think we’ll be ok. And from what I’ve seen so far, there is. Design fairs are just like little city neighborhoods. The cool kids bring them life and energy and create a lot of buzz about them and
    then the big dollars move in and make them
    boring and safe. But that doesn’t mean the cool kids go off somewhere and quietly die. They just go to another neighborhood and do their thing where the rent is cheaper and they can take some chances. Sure there’s nostalgia for the old neighborhood and what it once was but this is cyclical. It’s life. Just have to hope there is always room for the new, the challenging, the unique.

    • Andrew

      That’s a great point- I guess I’m just holding out hope or nostalgia for a show that maybe hasn’t been what I’ve wanted for a few years now. I just hate giving up on things sometimes. But it seems like it’s time to move on and focus on the off-site shows more. But a part of me will always hope for something cutting edge to sprout up at ICFF ;)


  • This has been quite an interesting discussion. I think the state of the economy has to play a huge role in this. On a somewhat related note, I’ve worked as a free-lance textile designer (who thankfully doesnt have to get in to the production or sales end) for about 10 years, and was told about 18 months ago,by my design director of the company I was working with, that my designs were too “out there” for this economy, and there was a need to play it “safe” for now. Production costs (for pretty much anything) are going up and it is after all a business where the bottom line counts. I hate that new innovative design in any area may have to suffer because of it.

  • I think this is perfectly natural. These things have life cycles. In music, remember the New Music Seminar? See what I mean? These things get big, then expensive, then boring and then the decision makers start sending their assistants instead. (SXSW was smart to include tech — plus they have austin).

    A friend of mine who showed at ICFF last year told me he could no longer afford to show to the blond housewife shop owner from Atlanta (hey — my mom is one of those!).

    In a way, with so MANY design blogs, etc I just don’t see exposure as being an issue for designers anymore. Good things eventually get seen.

    I’m waiting for something else — a furniture company that hires US designers and craftspeople who make things here and creates some jobs and sells a not-going-to-pass-it-down-to-your-kids $1300 sofa.

  • Hi Grace – I’ve never been to ICFF, and full disclosure I know very little about design, but your video echoed a lot of what I felt after returning from the Dublin Art and Design Show last night. Not that I think Dublin has ever been known for its great design, but the show was underwhelming, full of Eames chairs, and nothing struck me as innovative or even clever. Because I’m so new to design, I wouldn’t want to judge the whole industry internationally, but I really appreciated that you were honest about your opinion. The blogging world is often about LOVING everything, and while I love that, it’s not always the most honest arena. There should be a place for constructive criticism and open dialogue in blogging without getting clobbered! Glad there are so many constructive responses from those in the know!

  • Grace- Really appreciate your honesty in this post. I did not make it up to ICFF this year. I exhibited at The Architectural Digest Home and Design show last year. I got a few orders from the show, but looked at it as a coming out party. I think a lot of independent designers look at these shows as a way to gain some credibility and traction in the market. But at the same time the cost of these show almost make it impossible for some to do, with a booth fee of up to 6000.00 and then all the product that you have to produce to fill the booth make it hard.

    I’ve love all the smaller shows and pop up shows happening. I have always loved BKLYN Designs shows and was sad to see that they were only going to do a booth at ICFF this year. I think that these are the shows for independent designers.

    As an independent designer myself, I do plan on doing some big national shows from year to year, for the reason like I said, to keep some national traction in the market. But I am also trying to develop a small local design show in Washington D.C.

    In a down economy like we are in, I have found that I have to do things that I normally don’t do. So my ability to create some new and exciting designs and concepts is a bit limited, because I have bills to pay. That’s not to say that the ideas are not in my head and in the notebook. It’s finding the right time to bring them out.

    Thanks again, you have sparked my interests and have made me look closer at what I am doing and where my personal design agenda are heading.


  • I think criticizing Grace is unfair since she is merely expressing her personal disappointment and very clearly admitted that she understands there is both a design and business side to these shows.

    In any case; I felt the same way about the show and I don’t think I would ever spend the fifty dollars again to go. Because my response it a bit long I think I will just post it later on my own Blog and hope you can read it too.

  • I think about these things a lot. Being both a graphic designer and an (ex) jewelry designer.

    I stopped making jewelry, because I found the cost was so high to make original designs, that would than be knocked off by forever 21 and sold for $3.80.

    It is all about profit these days. And there is not a lot of room for the little guys. Once a little guy has an idea the big guy can reproduce the idea so much quicker and cheaper.

    It’s sad really. And something I think about a lot. Not sure how this can change.

  • I find your critique really interesting to listen to. At the Toronto Interior Design Show I found a few gems but overall, I was overhwhelmed by the “Bigger” companies. The little independant stores/designers weren’t at the show (and if they were, were hidden) and I know that it is because of the cost to do these shows.

    As a Stationery/Art Designer I used to be in a large Baby Show but it was so costly to have a booth (Rent the booth, pay for electricity, my time, buying displays) that in the end, it wasn’t economical. So when I walk through the bigger trade shows, and I don’t see the smaller independants who are the ones maybe pushing the boundaries in design, my first reaction is to think that it’s just not affordable for them.

  • I only want to commend you for speaking up & being honest about your personal reaction. So often I feel stifled, worried my opinion will spark a backlash or blacklisting. We need to talk more & listen more to everyone regardless of their ‘credentials’.

  • Grace, thank you for your thoughtful post. I am not a designer, but a lover of design and I too have been wondering when this vintage and vintage reproduction bubble was going to burst. Don’t get me wrong, my love of mid-century furniture is very strong. However, I must agree that when the market is so saturated in one style like this it’s hard to keep things fresh and interesting. I would love to see one of these companies selling new, bold, innovative pieces ALONG with these older feeling pieces. They don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater and completely redesign their line. By being a little brave and throwing some newer pieces in with the old, they might find that they can still bring in the money that they’re looking for with the classic pieces, while creating inspiring new design pieces at the same time. Innovation and “safety” do not have to be mutually exclusive. Presenting customers with only one or the other doesn’t seem to be working well for anyone. Again, thank you for inspiring and encouraging this conversation. The design community should never be afraid of constructive criticism, and we should always been encouraging each other to explore new ideas.

  • It is hard being, a designer and former gallery owner, myself I have a view from both sides. The cost of doing those huge show is very prohibitive, especially in this economy-for the small company to exhibit as well as the small shops to attend. I have been at it for a while, so it must be even worse for younger new design businesses.
    I do like to smaller shows (BMAC ,ACC for examples), they are really trying to work with everyone on cost, etc.
    There is online and all, but some of the more established gallery/shops still don’t seem to be using it so much to find new design. They seems to feel more comfortable with doing the same old things. I have noticed at the last couple of shows, many new younger people on the design side as well as shop owners bringing younger buyers along, so that is a good sign.
    We really need the young new people, but I know the encomy is going to make it hard for the next few years, to try things. I do feel this is the future of our country and economy, we need to mentor and encourage all the creative people out there.
    Thanks, for blogs like this and others who are willing to introduce new independent design people.

  • Actually, I didn’t think about it but Yael Miller makes a great point. In the craft world, prominent shows (such as One of a Kind) have been making their show more affordable and accessible to smaller, newer designers by adding ‘rising star’ sections. These sections allow new artisans to participate at a fraction of the regular cost. The only stipulations attached are usually that a. you have never participated in the show before and b. that your company can’t be over X number of years old. In my opinion, it’s the best of both worlds–smaller independent designers have an opportunity to participate and the show welcomes new talent that may not have been able to access the show before. The only caveat is that the show has to be committed to promoting new designers, as they will take a ‘hit’ economically on those spaces (given that the demand is already there to fill those spaces with firms/designers willing to pay full price).

