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From beach ball lamps to boulder-sized bathtubs, whimsy reigns supreme in the latest home furnishings

Beach ball lights. Wallpaper illustrated with scenes from children’s literature. Traditional cabinets redone in primary colours. The 26th edition of the International Contemporary Furniture Fair, which concluded at New York’s Jacob Javits Center on May 19, was very much about embracing the child within.

“We like to have fun with what we do,” said Jordan Dunlop of Nevada’s WFOUR Design, pointing to a colour-blocked and lacquered wooden storage unit created by company founder Chris Walsh, which lent their booth a winning sense of whimsy.

“Our company’s whole approach is to have fun with mid-century furniture, which can look dated if you take it too seriously. We don’t. We like to mix it up. We create things that are supposed to make you feel happy.”

WFOUR Design’s Mix Match Cabinet

Playfulness, quirk and a return to the pleasures, pastimes and palettes of childhood was a dominant theme at this year’s ICFF, which attracted more than 600 exhibitors from 38 countries in 11 categories, including lighting, furniture, design materials and wall coverings.

Among those exhibitors were designers both established and lesser known, from stars such as Britain’s Jasper Morrison (honoured with a photography exhibit and a new book by Lars Muller Publishers of Switzerland) to a host of newcomers making their North American debuts (among them was Serbian industrial designer Sasa Mitrovic of TwentyTree Design, who showed an indestructible streamlined table inspired by his love of mountaineering).

TOBYhouse’s inflatable pendant LED Beach Ball Lights

Toby Sanders, the designer-inventor behind England’s TOBYHouse, a home-wares production company, made his ICFF debut with his latest product: Beach Ball Lights, large-scale inflatable orbs illuminated by a new-generation air-tight LED lighting system. They are intended, he said, “to bring a bit of sunshine to people’s lives.”

Sanders attended ICFF as part of a contingent of 50 designers travelling under the aegis of the British European Design Group, a non-commercial organization founded in 1991 in London by the German-born design visionary Karin Beate-Phillips, whose mission, as she put it while surveying the 50,000-squarefoot allotment of space afforded her motley crew of designers, involves helping “creative people establish themselves in the marketplace.” At the show, these included artists who are both transitioning into interior design and committed to bringing a sense of humour to it; standouts included painter Emily Jane Cant (who has put her surreal images of animals onto cushions, wallpaper and textiles) and Iranian-born British artist Ali Siahvoshi (whose Pan Light, a chandelier made from a copper pot, couldn’t help but trigger a smile).

Katie Deedy’s Chicago/Mexico City wallpaper

The Brits, though, weren’t the only ones chasing after caprice this year. U.S. designer Katie Deedy, of Brooklyn’s Grow House Grow design company, specializes in silk-screened wallpaper, fabric and tile inspired by children’s books and other narratives. Imagery runs the gamut from a monkey to forgotten female scientists – anything with a story to tell. Her latest wallpaper series, called Sister Cities, mines a newly minted graphic language created by merging the design signatures of “twinned” cities as divergent as Stockholm and La Paz, Chicago and Mexico City and Marseilles and Marrakesh. The resulting patterns are freshly peculiar: In the Chicago/Mexico City pairing, Frank Lloyd Wright-ish Prairie School minimalism meets Aztec geometric pattern, while stark Scandinavian design and little mountain peaks meld in the case of Stockholm/La Paz.

“Since the financial crash in 2008, people have been reflecting on what makes them happy,” Deedy said. “And a return to textiles, which represent comfort and nostalgia, is a part of that.”

Fabio Novembre’s RPH Sofa for A Lot of Brasil

Maybe so, but looking toward the future was also a theme at the show, where many participants showed off their investments in research and development to drive design trends forward. Chief among these were the international designers commissioned by A Lot of Brasil, a Sao Paolo-based manufacturer with a university-based lab employing scientists working to develop new materials for use by the global interior-design industry, the company’s product developer, Andres Zambra, said.

