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Knitted lights and boiled leather chairs: a look at current trends in design, as seen at art fairs

Collectors in search of unusual materials at Milan’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile design fair should expect the unexpected

The focus on material innovation that defined Design Miami last December—chairs made from boiled leather or cast concrete, enamelled copper cabinets, a rug hand-loomed with gold-plated silver and aluminium, a light installation combining LEDs with real dandelion seed-heads—shows no sign of abating as collectors increasingly seek out limited edition designs crafted from innovative materials.

“Collectors are looking for designs which are either ground-breaking in terms of technique or typology or which mark the time when a technology first becomes available,” says London gallerist, Rabih Hage. He cites the interest shown by collectors in designer Assa Ashuach’s limited edition Fly lamp and Osteon chair. Each is created from layers of nylon powder welded with a laser—the same process used in rapid prototyping techniques.

Further examples of material experimentation are expected at the Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan in April. When Italian gallerist, Rossana Orlandi, encountered Vancouver-based designer Omer Arbel’s “Series 19” bowls she immediately decided to include them in her show during Milan’s Salone.

The bowls, made from recycled copper, are the result of Arbel’s exploration of sand-casting techniques (plumbing fittings are made in a similar way). To produce each piece a shape is pressed into sand to create a void into which metal is poured. The overspill around the sides is conventionally cleared up after production and the item re-finished. Arbel, however, explores the expressive possibilities in retaining the overspill to give each piece its own identity.

“A large and generous overspill is encouraged during the production process which is designed to occur at the rim of each bowl,” explains Arbel. “The copper overflows around the perimeter of the bowl in a completely unpredictable manner, making each piece unique. The over-spill oxidises instantly during the pour, producing a highly textured surface which stands in contrast to the interior of the bowl which remains polished.” Pricing will be based on a combination of conventional retail prices plus the calculated market value of copper on the day of sale.

Cristina Grajales, who showed Hechizoo’s woven metal rugs at the last Design Miami, believes collectors engage with such designs at an emotional level. “Collectors are excited by work where they can feel the hand of the people that make the pieces and feel the soul of the designer as well as their innovative design sensibility. Weaving is an ancient tradition which Hechizoo brings into the 21st century by mixing different types of metals or metals with other materials such as nylon or natural fibres,” she says. “The end result makes the textiles seem very contemporary and at home with the various collections in our clients’ homes.

“It’s similar [to] Pedro Barrail’s designs,” she adds. “He creates a simple shape using native wood called paraiso and these forms are sent to the Amazon to a tribe called Pai Tatyvera. The images they tattoo on the furniture is their interpretation of what they see around them.”

Seoul-based designer Kwangho Lee agrees that “the handcrafted aspect appeals to people and my copper works received [positive] reactions.” Lee is an inveterate experimenter. He has sculpted light shades from Styrofoam while his Zip stools are made from sheaves of rice straw wrapped with industrial box belts. His “Weave Your Lighting” series starts from the simple idea of turning a lamp inside out, discarding the shade and body and keeping only the essentials. The result? Knitted lights comprising a bulb and knotted electrical cord.

From knitted lamps he progressed to knitted furniture. Lee’s “Obsession” furniture series is woven out of gardening hoses and PVC tubes. “To keep the frameless knitted furniture solid, I made them into minimal shapes,” he says. “Then I realised the shapes were very interesting in their own way so I decided to go on with the shapes but in a different medium—copper. I think my works flow one to another with some connection to the prior works, be it new ideas or inspiration I get during the process.”

Developing the concept further, Lee poured chilbo (traditional Korean enamel) onto the copper stools, cabinets and chairs to create his intensively-coloured “Enamelled Skin—Copper” series. He says, however, that “copper has been the most complex material so far because I cannot predict the exact appearance of colour once it’s cooked in the kiln. The outcome is always different from what I imagine. It’s a part [of the process] that my hands can’t do but also a part that is most charming because of its [unpredictability].”

A similar impetus drives London-based designer Simon Hasan’s experimentation. “I’m interested in slightly odd and obscure craft techniques,” he says. “Boiled leather [cuir bouilli] is a process I discovered and developed while studying at the Royal College of Art [he graduated in 2008]. It’s a medieval process, written about by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales, which was traditionally used for making armour and wonderful drinking vessels with names like blackjacks and bombards. The almost alchemical process fascinated me—the possibility of taking a luxury material, boiling it in water, and the resulting brutal, unyielding structural material confounds preconceived notions of what a luxury material should be.”

Hasan has used this material to make chairs, two types of stool, three families of vases, a five-piece desk set and a chess set. Another recent project is a double bed in brass and boiled leather for a US client. “I don’t really think of it as an innovative material as the process is several hundred years old,” he says. “But collectors are fascinated by the ‘new’ characteristics of the boiled leather—hard, brutal, a little brittle—and are attracted because it’s incredibly tactile.”

Collectors have also been intrigued by new pieces in the cast-concrete furniture series [shown by Industry Gallery] developed by Tejo Remy and René Veenhuizen, co-founders of Droog, the Dutch, avant garde design collective. The concrete chairs, bench and table look as if they are inflated. In fact each was cast as a single piece in individual moulds created from waterproof PVC. Once assembled, the moulds were placed upside down and concrete was poured into the feet. The legs are reinforced with steel rods and the concrete itself contains small metal fibres to add stability. “The original idea was to work with bigger rubber moulds to create a soft appearance,” says Remy. “Then, as we experimented with the concrete we became interested in the amount of pressure the concrete put on the moulds and how the end result made that pressure permanently visible.”

Not all experimentation focuses on “hard” materials. The “Modern Primitives” installation at Design Miami, a multi-disciplinary collaboration between New York architects Aranda\Lasch, and Rome-based leather-and-furs specialist Fendi, softened stark, geometric forms made of armoured-vehicle material into seating by using hand-crafted throws whose textile segments mimicked the modular structure’s computer-generated shapes. These reappeared on Fendi scarves made of washi, a fine Japanese paper, combined with silk for loom-weaving. While neither the seats nor scarves are available for purchase, the installation offered a clear way-marker for future craft-inspired, limited edition designs from Fendi in furniture or homeware.

The latest design in the “Fragile Future” series by Design Academy Eindhoven graduates Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta, at Carpenters Workshop Gallery, merge nature with technology with real dandelion seed heads hand-glued to LED lights, connected in a circuit board-design within a bronze frame. “Innovative usage of existing materials is a point of interest with collectors as there is usually an implication of a double entendre and a sense of humour,” says Subhas Kim Kandasamy of Carpenters Workshop. “As collectors becoming increasingly educated about the importance of processes, methods and material culture, these factors will play a large role in acquisition decisions.”

Collectors are also anticipating new work by London-based, German designer Julia Lohmann, whose experiments with kelp (seaweed) as a design material formed part of her Stanley Picker Research Fellowship at Kingston University’s faculty of art, design and architecture during 2009-10. “My aim is to establish seaweed as an alternative material to endangered wood and some plastics,” she says.

For “Collacqueration”, a project organised by designer Emiko Oki and the Japanese embassy in London last year, Lohmann created table-top containers combining Japanese kombu (seaweed) veneer with traditional Wajima urushi lacquerware. New pieces in this series will be shown by Gallery Libby Sellers in London later this year.

As Paul Johnson of Johnson Trading Gallery puts it: “These young designers use ordinary materials in unexpected ways to challenge our assumptions and expectations.” It’s a challenge that collectors find hard to resist.

o Salone Internazionale del Mobile, Milan, 12-17 April. www.cosmit.it