    Maybe this is something that ICFF could try out? Maybe it’s a good compromise and way forward?

    • Krista

      I’d love to see that happen. And ICFF could get that section sponsored and not lose money. I feel like Target or West Elm or CB2 would be good brands to take on that cost in return for being associated with supporting up and coming designers.


  • I would be interested in your observations on how much you saw at the ICFF was stuff you either reported on or was similar to what you & other design bloggers reported on two-three-four years ago. Wouldn’t that delineate your place (meaning the design bloggers place) in the design chain? Independent design –>submit to the design blogs –> sales –> now everyone does something similar. Maybe it means there is a missing niche for actual marketing of product on line that someone needs to develop.

  • I wasn’t able to visit the shows this year, but as a product designer who has participated in one of the large trade shows I can say that, for a small company like mine, they just aren’t worth it. Once you add up the very expensive booth fee, electricity, display, staffing, promo materials, samples, shipping, travel and staying in nyc for a week… we barely would break even. It’s too bad, it would be great to have something in between the small art markets and the large trade shows. When I did the NSS my line was different than the norm and it got lots of “I don’t get it” from many buyers. In the end, that venue was too expensive to have taken any risks in, which is really too bad.

  • Grace, I hear you, I wish ICFF could find a way to fit in some more interesting, up-and-comers. It was always cool to see the young guns in the same room with the Herman Millers of the world. But yeah, in lieu of that we are gonna have to dig deeper and move beyond Javitz and that’s ok. Don’t think you were able to make it to our party on Thursday but wish you had. I think you really would’ve dug the work and really have dug the space. I like to think it was a great compliment to ICFF. We were really pleased anyway! Talk soon. Looking forward to reading your other posts on Design Week…

  • re: copies… well said. i hope you (and the other NYC-centered nesting blog) begin to refuse to accept advertising from (or promote) any store carrying unlicensed copies from either living or dead designers — and encourage others to do the same… taking a stand is simply that, not lamenting about the state of the profession in one post with a profile of white furniture on the next page. designers will simply be forced to become mid-career occupational therapists when the trend is to steal ideas laissez-faire.

  • Dear Grace,
    I am a product designer and have exhibited at ICFF over the years. The last time was in 2008 and as an exhibitor, I left the show feeling emotionally wounded, seriously. There are a lot of visitors coming for inspiration, and they are aspiring product designers themselves. You can feel very ripped off as a designer. When I came back to my studio and was entering business cards in my database and would find out by looking someone up that the very curious, very enthusiastic person I remember meeting was in fact in the exact same business as me, it was a sucker punch to the stomach. Then, there was the competitor at the show who boldly showed up in the morning taking my literature out of my booth to “see how I marketed myself”. Then, there was the photo snapping. Someone told me they liked the name I gave my collection and the font I chose. I felt robbed that year. Oh, and the very well known big box retailer’s designer coming through snapping up all kinds of info to bring back to the war room at the office to… well, you can guess the rest. These companies will never hire US designers whose products are expensive to produce. They will most certainly copy them. So, I got tired of paying to make my work available for others to copy.

    That all said, I cannot design in a vacuum. And, I do believe that the trade show model is obsolete both for the expense and the lack of editing by the folks that run it.

    You mention digital marketing. I think it is the way of the future. There will still be no control over who sees your work and what is done with it, but at least it won’t be “in your face” depressing, until you find the copy!

  • Grace, just chiming in. Design/innovation is like a wine vintage: there are awesome years, so-so years, and bad years.

    Right now, we are experiencing a so-so (or bad) period. The economy is still shaky so you may not be wowed at the large (read:expensive) trade shows. However, this is the perfect time for innovation since folks have to be creative about earning income. Also, having nothing left to loose frees your mind to pursue all kinds of possibilities. This lull in innovation is what I call a humbling period. We have been forced to cut the extraneous crap and get back to basics. Right now design is in the seedling stage and needs some time to develop. I think time will tell if the large shows are still relevant. Perhaps they are going the way of the newspaper???

  • I think this is true of any creative field in this economy. Like you’ve pointed out, small producers (typically the ones doing the innovation) don’t have the funds to attend huge shows like this. They are making them – 2, 3 dozen pieces a year. The design spies (sorry, trend forecasters) for CB2 are watching them closely. You’ll see the watered-down copies in about 24 months, but with particle board instead of FSC -approved reclaimed wood. It’s the same in any artisinal industry, in my experience. Innovate, create, then get copied and undersold by 90%! Especially hard in this economy when people tend to buy mass-production or uber-classics.

  • I don’t know how practical this idea is having not visited this show and only read the comments and viewed the website, but here goes.

    Maybe some innovative trade show design/ fabricator is invited each year to design a very cool virtual design booth. Maybe they are given a design problem or it could be related to design that year. And then the fees to designers wanting to virtually exhibit their work could be based on purchasing 30 minute increments of prepared video, live studio feeds or maybe even something shot in 3-D. I think the fee is needed to be fair and to offset the costs in a time share kind of way. Or maybe two groups from across the country can sponsor a happy hour or a lunch in the room? A housewares company could send their products to serve the drinks and food. And say a furniture group virtually projects their furniture onto ghost pieces that the trade show group creates. Or even the company who sent in their housewares could do a live virtual studio tour and q and q session with guests. I think that because of the nature of furniture design, the visual as well as tactical is highly important and for that reason the larger more established companies who can afford to have a booth and see the financial and publicity benefits are still going to want to have an actual booth. But at the same time, a smaller group would still have the opportunity to exhibit their work at a more affordable price and an interesting trade show group could show off a little.

    I think collaboration is as important as competition when it comes to design. You may have an independent designer whose work is really interesting and innovative, but from the bottom line production perspective isn’t practical. And you could have a larger more establish company who maybe is not as innovative as they could or want to be because they need to make sure what they are doing fits into the bottom line. Maybe the because of the virtual booth the two meet and a boutique design house within a company is established. As designers we think for a living and for that reason there should be a solution to this problem.

  • If the design shown at ICFF (which I have never gone to by the way) is “safe” or “mainstream” with no or little innovation, where did the trends shown start? What initially made them popular? It seems to me that design blogs have been shaping trends for a while now, am I wrong? So maybe ICFF isn’t where one goes to find new trends. Has internet media marketing and online shopping supplanted the function of showing and selling new trends that ICFF had back in the day ? Or do you still need physical venues?

  • Thank you Grace!

    As a ceramic artist/designer I am straddling the worlds of design and art and the many different ways to market the objects I make in order to make a living. I recently showed for the first time at SOFA NY (sculptural object and functional art fair at the Park Ave armory) and was excited that as a Fair they are trying to reach a younger collector base through alternative marketing and events.

    I think your ideas for including online aspects of Fairs is just the beginning of a huge change that is needing to happen to attract the collectors that will support more innovative designs.

    I think this younger collector base that is emerging looks online to be pointed in the right direction and to educate themselves about objects and buying.

    Art Fairs are an amazing opportunity for more education through events, panels and online and printed press about collecting and how to think about objects and design in general.

    You (and other bloggers) are KEY in how people learn to interact with makers, how to collect, what to collect and what events are worth while to attend. The more conversations and discussions you are able to inspire about all of this the better for everyone in our community.

