This article was first published in the C77 Design Daily, Vol. 1, Issue1, on May 16, 2014.
Having been to an event at the cavernous Skylight at Moynihan Station before, I wasn't sure what to expect when I learned that the cavernous garage space—the historic James A. Farley Post Office, next to Penn Station—would be hosting the second annual Collective Design Fair. Then again, last year's inaugural event was at Pier 57, a floating extension of West 15th Street just south of Chelsea Piers, so perhaps the choice of warts-and-all raw spaces is intended to mark a sharp contrast with the exquisite vintage and contemporary design objects on view.
In any case, Collective 2 looked good... precisely because it looked a lot like money. This is not so much a critique but a fact: Frequently likened to DesignMiami/, Steven Learner's Collective effort is aimed squarely at a subset of the discerning audience of the concurrent Frieze New York art fair and is generally on point. Between the high production value of the show itself and a critical mass of dealers and galleries at the upper extremity of the market—it's a small world after all—the fair offers a nice survey of what is an admittedly narrow niche.
As these things go, the ambiance is a pastiche of understatement and opulence, punctuated by contemporary 'statement' pieces that come across more as interjections than proper sentences (i.e. Humans Since 1982's clocks at Victor Hunt). So too do these objects—from classic pieces by Wendell Castle and George Nakashima to contemporary ones by Cheryl Ekstrom and Joseph Walsh—bear price tags that are typically multiples of Manhattan zip codes.
For the most part, I didn't bother to ask; rather, I found myself musing on the paradox of treating design as art. I've always been a little bit put off by "Do Not Sit" signs sitting atop chairs, whether it's at a heavily-trafficked tradeshow or in a Soho showroom—prototypes aside, I'd been led to believe that these things are meant to be used, and my personal favorites followed suit.
Jonathan Muecke at Volume Gallery: Copper stepstool & new kevlar / carbon-fiber stoolsJonathan Muecke at Volume Gallery: Copper stepstool & new kevlar / carbon-fiber stools
Even among the varied, consistently strong contemporary offerings at the booth of Chicago's Volume Gallery, I was most taken with a curious, tripod-like object tucked behind their desk. Co-founder Sam Vinz explained that the sculptural piece, a fist-sized hexagonal prism atop a trio of rounded legs, was a work by designer Jonathan Muecke from his student days; made entirely of copper, it is meant to be a simple stepstool. Vinz also mentioned that it had just sold to a collector who'd seen it years ago and remembered it to this day, a fact that fueled my own obsession with the curious object.
It's the sort of thing you might trip over if you weren't careful, but other gems were hiding in plain sight. First-time exhibitor Vance Trimble let his vintage Nordic wares speak for themselves, with a bit of 'overflow' in the special exhibition of Scandinavian furniture, curated (from the inventory of the exhibitors) by MAD's Glenn Adamson. And in keeping with Dieter Rams' notion that "good design is long lasting," Patrick Parrish presented a solo show of various Carl Auböch pieces, any of which might serve to illustrate the Wikipedia entry for "patina." (The exposed green board drywall for the booth alluded to Auböch's famously lo-fi exhibition designs; "Carl would approve," noted Parrish.)
Carl Auböch at Patrick Parrish L: Paperweight by Carl Auböch; R: "Åarhus City Hall" chair by Hans Wegner
Asked about what else he'd seen and liked, Parrish pointed out a booth that I'd overlooked—not surprising, perhaps, considering the profusion of Mid-century Scandinavian work within Moynihan Station during those three days. Norwegian dealers FUGLEN have the right idea: Their gallery in Oslo is a coffeeshop first and showroom second. Long eclipsed by the Danes, FUGLEN is quietly staking Norway's claim to decades of design heritage, and the café furnishings, which date back to the 50's/60's heyday of Norwegian design, are available for purchase.
Their unorthodox business model is particularly noteworthy in a design fair full of nice things, and while it didn't quite translate to that context among many others, FUGLEN has astutely seen fit to pop up at Openhouse Mulberry this week, once the NYCxDesign madness has run its course. After all, these are objects that are meant to last for lifetimes, far beyond the span of a single show or design week. Norwegian Icons opens on Friday, May 23.