Where Is Design Going?

A 3-D printed house that left a chalky taste in the back of your throat. Adorable animals transformed as if by a wizard’s wand into lamps and tableware. Chairs and sofas as chubby and pale as marshmallows.

These were some of the irresistible objects on display at last month’s International Furniture Fair in Milan, the world’s pre-eminent showcase of contemporary design. People visit “to have a vision of the future,” said Claudio Luti, the fair’s president. Here are 12 things that revealed where design is now and where it may be heading.

1. Breaking Up With Plastic

As the so-called sea of plastic grows not just in the ocean but in consumers’ minds, some plastic objects are being reinvented in wood. Kartell, the Italian plastic furniture company, unveiled a seating prototype called Woody, which rendered familiar Philippe Starck-designed silhouettes in thin shells of ash and striped rosewood. But the company has not completely repudiated its heritage — the chairs legs are still plastic.

2. The ’80s, Now and Forever

Will the decade of big hair and tiny portions ever go away? Standing out among the 80s retreads was Four Wheels, a coffee table designed by William Sawaya of Milan that paid affectionate tribute to Gae Aulenti’s 1980 classic: a low slab of glass on four functioning wheels. Mr. Sawaya created a cheeky update from a folded sheet of brushed steel with round, flat feet going nowhere. The piece is part of his continued experiments in what he calls “soft origami.” Available in August, with enameled or plain “wheels”; $3,800 to $4,200.

3. The ’80s (Part 2)

Ferruccio Laviani, the youngest member of Italy’s Memphis Group, never abandoned the gleeful decorative style of the decade. Now he’s smack in the mainstream, an original delightfully bobbing among revivalists. His Dolly cabinet for Emmemobili is trimmed in stained oak and studded with brass to evoke saddles, leather jackets or maybe even the trunk your father took to college. About $21,700.

4. A Dodo Here, a Leopard There

“We have to make things that will not be thrown away, that people love,” said Marcel Wanders, a founder of Moooi, a Dutch design company. Exhibit A is Moooi and Arte’s Extinct Animals wallpaper collection, inspired by 10 bygone creatures like the calligraphy bird and the blushing sloth. The 11th paper, the Menagerie of Extinct Animals, is digitally printed with the whole departed zoo. Available in October.

5. Frankenstein Chair

Design companies are resurrecting pieces from their morgue. Cassina, for instance, is reissuing Taliesin 1, an angular chair designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1949 for Taliesin West, the architect’s winter home and school in Scottsdale, Ariz. Produced between 1986 and 1990 without much success, the chair returns in a slightly modified version approved by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. The chairs are available in cherry or oak veneer from $4,100; a limited edition upholstered in hide, is $5,500.

6. Furniture Mythmaker

Ini Archibong, a Nigerian-American designer living in Switzerland, introduced his Below the Heavens collection for the British company . The Circe lounge chair, shown with the designer at Rossana Orlandi’s gallery, exemplifies the fat white pillowy seating found throughout the fair (from $4,094). His oblong ceramic Eos table, with an asymmetrical galvanized steel tray top, has the jolly silhouette of a penguin (from $5,248). And his Gaea pendant lamp is pure jewelry (from $13,878).

5. Clinking Not Recommended

La DoubleJ, the fashion and housewares brand of J. J. Martin, introduced a fanciful tableware collection called Housewives. The Tippetto glass goblets are based on vintage designs and handmade by Salviati glassmakers in Murano, Italy. The elaborate shapes and jewel colors are typical for the pattern-happy Ms. Martin. From left: Zig Zag, Sun, Ring Pendant, Turquoise, Dragon and Rose. Available May 28; $4,900 each.

8. ‘Nude Ceramics’

NLXL, a Dutch company that produces trompe l’oeil wallpaper, heeded a call for more neutrality with a subdued collection called Monochrome. For the Hexa Ceramics wall covering, Studio Roderick Vos in the Netherlands molded, fired and photographed three-dimensional unglazed stoneware, giving the illusion of tile. “We call it ‘nude ceramics,’” Mr. Vos said. Starts at $299 for 47 square feet.

9. Scandinavian Cozy

Now that hygge is a global aspiration, a Danish brand called Warm Nordic is here to help. It is reissuing the Bloom table lamp, a 1950s classic by Svend Aage Holm-Sorensen, with a swan-neck stem and a bonnet-like shade. It will be available in the United States by fall for $719.

10. Add Rubber Ducky

What’s sleek, round and the color of a strawberry? Would you believe a bathtub? Also a sink and a mirror? India Mahdavi based her bathroom fixtures on approachable curves and edible hues. The Mahdavi Bath Collectionalso comes in blueberry and pistachio. “Design needs to lift our spirits in the very difficult world we’re living in,” said Rossella Bisazza, the director of communications at Bisazza, the Italian tile company that is manufacturing the line. From $1,225 at bisazza.it.

11. Is it a Sofa or Table?

“What if a carpet becomes three-dimensional and blurs the line of seating, dining, walls, decoration and floor covering?” That was the question posed by Lyndon Neri, of the design duo, Neri & Hu, who created a modular seating concept called Lan, including a sofa with a vertical textile-draped frame reminiscent of a weaving loom. Available in September through Gan, a Spanish textile brand.

12. Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Thread

For her new textile collection, Bethan Laura Wood, above, toured the New Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City (“this great Brutalist spaceship,” she called it) and studied the play of light through the stained glass windows. The Mono Mania Mexico collection, created by Limonta for the Italian design company Moroso, also embraces the polychromatic splendor of Otomi embroidery from the south of Mexico. Prices vary.

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Objects: Outdoor Furniture That’s Light as Air



Wired, webbed or sculptural — the latest offerings seem to defy gravity.