“Brazil is known for being artisanal, for using only organic wood. But we want to get away from that image,” Zambra continued. “The main concept behind the brand is to work with leading designers using high technology [and] the latest in eco-materials. This is what will help us stand out in the marketplace. You can copy design. But you can’t copy these materials. You can find them only in Brazil.”

Among the new materials being promoted by A Lot of Brasil was liquid wood (derived from wood-pulp-based lignin and mixed with recycled plastic) and a tanninformaldehyde resin synthesized from acai, an indigenous berry-like fruit. Intended as non-toxic alternatives to petroleum-based plastics, these new science-based materials have been successfully used by the Brazilian firm to lure some of the best designers in the world to its project. Among them are Italy’s Fabio Novembre, who created a softly undulating sofa that’s available in several new eco-plastics: moulded acai resin, moulded acerola cherry resin, moulded coconut resin or liquid wood. The sofa is called RPH (Revolutions Per Hour) and retails, Zambra said, for $3,000 (U.S.).

Stone Forest’s Papillon Tub

Also working with the Brazilians is Canadian industrial designer Karim Rashid, whose Siamese Chair, made of liquid wood and changeable steel legs, is exclusive to A Lot of Brasil. “They’re the first trying to work with polymers that don’t contain oil,” Rashid said at the show. “So that’s a big one.”

On the other hand, other designers seemed determined to revisit old materials (among them metals) and breath new life into them. Indeed, almost everything that sparkled at this year’s show was made of copper, bronze, iron or titanium, including copper brass pendant lights produced in Sarajevo by the Detroit-born, New York-based designer Michele Varian, wrought-iron bar tables and light fixtures so popular with restaurateurs that they netted Toronto’s Pekota Design more than $200,000 in business after just two days at ICFF and a new series of bathroom pedestal sinks by Stone Forest of Santa Fe featuring a cast-iron leg with gears inspired by the factory floors of the 1930s and forties.

Boasting high-end clients across the U.S. and Canada, Stone Forest also made a statement with a line of super-sized soaker tubs carved out of stone and, for the first time, Siena Silver-Grey marble, the latter weighing 1,800 pounds and costing $25,000 (U.S.).

Constella Hanging Lamps by Vito Selma

Natural materials reworked and redefined into luxurious and elegant pieces for the home were also a theme explored by designers who came to ICFF as part of a 15-member-strong delegation from the Philippines. Some, like designer Maria Cristina Brias, owner of Tadeco Home Decor, presented cushions and wall coverings woven by indigenous tribes using abaca fibre, natural vegetable dyes and coconut beads. Her countryman, the designer Vito Selma, used wood but in a new way, honeycombing and shaping it to form rounded pendant lights with a Scandinavian influence.

Hawaiian-born designer Syrette Lew, whose Moving Mountains studio is in Brooklyn, employed laser technology to precision-cut new forms out of wood. Reinvention was her motivation, she explained as she showed off a marquetry credenza made in a new way. “Marquetry is a traditional technique usually done by hand,” she said. “I wanted to use technology to update tradition.”

LED wallpaper with Swarovski crystals by Meystyle

She wasn’t the only one. Others who took an old idea and made it feel fresh was Meystyle, a Londonbased company with a line of custom glow-in-thedark printed wallpaper embedded with LED lights and Swarovski crystals. 

Quirk & Rescue's Wundt Wallpaper

Not to be outdone, England’s Quirk & Rescue presented wallpaper inspired by 19thcentury optical illusions, while the Dutch wallpaper company Eijffinger, available in Canada and the U.S. through Brewster Home Fashions, used unusual printing techniques along with new technologies for a line of wall coverings with glossy foil effects, holograms, lacquer inks, glass beads and raised textured stripes.

“It’s fun, right?” said Brewster Home Fashions spokeswoman Sarah Fletcher, flashing a mod wallpaper print by designer Kenneth James in a happy shade of electric green. Quite.

Paolo Ulian’s Banco Row bench

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