    I hope you get the opportunity to work directly with a fair or two–maybe there are consulting opportunities hidden in this discussion?!

    thanks again-
    molly hatch

  • @andrew!
    I just have to say that I think its important to encourage the larger fairs to show innovative work and not be totally ok with work that is pushing the boundaries only be shown in the boundaries.
    we don’t want it to be marginalized and stay marginalized…

  • Grace,
    I think that your points are very valid, and I’ve heard from fellow designers that the shows are both becoming outrageously expensive to attend (especially ICFF and NSS), and they are lacking in some sort of quality and uniqueness for the independent designer that allows us to stand out amidst a sea of corporate design. Independent designers have the added struggle of competing in this economic environment with a product that needs such extreme mark-up considering all the singular work put into it. Even if working on a team, small designers almost have an exaggerated experience with expenses and income because everything is done, especially when starting out, in such a microcosm. I think that combining two of your top points into a workable approach would help create a better design show. A show which boasts lower costs for independent designers, perhaps a tiered systems that considers annual income; and an added online catalog which prolongs exposure for designers, both before and after a major show. What I really care about, at least in my one year of attendance at the NSS, was exposure to buyers. What I did not really care about were the sidebar activities such as the cocktail hour which was limited by both space and buyer exposure. From a sales perspective, having a forum to show my work and/or how I create, would be a better option; i.e. letting designers host discussion panels or workshops. What a better way to showcase “handmade?”

  • I was looking forward to reading this after seeing your tweets yesterday. Although I’m not in the design/furniture design industry, these comments definitely apply to the larger arts and crafts community as well.

    I would have to agree that these big fairs are not conducive to smaller, more independent, and certainly student designers. I’ve been hearing for years about friends who attended the NSS and worked their tails off to be able to afford it, to create a unique booth, and then be ripped off by Those Companies in Philly within the year. While their isn’t a lack of talent in the design world, there seems to be a lack of SUPPORT for those who are taking risks on their designs.

    Hopefully the big fairs will take critiques like yours into account and open the fairs up to a wider audience, making the attendees more diverse and hopefully resulting in a more diverse and exciting show.

  • As a longtime Design Sponge fan I feel the need to show some support here. You’ve started a great conversation. You’ve stated your thoughts in an intelligent, caring, and constructive way. Using video was a good call. Since when is it not ok to share how you feel?

  • I’m from the UK and know a few furniture designers who exhibit at TENT, London (www.tentlondon.co.uk). Tent have about 200 designers, so it is much smaller scale than ICFF and my designer friends say that it is the only show they exhibit at each year, and it brings in enough money throughout the year, it’s worth doing. They say it’s better for more cutting edge, innovative design.

    Also, PULSE (www.pulse-london.com) is a design trade show in London and they have the Launchpad area for smaller/independent designers at a reduced rate. Buyers often go to the Launchpad area first to see up and coming designers with their new goods and to check out emerging talent and designs.

    I realise that things might be done differently in the US, but maybe the smaller shows are the way forward or having a reduced rates area/stand (like the Launchpad at Pulse) to give young designers a chance to showcase their designs. The Launchpad has a tough selection process, only accepting the best new designers, keeping standards high.

  • i can relate to your frustration on many levels. i grew up in a beautiful small town and watched huge corporations come in and build hundreds of thousands of track homes and obliterate the community. i then went to art school and sat through critiques of trust fund kids presenting butterfly lino-cuts in sparkly rainbow colors. all of these situations where you feel like you give your heart and soul and others are just in it for the fame/money/money are frustrating. but i told my self long ago “not everyone can be rad/original/forward thinking, because then we would all be rad/original/forward thinking” many trade shows (ASR comes to mind) are going away. this gives room for innovation in creative gatherings. block parties of designers, rooftops, subways, burning man festival… i am with you in your grieving for something that once was, i am also encouraging you to let this push thinking into what comes next for sharing design/art/thoughts in real forward thinking ways. talking about the change in the show is part of the process and its rad you are speaking your mind!

  • I commend your replies to C & C. Criticism is a healthy part of a design/art community, and any intelligent person should know it’s okay to have differing opinions on these matters. I myself didn’t take your crit as any sort of personal attack, just a well thought out observation of what you know is capable of designers out there. Like others, I’m unable to get to every show and I love all the that you bring together on this blog. If anyone thinks it’s not work to be constantly gathering, searching, writing, researching, photographing, interviewing, etc, etc to get this blog (and others like it) to where it is, you’re very wrong and, in my opinion, missing the point.

  • I have no credentials but I love art, design and crafts. One thing I love about D*S – and which sets the blog apart from other design blogs – is how Grace manages to start discussions about issues that matter and not just post about new trends/ideas or great finds. Thanks for the conversations!

  • Phew – at first I was worried you were going to have a big angry rant, which is not the case, but could be so undermining to an otherwise positive space, you know?

    Trade shows are, by and large, expensive. Sarah is not alone in her takeaways from the show experience – and it really goes for most any field. There are the literature grabbers, the freebie stealers (yes, if you take 50 pens it is no longer a freebie, that’s just downright rude), the idea lifters, etc. Many shows really aren’t about product at all – more networking and getting an idea what your competition is up to. Sad, but true. That isn’t really why they are formed but, as exhibitors, it is often how they are treated. Additionally, if you are still getting established the cost can be damning – if you don’t at least break even with sales you can drive any ability to innovate, nevertheless survive and thrive, right into the ground.

    I’ve always found that shows that worked in tandem with conferences and featured many educational workshops were better for everyone all around – it create community, nurtures exploration and offers the collaborative environment to work with your fellow designers, as opposed to against, or worse yet, in replication of them…

    There are also the physical limitations of shows – they are limited to those who live nearby or who can afford to attend. Personally, if faced with the choice, I’ll spend my $2k on a couch, not just looking at them – which means I’m limited to what I can find locally, for the most part, or online.

    The online aspect, while opening many doors to accessibility lacks in the tactile and physical experience of design – limiting in many, many ways. The online experience can lead to fast burn out as well – something somewhat uncontrollable – but bloggers, magazines etc all featuring the same product at the same time can make you leary of buying for fear of a fad, meme, etc (woodland creatures and keep calm posters, for example – not judging, I own both).

    That said, the ability to visualize design in a space you can recognize is a very persuasive tool – apps that allow you to personalize a space are great conduits for presentation.

    I think we need to look forward to how we can both be innovative in presentation of design as well as in actual design – I think, maybe, if we figure out new ways to engage audiences, invite participation in the design experience, and move beyond established ideas about sales/presentation and tradeshow models we might see innovative design and inspiration follow suite – creativity tends to bread more creativity.

    Personally, I would like to see more design that features an interactive element – people like to feel part of the product – they also need affordable solutions….solutions a key word – more solutions as well…and more industrial design that is user centered – there are some out there doing amazing ID work, but many designers who need to slow down and put in more time/thought. Better to create an excellent product than more product…but that’s my opinion.

  • I tend to think about what is happening socially, economically, emotionally and creatively in homes, and then ask: how is the furniture at ICFF reflecting that now? It isn’t. The reason for this disconnect (I think) is because design has for so long referenced the aspirational, and right now, people just want to feel good about what they are doing with what they have. Hence the trending in reclaimed and recycled materials, not a lot of glossy and fabulous going on- more of an emphasis on minimalist, multi use items, things with patina and age. We like the things around us to reflect that they can withstand the test of time, as can we.

    The new spirit of design should really be awakened and I deeply respect you Grace, for bringing this subject to people’s attention. I have often thought that there are so many talented designers out there that are not working in fields they really want to be working in: what hinders us in our ability to define the inspiration that is currently lacking in our industry? I often seek inspiration online, and tend to look at what is going on in Australia and South Africa- they have a well defined aesthetic and spirit in the work they are doing these days. Here in the US, I think we have the talent, but are lacking in shared purpose as well as unity.

    I would think that ICFF would support a showcase for undiscovered designers and artists- but I think that it would make an even more powerful statement if all of these undiscovered designers and artists could actually share ideas and create a pathway to mark this time in American Design’s history: after all, it was shortly after the Great Depression that American art and design had a truly incredible era: Buckminster Fuller, Georgia Okeeffe, Alfred Stieglitz, Richard Neutra, Rudolf Schindler, et al.
    We are in a period quite similiar to that, and the art and design of the past showed a similiar desire to pare away from the excesses of the past to release inspiration in simpler forms. We are again ready for a similiar step- I think everyone just seems to be waiting for someone to sound the call.

  • I appreciate your post, Grace – and also the thoughtful comments. We usually go to the ICFF but couldn’t this year because of staffing issues. I love going to this show (along with the NSS) because it gets us out of our space and exposed to so much beautiful design — which is necessary inspiration/fuel for our business.

    I know those shows are incredibly expensive to participate in, as you’ve noted, but I think the idea of a section for up and coming designers that is available at a discount is such a GREAT idea. Personally, between the gift show in NY and the ICFF, I don’t think it’s feasible for us to get to any other shows — so, practically speaking, I’d rather see this show adapt to a changing design environment and economy.

    I so appreciate that blogs like yours introduce shops like ours to new designers and products. We have found wonderful lines that way! That said, there is something about the touch and feel element that design shows provide that can’t be replicated online so I’d hate to see them go away entirely.

  • I love this dialogue. It’s not a crime to critique and you don’t need to meet any perceived requirement of credentials to do so.

    Having only experienced it through D*S, I can’t speak for ICFF but I am a designer/illustrator, and I do feel your thoughts resonate with what I’ve been feeling about the art and design field as a whole this past year. I think a lot of it has to do with the economy as some have said. Creativity requires energy and unfortunately a lot of energy, in design and most industries, has been devoted this year to generating enough revenue to stay afloat. It takes away the freedom to create without restrictions and selling in an economy like this means appealing to the masses and playing it safe. Some may call that selling out, but the bottom line is that creativity requires resources. Getting to the point where everything you create is profitable requires more than talent and ingenuity right now.

    On the flip side of that, I also agree with what Sydney said: “…having nothing left to loose frees your mind to pursue all kinds of possibilities.” There is cutting edge work happening and about to happen, but it won’t be at the big shows. We may have to turn over a few rocks to find it. It’s not in the mainstream.

    I think another possibility affecting the state of design right now is the amount of information that’s available to us online. We have so much access to “what’s new” at our fingertips that almost as soon as something is new and cutting edge, it’s old. The art and design world can’t keep up with our appetite for information. And I think that massive cloud of readily available information is hampering creativity, and producing a lot of watered down art. Designers are too aware of what’s out there. The upside to that is that there is a lot more design happening. It’s just harder to sift through now. Same thing happened in music with the advent of napster and file sharing. Being an artist is more accessible but harder to profit from and profit is not equitable to excellence. The radio is no longer and indication of the best music. All my favorite artists (and from what I can gather, yours as well ;) come from a grassroots following. Like I said, I can’t speak for ICFF, but it would stand to reason that some of these larger/pricier shows might be the “radio” in this analogy.

  • Grace, I hope you host your own curated online show this year. Your taste has helped to expand my own. I know that you feature such talent on a daily basis, but perhaps there is an opportunity to do more.

  • It’s so refreshing to get a real perspective on the show. Because I live on the West Coast I can never go to these shows and I have always relied on you and other bloggers for their opinion on them. I think it’s hard for small designers to afford these kinds of shows. Some of your readers have talked about regional shows (love that) and a curated online show could be the next big thing.

    I want to thank you for putting this video together and being so incredibly honest. It’s important for the community to get different opinions on each show.

  • Grace, I appreciate your honesty and your intent to foster this kind of discussion despite the fact that some may take offense. While your overall feeling was somewhat negative, you are using your platform positively to encourage feedback. Thank you for that.

    I have never attended the ICFF, though in my field of work I attend many other large shows. And this past January, after the first large market of the year, I left feeling similar to how you feel. On a bit of different scale because of the types of shows, but somewhat similar. Is design and true innovation too much of a risk on these large scales? Are we doing too much of the same because that is what sells?
    At this show, I took a risk in the product I submitted for an award and I lost. I left with a lot of questions. Was it just not good? Should I have played it safe and gone with what was somewhat “expected” because that would appeal to a larger scale? I don’t know, but I didn’t do that. I went with something that showed how much more we can do with the process we have. I pushed and took a risk.
    After years of a down economy and a lot of struggling and failing companies in the market place, where is the room for innovative creative design? Because sometimes to appeal to the larger scale is what will generate dollars. But I believe it’s not what makes you great and seen as a leader or talent in your industry.
    So how do we do both?
    I think a lot of designers may be having that struggle. Regardless of what scale you are on, perhaps.
    Danielle, I agree with your comments on “staying afloat” as well as our ability to access design.

    Thanks for this post. It has left me thinking and having more questions as well. But, I’m loving the creative discussion.

    keep it up.

  • It was my first ICFF and I enjoyed it. I think we all suffer from seeing so much of these designs on blogs that a lot of them don’t seem new at ICFF, even if it was made public 5 weeks ago. 5 weeks ago in my daily blog dose is like ancient history. Our calendar year is hasn’t changed but our access to information is rapidly reaching ridiculous. I had far fewer Wow moments than I was expecting. But enjoyed comparing European, Eastern, and American styles all in one room. There was a lot of crap, but I expect a little of that. I then enjoyed some ramen downtown and visited the NDD popup by Sight Unseen and Future Perfect. That had what I was looking for. New ideas, wild uses of common materials, and an inspiring presentation. Its all about mixing up the Mega Shows with boutique pop ups. I am a Motion designer and thats how our industry is going. Big shops and tons up small boutiques going head to head.

  • I think it’s the nature of the business as trends are a slow moving process. Yes, a majority of the companies played it safe with best sellers, gambling with only small hints of change.

    The economy’s had a tidal effect on the creative output of large suppliers. That being said, it’s important to track the yearly growth of certain companies. For example, I felt like From the Source made a big leap considering where they were at last year.

    I felt like there were enough diamonds in the rough to write about though! Just posted a few thoughts to Pattern Pulp:


    Nice honest piece Grace :)


  • Hey,

    I’ve never been to ICFF, it looks fascinating and like it would be a big eye opener to me. I’m not as plugged in to the design world on a global scale. I am plugged in in Utah though. I work for the Utah Arts Council and each year we have a Design Arts exhibit. It’s not about retail design, it’s about innovative design. We get some awesome work in here. Best part, it’s free to submit your work and it’s juried. So that brings in the recent design grads who don’t need to pay to have their work seen, and it also weeds out those who aren’t doing anything new and creative.

    All thanks to the Utah tax payers for supporting the program :)

    • hi everyone,

      i just wanted to thank all of you for chiming in and for such thoughtful responses. there are so many interesting, valid points here and they have my mind racing with ideas and possible ways to improve the design fair system in a way that allows us to still celebrate indie design offsite, but give it a voice and presence at fairs, too. thanks for sharing your thoughts and being so involved and constructive about your thoughts.


  • Aw, I’m sorry you had such a disappointing time! I can see with the issues you listed, why you would feel let down! I’m on the complete opposite coast, so I’m sorry, I didnt’ go to the show, but a lot of the points you listed, I’ve seen in shows out here also and felt a little let down also. :(

  • Hey Grace, way to voice your opinion. It’s refreshing to hear someone talk about the copying and overplayedness of some of the design world. It gets to a point where you look at one piece and have no clue who made it, or who was the original designer. I get tired of everyone all playing slap ass and not working towards better design. Anywho – this is my first post here, just wanted to say thanks for the video about the IFCC. Keep up the honesty and crits where it’s needed.

  • As someone who got into letterpress in 2006, and hoped to build it into a business, I can relate to many of the comments above. You have to sell a hell of a lot of cards to cover the expense of the NSS. I could never make the numbers work. That seemed like the best way to get your product to the most people, but many of the exhibitors don’t even cover their expenses.

    I went to the NSS in 2007 as a guest with a buyer and loved all the innovative sewn papers, hand-applied glitters, etc. They were so original. Now you see them in Target, Walgreens and CVS by the dozen. It feels like the big manufactures wait for the little guy to innovate, test the waters, and then off they go. When I saw letterpress used in cards and DIY wedding kits at Target, I thought “who will pay $4.75 retail for my card?” Even though it’s on Italian paper and embellished, the average buyer won’t see the difference. Maybe it’s the same in the furniture market.

    Perhaps these large Javits shows are now for pairing large manufacturers and retailers who are looking for what sells. And that’s okay too. But we need to support the individual artisans, because they are the creative wave that keeps design fresh.

    Many thanks to you, Grace, and your fellow bloggers for providing the opportunity to showcase what most of us would never see in our local stores.

  • I was not at ICFF this year or any other for that matter, but something you said really touched on exactly what I have been thinking all week. Design should have purpose and I am so tired of people designers doing really cool things in some random application just for the sake of doing it. If you are talented enough to be able to do something great, push yourself a little harder to find a great application for it.

    As to the future of design shows, I hope they continue to thrive. I love the excitement of attending and being face to face with other people who are passionate about the same things as me. Hopefully we can put some of the great minds in design to work and figure this one out.

  • its Cost Cost Cost…as a artist who license her work and has been doing trade shows for over 13yrs- it has really recently about the cost!! Are you getting enough ROI from the show you just spent 8-10k on? I stopped doing Surtex after 2007 for that reason. While I was always slammed in my booth, the big contracts were not there so it made no sense to pay for a booth just to have face time with clients I already had.
    Also I think the tradeshows are shifting to places that are not as expensive as NYC.. like Atlanta or even Vegas. This was the first year in 10 yrs that I didn’t go to the Javits for Surtex, Stationery and ICFF. I think that there are other more creative ways for artists to get clients esp with all the social media in play now. I was able to get 15 new clients this past yr and only 5 were generated from tradeshows and so you see how much more financially lucrative it is NOT to do the shows. There are more ways to skin a cat as they say. With that said there are still some shows worth showing at like Licensing Expo ( which I will be showing again at this yr) that showcase to a different type of manufacturer.

    I also have to say this about ICFF and Surtex as you have stated you said ” it seems like ppl were copying each other.” I found this huge since last yr one of my big clients and a very big gift manufacturer VP said this very same thing about what they saw at Surtex… so while I think blogs and social media is good…. you are now finding many copycats trying to make a buck on designs that look like the artists who are more creative and have a particular look. I bet we will see more and more of this until ppl get tired of it.

    I am soooo glad you posted this video, a few yrs ago when I posted a comment on your blog about the change in tradeshows and how it was not the same, I was slammed with negative comments. Comments like I was jealous and maybe my art wasn’t good enough is why the clients were not coming.. On the contrary.. I work with very big manufacturers and retails stores but didn’t find it necessary to waste my money on face time. I think many other artists just want to pat each other on the back and not have a real discussion about the realities of business. I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck and I have been doing this for a long time. When the economy tanked so did retail and the design business. Retail stores do not want to hold onto any inventory, and don’t want to pay out royalties to artists so therefore its a tough market. I had many companies I worked with merge or go bankrupt. Since there is less shelf space and inventory there will be less of a need for new products- period…. !!

    Bottom line you are going to have to be creative, and stand out from the crowd to survive in this market. Its not just about good design its about branding too. There is no one simple solution to this problem. I suspect with more and more companies finding ppl from Etsy and blogs that there will be less of a need to spend top dollar on going to a tradeshow. I mean to ask companies to pay 150.00 to walk Stationery or Surtex is crazy in my opinion.

    These are my two cents take it or leave it and if ppl want to bash me- go ahead I am just speaking from what I know.

    Keep up the good work of speaking your truth Grace!

  • Haven’t been to ICFF in years, used to go to the Textile Shows too. The fabric shows turned into booth after booth of imported fabric with nothing innovative. It was a waste of time unless you were shopping for 600,00 yards of undyed Chinese cotton. I think it’s just too expensive for small innovators to do these big shows – with so little return. And Ben mentioned how we get overexposed to new designs via our insatiable online appetite (trolling design sites til 3 am..?!) and forget that the average consumer hasn’t been exposed yet. I find this true when doing interior designs for somewhat out-of-the-loop clients. I’m so “over” something and then I realize they haven’t even see it yet. Thanks for your post – it’s good to hear an honest opinion. And I too am so tired of this mid-century revamp.

  • The problem with lack of innovation at design fairs is that it is so incredibly expensive to exhibit at a fair. Smaller/newer designers and companies just have a very difficult time being able to afford both producing the samples needed and exhibiting at a show (this includes not onlye the multi-thousand dollar booth fee, but also travel expenses, shipping samples, promo materials, etc.). You have to sell a significant amount of product to offset these costs, sometimes so much that there is no way a small designer could ever meet the demand needed to just break even. This is why the shows are 90% “safe” work that will sell the quickest and be the easiest to produce.

    It can take years for a small designer to save the funds to exhibit at a show like this…and if you’re selling your designs online prior to exhibiting you’re almost guaranteed that a more established or better funded designer/company will rip-off your design and exhibit it before you can even get to the show yourself. There is so much more innovation to be found online and in small shops, but unfortunately it won’t be considered innovative for long since design theft is so rampant and the costs of constantly staying “ahead of the curve” are so high.

  • Grace, you bring up some excellent points and I think that it is time that people started to think outside the box to promote themselves and their work. I have been to quite a few shows (Salone del Mobile, ICFF, Neocon, IDS) and I find that the most interesting pieces are found offsite.

    For example, last year when I was at Neocon (Chicago), there was a smaller show off-site called the Guerilla Truck Show. Essentially it was smaller designers that all went and rented trucks for the day and then parked in one area. In the back of each truck, each designer had their furniture/art/designs displayed. The trucks were big enough to walk into and talk to the designer etc. It was a great way to get their products seen and at a fraction of the cost.

    Maybe these types of things should be done more…

  • I think I accidently deleted my last sentence. It was supposed to say…

    The big design trade shows are quickly becoming obsolete for all but the biggest buyers and designers/companies, small companies can afford to exhibit and many small stores can’t afford the travel expenses to attend. The future is in much smaller, more specialized regional shows and online.

  • I think I accidentally deleted my last sentence. It was supposed to say…

    The big design trade shows are quickly becoming obsolete for all but the biggest buyers and designers/companies, small companies can’t afford to exhibit and many small stores can’t afford the travel expenses to attend. The future is in much smaller, more specialized regional shows and online.

  • hi grace,
    i think this is a fascinating and important conversation with regard to all of the big trade shows. lawrence and i participated in icff in 2009, and though we only paid @$1800 for a 5′ X 10″L booth it was a tough show to do for all the reasons outlined here, and most importantly because ICFF is NOT a writing show. it is a vanity show for big and small companies to introduce new product to the interior design/architecture community. i know that ultimately we did get 2 good customers from the show who have continued to do business with us..so we were somewhat satisfied, though that was not enough to get us to go back a second time.

    i like the idea that you get together with glm’s phil robinson along with a panel of design “experts” to come up with an innovative future for the show. buyers cannot afford to go to all of these shows..and for new furniture/design icff is still the big daddy…and GLM should step up their game.
    i like your new technology component, and the idea that larger companies like cb2 and west elm partner with the show to support/mentor the newer and more exciting designers possibly by using a contest to vet the best, and then create a special ($ubsidized) area to showcase that work. it would become be a piping hot spot!

    ikea actually gives jobs and work to hot young designers, while american companies are not accustomed to nurturing talent. in my licensing experience bigger companies are very cynical about design knowing that they can steal it easily especially at these kinds of shows. it’s too bad really, and just about time that this changed. with so many older american furniture manufacturers disappearing soon after they fire their design departments ( maine cottage furniture for one) you might think that they would realize that design is valuable. Good design ultimately will be the thing that turns the american furniture market around, and certainly ICFF has a responsibility to help make that happen.

  • Dear Grace,
    I attended ICFF on Saturday and left feeling similar thoughts to those you presented in your post this morning. In fact I was speaking with a friend from Rhode Island who was considering driving in to see the show and I had a hard time telling him that it was worth making the trip.

    I attended for the first time last year. The primary reason I went was to see if the show was the appropriate venue for me to present my own design work and also because I work as an architect and sometimes source the types of products and materials presented at the show. I’m a 2007 graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and feel that ICFF has always been described as one of the top design trade shows in the United States that we, as students, aspired to participate in after graduation.

    That said, I am really questioning the reputation as a prime venue for presenting fresh product design – I attended the show Saturday and spent the day looking at the products and speaking with many of the designers. Everything felt very much the same with booth after booth of objects made using “reclaimed wood” furniture with oxidized steel or powder-coated edges and industrial details, laser cutting just for the sake of using the technique, nature inspirations in the form of silhouettes, holes drilled in objects and then stitched with some sort of threading to give something that crafty, Hella Jongerius feel, etc. etc. Now this is not to say this is bad design – I actually love much of that work – it’s just that I have seen it, EVERYWHERE.

    The other problem with the show is as many of the comments say, it is just too expensive for someone starting out to afford unless they have some sort of financial backing or are willing to take an extreme financial risk. I think most of the designers I have spoken with who want to participate in a show like this really question what the end result will be. Most people I have spoken with seem to say that this is a show where you just present your product – that very few, if any, orders are taken at the show and you sort of wait and hope afterwards. I think for the best success (and this makes total sense), you must proactively seek out and pursue those people who were most interested in your work as prospective clients and buyers. I’m not sure many of us can afford to take such a huge financial risk right now. I for one would love to see an emerging artist rate, perhaps something that is graduated. Largely discount the booths in the first year, an incentive smaller discount to do it again for a second year, and then hopefully by the third show year you would feel comfortable paying a full booth fee and have established enough of a presence at the show that people would seek you out. I’m fascinated with this conversation and eager to read more ideas and thoughts from fellow designers and design enthusiasts.

  • Your ideas about online components of shows works for smaller shows as well. Vanessa mentioned the Model Citizens show as being a good example of a show featuring smaller, innovative, independent designers. But the Model Citizen show doesn’t have any online galleries or contact info for exhibitors.

    But I live in Minneapolis. Currently there is no way to see the innovation on display unless there is some online coverage by a website like D*S or Core77.

    I would love to see comprehensive galleries of what designers are presenting at the shows.

    If there is an online only component for big shows like ICFF then small designers can gain exposure without a huge outlay of cash.

    And if there is an online component for all of the smaller shows (Like Model Citizens, or student shows) then those innovative designs can be seen by a larger audience as well. Perhaps generating enough interest and business to propel those small designers into big time designers.

  • Hi Grace,
    I really appreciated your post here. I went to the NSS today, and was curious what you thought about the stationery show.

    • erin

      i’ll have my coverage of NSS starting tomorrow. overall i wasn’t blown away, but i was happy to see people embracing larger scale work, playing with bold, primary colors and letting their work be a little looser and less precious. all good signs for things to come in stationery :)


  • Grace,

    I’ve been reading d*s for a few years now and I’m not a designer or artist or anything even remotely involved in the community. I just love what you’ve done with d*s. And I also want to give you HUGE props for being the most articulate blogger I know. You wrote this knowing you’d be met with some angry commenters, but you did it anyway and you’ve responded to each one with grace (heh heh), legitimate argument, and crazy politeness. I couldn’t respect you more for this!

  • I love this conversation. Grace, I would support you in digital show juried by your peers. I would follow it and source from it. I crave the new and innovative. The indie designer needs a platform that is not costly and gives them an instant response. Perhaps they can share prototypes before they are in production and gain feedback.

  • Grace, I’m coming at this from an art world perspective. The same observations are being made and the same questions are being asked about the big art fairs. In fact, that list of discussions questions you came up with was so succinct and dead-on that I forwarded it to some folks who are currently working on creating alternatives to the art fair model.

    And, of course, you should be able to ask smart, critical questions. No field can evolve without that. It’s not like it’s a religion.

  • Grace re: Christen’s Point

    If there isn’t someone trying to produce well-designed, interesting and quality product to meet the $500-$2,500 price point, there is a ridiculously large niche there for someone to fill. I completely agree with you. When you stumble across something that fits comfortably in this niche, it’s like an absolute breath of fresh air. Just because the mass market is just that…mass, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t support great design. The reality out there is the polarization of the markets you refer to: super exclusive vs. whimsy, I see is a result of the pretentiousness of elements in the design community. If it’s not one of a kind, or limited, it seems to connotate bourgeois. Ridiculous. Great design – the bastion of the illuminati only? In the fashion industry, couture co-exists with well designed mass brands, and fresh lines are given proper attention. Can it not be the same for the design community?

  • When these kinds of shows become so elitest that new designers who are producing designs of the future with originality, cannot afford to participate, a new indie venue needs to emerge, much like and for the same reasons as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival did!!!

  • Thanks for sharing this Grace. It’s funny, I had the same feeling after doing Maison et Objets in Paris in January and in fact, even last September. I have buying at this show now for 10 years and I just feel there is so little truly inspired design being shown. But as you have said, these big design shows are so dauntingly expensive that the young poor and creative can’t fathom exhibiting, not to mention the fact that if they do splurge for the show fees, they get a booth with a horrible location. All that said, my solution, as a buyer in France, has been to start going to smaller shows or ventes privées (private sales) or to pop-up stores, a solution/model which I just love and understand. It is there that you can find truly innovative young, hungry createurs. They need a voice and venue in France too.

    Anyway, I love what you shared today. Bravo!

  • Hi Grace, I was at ICFF yesterday and I do largely agree with your assessment and disappointment of the overall show. (I was most disappointed in the lighting) But for me, as an interior designer and because I live in New Orleans, not NYC or LA, ICFF is a great way for me to see a lot of the products I recommend for clients up close, get trade accounts and make connections. It’s a way to become much better informed about products I order or am thinking of ordering for someone. So in that respect it is always great for me. I was especially happy to meet the Reform rug guy who supplies ABC, see Deborah Browness and her wallpapers up close. I thought the Eskayel wallpapers were amazing, as well as the Sandler Stone eco-engineered concrete and the ARXE booth, just wow. Innovation was definitely lacking, (I think I was more inspired at the Rock Center Anthropologie:) but in my reality it is always a great resource for future client home/renovation ideas. Best, Jill

  • Hey Grace,

    Definitely appreciated your comments as a small but growing LA-based design company that’s been doing design shows for the last few years.

    We do it first and foremost as a way for consumers to connect with our products in the most tangible way possible: by seeing them in person. Is it costly? Absolutely. We’re doing Dwell on Design in June, and with a 10 x 20 space, a quarter-page ad in the press kit, materials and time to build a kick-ass both, union fees and all the rest, we’re looking at close to $15K. The resulting sales justify the cost, but it’s still a huge outlay for a company our size. We balance it with the fact that the really nice coverage we continue to get from blogs and in print is totally free.

    Re: the Eames “What’s old is new” conundrum, safe and reliable is definitely easier than taking risks, though with the state of the economy that “comfort food of design” approach shouldn’t be a total surprise. Really, who in their right mind is starting a manufacturing business today? Forget about raising any significant capital. A place like DWR draws us in with old chestnuts by Nelson and Le Corbusier, and the pull is strong enough that even the most discerning are willing to overlook little things exorbitant costs and poor construction.

    What’s most frustrating about the shows for us, though, and what I connected with most in your re-cap, isn’t the question of whether or not shows like ICFF and DOD have a future. It’s the simple fact that every year, less and less of the vendor friends we’ve made slugging it out under harsh lights and ridiculous union restrictions are able to exhibit the following year. It’s just way too expensive. I don’t know how to fix that short of basing vendor rates on gross income, but I do believe the displays and companies the people walking the floor end up talking and tweeting and blogging about when they leave are not the Poliforms and Kohlers that they can see any time they want on the pages of Dwell and Architectural Digest and Elle Décor (all great companies and magazines, by the way).

    It’s the small, risky and innovative.

  • As a regularly quiet Design Sponge reader, I just would like to pipe up and say how much I appreciated this post. I return to this blog for all of the charming things it highlights, but was surprised at just how refreshing I found hearing some critical discourse. I do not know the design fair system well enough to add my two cents about how it might be improved, but as an interested – if distant – observer, I am thrilled to hear those directly concerned fearlessly dig in.
    Thank you.

  • Safe, “what will sell” design is directly related to the economy of the last several years.

    As a retailer who has attended ICFF for many years, I can tell you that CONSUMER buying habits have become safer. Every time I bring in more edgy or whimsical design, my customers love to stop by, comment on it, and touch it but they ultimately buy the more practical item. This means that a higher proportion of my purchases have to be a bit more practical. So a higher percentage of my vendor’s products are becoming more practical. It’s a bottom up chain.

    For many, many people edgy design is a luxury that they can’t afford. They turn to slightly more basic, safer purchases because they don’t want to risk their hard earned $$ on a bad decision. They want to know that the item they are buying has can stand the test of time, will be delivered on time, and there will be support if something goes wrong.

    I believe that this is just a brief dip in the road. As the economy continues to improve, it will allow us the luxury of risk again.

    On the positive side, I’ve seen a lot of emphasis on USA made items. Consumers ask about it and manufacturers seem to be finally responding with more USA made items and materials.

  • My fiance, who is formally trained in architecture but who’s heart is in furniture design, applied for a spot in ICFF. We were sad to see that the committee selected to fill the spot with international designers who were already established in the market over young startups without a large selection of resources or contacts. Seems like big furniture fairs are overlooking young talent.

  • Dear Grace,
    I’d just like to say that all your responses to criticism geared towards you are full of,well, grace ;). Despite the fact that criticism is sometimes hard to take, it is necessary. When I was in Alberta College of Art & Design, in my jewellery and metals class (among others), we were subjected to almost daily critiques and although at the time they were a major pain in the back side we usually came away with a new way of looking at our work and a motivation to try and make it better.
    I think that is what people/designers should take away from your critique of ICFF.

    I personally think that the recent recession might be the culprit for the lack of creativity. As what has been voiced by many, I think that people DID decide to play it safe just to stay afloat and be able to cater to the masses and just be able to pay their bills. But what I can take away from what you said is that being practical and marketable does not mean that one cannot be creative and edgy at the same time.

    Besides, you have every right to express your thoughts as anyone else! And if not on your own blog, than where?

    p.s- it makes me very happy that some people still stick up for the little guys who can’t afford to get into the large shows/fairs!

  • Our collective exhibited at icff 3 years ago, it was a huge investment, also considering that we traveled from Ohio with our work and display. We took it on as a project. The return was less than expected as I felt we were dwarfed by the massive entities that were already established. This year we exhibited a a smaller venue in chelsea, which due to lower cost and greater approachability, we were able to be much more free and experimental. The return is already proving greater than the icff experience, which was cold and competitive. This year all 50+ participants were even helping each other set up. There was camaraderie . I feel that audience was more broad as well.

  • I think the best solution is to really get involved in “New York Design Week” as opposed to ICFF. Local designers and supporters could work with stores, cafes, etc. to exhibit their work as opposed to showing at ICFF.

    I, too , wasn’t very moved by the work at ICFF this year, and I had assumed that many of the more innovative design companies weren’t there. Based upon what I see online, there is a great vibrant design community in the US that just isn’t represented at ICFF in great numbers.

    However, ICFF should perhaps consider a Satellite Show like there exists in Milan. I don’t know how that exhibition is structured, but it seems to have the objective of showcasing rising talent.

  • Hello grace,

    Thank you for sparking discussion about the state of design. It was a very interesting read indeed and everyone had such smart and insightful comments to share. i feel quite educated. :-)

    I was wondering that since you were mulling over the idea that you might come up with an alternative forum to show off smaller independent designers, could you not combine your design by the book idea with that idea? the challenge doesn’t have to only be book related, but maybe creating some sort of challenge to independent designers to which they must then apply their talents to find the solution is “the” way to try something different in exposing independent designers to new audiences.

    I know that for my part, most of the artists you had in design by the book where new to me and i was glad to see their various interpretations and how they each solved their problems in a manner than showcased their talents. It made them more memorable. Presenting the same challenge to a group of designers regardless of their medium and seeing their interpretations would certainly interest me and showcase their abilities and talents.

    I hope this made sense to you. Thanks again Grace for an enlightening read!

  • re: Juli

    I don’t think good design should be necessarily confused with “edgy”. Something doesn’t have to be out of left field to elicit that faster heartbeat and “wow” factor. I understand that retailers need to play it somewhat safe, but that works up the chain to wholesalers and ultimately designers which is why we’re having this discussion right now. (Sidenote: Everyone is so bang on with their feedback, I think this might be one of the best synopses of the entire state of the consumer cycle at this point in time. Bravo Grace for getting it started). I hate to bring the topic back to sales at the store level, but the reality is that everyone at ICFF is ultimately looking for a market. Respect and praise from peers is a pleasant by-product, but a sale is the goal (and I don’t think I’m getting all capitalistic…it’s just the way it is) I was recently involved in the launch of a very colourful line into the home decor industry, and we were met with the same reaction through the entire food chain…too big a risk. Sales of anything but “greige” at the wholesale and retail level come from hand-holding and communicating with the buyer…giving the product context…marketing in a way that someone realizes they can take the risk because it isn’t really that big a risk after all.

  • Hey Grace! I can not agree with you more when it comes to ICFF itself — save maybe for the Bernhardt Studio project, which actually does give young designers free booths and has often been a great resource for new talent — but I also think that offsite shows like ours, the Noho Design District, are a natural forum for supplementing the commercial side of the business with the innovative/edgy/exciting side. ICFF is a trade fair and it’s mostly supposed to be about doing business, right? Although you can sometimes find amazing and inspiring work there as well. But projects like the NDD that take away that expectation and that function with much lower overhead costs are just as much a part of the fair these days than the fair itself. I hope you’re going to consider covering the offsite shows as well — when authorities like yourself pay attention, so do companies and potential sponsors, and that is the only way small folks like us can afford to create a forward-thinking, inexpensive venue designed to focus on creativity and emerging talents rather than mass-market-minded transactions. (Although I will say, many of the young designers who worked with us this year also had doors open for them financially as a direct result of being in the show!) I think the best thing for the community is to have a healthy dose of both — New York Design Week is a complex organism that should be looked at as a whole, not just in terms of what’s going on at the Javits, and if you widen your view, this year was actually a fantastic year for design in New York, with Wanted and Meatpacking and everyone else! Maybe the real thing to do is push more people to start calling it New York Design Week in the first place, so it can feel like a larger effort to celebrate design in the city in all ways, not just one.

  • This was the first year in the last five that we did not do ICFF. From the review in general I believe that our decision was sound. We have never really looked at ICFF as a platform for hard sales, but to generate interest in our company establish contacts and to showcase new works. The cost of the show is a calculated expense that we have always weighed out. The economy certainly has a lot to do with our decision. I don’t think that we are the only ones that have been affected by the “flat” retail market over the past couple of years. Our general observation is that a lot of these large shows have lost their luster in both the US and Canada and am looking forward to the evolution of how new and interesting design is showcased.
    It does sadden me that the spectacle of ICFF has been tarnished. It has always been an inspirational staple for me.

  • How about bootstrapping? Can you bootstrap yourself from craft fair for marketing your prototypes , get enough orders, then go for ICFF? Point A-to-B : Paper models of chair prototypes on front page of etsy, check, patron of arts etsian to partially sponsor first 2 prototypes, check, renegade to sell handmade chairs from the prototypes, coming up in July, sell enough to afford to eventually go to ICFF with bigger and more badass chairs next time, but already affording getting to renegade with freight in tow to another city is hard enough … is bootstrapping possible without a fairy godmother?

  • This year was the first year I hadn’t gone to the convention hall itself. ICFF at Javits has never really been about innovation in the first place. Innovation and design challenges has always been shown at the offsite shows. It’s been that way since 1999. Anyone who knows anything about ICFF knows that the fair itself at the Javitts has very little design merit and all the really interesting work is shown offsite. I don’t go to Javitts to laugh at lame stationary products or be inspired by some young design graduate showing his teapot that turns black when it gets warm. I go there to get a general gauge of what buyers are buying.. As a designer in the field for years I don’t have and delusions of what Javitts is about… It’s about SKUs.

    Look at how exciting NOHO was this year. That was a perfect example of where ICFF needed to be. Interesting work, pushing materials, designers discussing..etc It was like WIlliamsburg 2004-2006 all over again. And with the additions of Wanted design and some of the other events I think we saw enough of where design needs to be going.

    As far as I am concerned this year was a move in the right direction.

    • Alex

      I’ll have to disagree that ICFF has never been about innovation or design merit. My first year at the show in 2004 had some great ideas, new materials and designers that have since gone on to be great players in the field. It was never Williamsburg in 2004, of course, but I’m not asking it to be that. I’m merely asking ICFF to make room for people who are pushing themselves harder and for the people who are currently showing to try a little harder. I’m not ready to give up on ICFF as a place for cutting edge design to have a voice. It may not be the dominant voice, but not everyone who comes into town for ICFF attends the off-site shows, so I’d love for some of that innovation and edginess to have a presence at the fair where so many of the buyers can see it.


  • I agree with what you are saying. But the truth is that inovate products rarely sell. How many graduates at New Designers have commercially viable products and go on to suceed? Very few; as they are incorrectly taught that inovation is principal to good design. However, inovation is great for press and publicity which, I imagine, is why yourself as a blogger are so passionate about it. To get to the point, designers need to find the balance between inovative and comercially viable; good publicity and making a living.

    • Liam

      I agree a balance needs to be found. Innovation CAN sell and does. Though I think your point that it’s not necessary for sales is valid. That said, so many of the things that we now use and love at home on a daily basis started out as innovative designs people saw at a trade fair, and there’s no reason that can’t be true at today’s shows. I think designers need to work harder to create things that are both interesting, innovative and marketable.

      Also, there is an entire community of independent designers making a living off of unique, exciting and innovative work. They may not take home the paychecks that designers working for huge companies are, but they’ve found a way to make unique work and still pay their rent. I’d love for those people to be able to co-exist at the same shows as the big companies. They both deserve to have voices at a fair that claims to represent the best in contemporary design.


  • Grace,

    I would also like to thank you for opening an important and useful discussion. I agree that the cost of exhibiting at the ICFF prevents a lot of independent designers from participating, but I also share the point of view that the offsite events are an excellent place to see fresh work from young/emerging designers.

    I am an independent designer (non NYC-based) who attends the ICFF almost every year. I would like to share my “3 wishes” for the show:

    1) It would be great if the offsite events were complied in a printed booklet that was distributed at the ICFF along with the show guide. Many attendees are in town for only 48 hours or so, and aren’t able to spend the time needed to investigate all the wonderful design nooks and crannies of the city. I usually go to Core77 and download their guides (thanks, you guys!) and then make a plan, but no doubt a lot of attendees don’t know about that. A booklet with street maps would make it easier for out-of-towners to know what is going on and to more easily participate. This translates to more exposure for young designers.

    2) How about if some of those free shuttle buses went directly to NOHO or the Meatpacking district (and were advertised as such)?

    3) This year, Ligne Roset helped sponsor “WANTEDNYC”, which was located in a beautiful industrial space (a former factory and nightclub, The Tunnel) just walking distance from the Javitts. That building was enormous – it would be great if there were other offsite events there. Some signage at ICFF that pointed the way would help direct people.

  • I’m a little late to this conversation as I’ve justed unpacked my van back in Brooklyn after standing in a booth for the past four days. I want to contribute my two cents as an exhibitor and designer.

    I’ve been attending this show for many years and it was at ICFF 2009 that I launched my own furniture company.(I’ve also exhibited my furniture at NeoCon. Dwell on Design, and the AD Home Show). As a small manufacturer, it’s always a giant risk and leap of faith when deciding how to market your products and company.

    After ICFF 2009, I felt like our company was at the wrong show. Our furniture is handmade with solid wood, etc. and ICFF that year was not about craft. It was even less so in 2010 and we decided to try out one of the other shows in effort to reach our audience. I returned this year by invitation to join a group booth and because the associated costs were less as a collective, I decided to try again.

    I arrived early Sunday morning to walk around the floor and check out the other booths. What I saw absolutely thrilled me. The amount of craft and solid wood and eco friendly products was triple (or even quadruple) was I’ve seen in recent years, as opposed to the injection plastic molded, flat packed on a diesel spewing container ship, and ultimately disposable furniture of recent years. I thought that the message of environmentally responsible manufacturing was finally starting to trickle up to the larger companies. To me, the presence of more heirloom quality furniture was felt like a giant pendulum swing back towards the Arts & Crafts movement. (This may be where opinion and taste exerts and starts to diverge itself if you are a modernist). As a manufacturer, it was easy to identify that much of what was on display was made right here in this country.

    For years it felt that pursuing a business of handmade furniture was fool’s errand as year after year the ICFF featured more and more furniture made by computers, CNC machines, and international shipping and warehousing logistics.

    To reiterate, I am happy to see the eco furniture movement trickle up and start to be implemented by the big companies.

    That said, I don’t think there could be one show to rule them all. I’m glad there are spin-off shows getting exposure. It means that more people can afford to be independent and still gain exposure. After all, not all of us are suited to pursue a life in a corporate design office. And the affordability and prominence of the smaller shows means that I have different avenues to pursue in future years without stressing about being ‘left out’ at the big show.

  • While I myself was blown away on several occasions, particularly by a few of the young designers in the show (Sara Rowghani for instance whom you wrote about back in April), I completely agree that there is a need for a platform to complement shows like ICFF.

    I think the solution hadn’t presented itself before now because it needs to be comprehensive: to get designers to share designs requires you to lower the barriers to entry (cheaper, easier, simpler), designers need to get something out of the deal (exposure, $, feedback, etc), and because museums or the uber-rich aren’t all the design world aims at, innovative design needs to be brought more mass-market (which is a matter of affordability as much as anything else).

    So in essence it’s a solution that needs the right combination of priorities and expertise to pull off.

    So that’s my two cents… I wrote a longer reply on my blog… be keepin up. Thanks Grace!

  • 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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