CreditPhotograph by Leandro Farina. Styled by Theresa Rivera

Clockwise from left: Alwy Visschedyk for Summit X506 slipper chair, $3,730, summitfurniture.com. Stefano Giovannoni and Elisa Gargan for Vondom Stone lounge chair, $835, vondom.com. Chilewich Basketweave cube, $295, chilewich.com. Rodolfo Dordoni for Minotti Caulfield coffee table, $2,730, minottiddc.com.

CreditPhotograph by Leandro Farina. Styled by Theresa Rivera

Clockwise from top: Lionel Doyen for Manutti San sofa, $5,278, walterswicker.com. Marc Thorpe for Moroso Husk armchair, $630, morosousa.com. Lorenza Bozzoli for Dedon Brixx side table, $1,680, dedon.de.

CreditPhotograph by Leandro Farina. Styled by Theresa Rivera

Clockwise from top left: Michael Vanderbyl for Janus et Cie See! Open chaise longue, $3,950, janusetcie.com. Junya Ishigami for Living Divani Family chair, $993, westnyc-home.com. Maria Jeglinska for Ligne Roset Circles table, $655, ligne-roset.com. Xavier Lust for Ralph Pucci Tavolino Travertino side table, $9,900, ralphpucci.net.

CreditPhotograph by Leandro Farina. Styled by Theresa Rivera

Clockwise from top left: Paola Navone for Baxter Manila armchair, $9,520, ddcnyc.com. Russell Woodard for Woodard Furniture Sculptura bench, $1,150, dwr.com. SheltonMindel for Sutherland Continuous Line lounge chair, price on request, sutherlandfurniture.com.

Digital tech: Isaac Rosenthal. Set assistants: Lukas Adler, Eddie Ballard and Holly Trotta


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Design Report: Three Venerated Design Companies Look Back to Move Forward


The textile giant Maharam, born from a Lower East Side pushcart at the turn of the 20th century, has long pursued collaborations with contemporary industrial designers, including Berlin-based Hella Jongerius and Munich’s Konstantin Grcic. But perhaps its most fertile relationship in recent years has been with the Dutch husband-and-wife team of Stefan Scholten and Carole Baijings, both in their mid-40s, whose eponymous Amsterdam studio has designed fabrics for Maharam that speak to their love of soft yet bright colors, such as azure blue and cotton-candy pink, as well as grid-based patterns.

Clockwise from top left: an antique darning sampler that inspired their designs for Maharam’s upcoming fabric range; a mug from Maharam’s first foray into housewares; dishware from the collection.CreditCourtesy of Scholten & Baijings

Now, the couple and Maharam are uniting to introduce a line of housewares and accessories created in collaboration with several Japanese craftsmen. There is a stackable wooden stool manufactured by Karimoku New Standard, its seat upholstered in a variety of Maharam fabrics (three of them by Scholten & Baijings) and a five-piece collection of colorful, geometric porcelain dishware produced by the Japanese ceramics company 1616 / Arita Japan. “Connecting Maharam with the level of work you find in Japan was incredibly satisfying,” Scholten says.

Yet even as Maharam makes its first foray into housewares, the brand isn’t neglecting its roots. Mary Murphy, the company’s top design executive, recently introduced Scholten & Baijings to a bygone craft from Holland that was unfamiliar to them: composition paper-size patchwork darning samplers made by young girls in the 18th and 19th centuries, each featuring a dozen or so colorful, complicated stitch patterns originally intended to mend clothes. Scholten & Baijings, always ready to embrace a new idea (however old), reinterpreted these embroidered motifs for Maharam’s latest textile range, to be released in July, elevating the homespun look with Mondrian-like flair.


For the 15 years that Tom Helme and his business partner Martin Ephson owned Farrow & Ball, the British paint manufacturer known for its moody shades — and names — including Savage Ground (a stonewashed yellow) and Smoked Trout (a red-tinged taupe), Helme constantly worked in the one-dimensional paradigm of wall color. “I was ready for a new challenge,” he says now, more than a decade after selling that company in 2006.

The pair’s latest venture, a fabric line called Fermoie, has allowed him to establish a more well-rounded Weltanschauung. Rich not merely in color, but in pattern and texture, the collection’s Anglophilic brio is instantly recognizable; it feels witty but never twee. Unlike other textile makers who saturate cotton and linen with pigment, Fermoie dyes only the surface of the twill — “just kissing the top,” says 62-year-old Helme, who was once a decorating adviser to the United Kingdom’s National Trust — lending it a subtle depth. The seven-year-old company’s newest fabrics, which are also sold as cushions and lampshades, come in jewel shades of amethyst and tourmaline, with small ikat patterns or vivid splatters.

From left: Carskiey, Helme’s Scottish estate, is decorated using Fermoie fabric and lampshades; two new textiles.CreditCourtesy of Fermoie (2); Joshua Scott

Helme found inspiration in the extensive renovation of his home, Carskiey Estate, a 13-bedroom 1908 Scottish manor house on 7,500 acres — complete with a rambling herd of Aberdeen Angus — on the Kintyre peninsula’s southeastern tip. He splits his time between the new Fermoie showroom on Pimlico Road in London, the company’s manufacturing plant in Wiltshire and this wild backdrop, where he often researches and sketches in a capacious library with views of the moors. “Carskiey is an amazing place to work,” he says. “Your mind is so free.”


When the furniture designer and interior architect Christian Liaigre opened his Paris studio in the late 1980s, he renounced the opulent embellishment that distinguished that era’s interiors in favor of a polished, angular minimalism that still resonates today. His apartments and houses for Calvin Klein, Karl Lagerfeld and Larry Gagosian introduced a new visual vocabulary to interior design: Jacquard valances and chintz were replaced by squared-off white armchairs and low, dark wenge tables.

Clockwise from bottom left: Meyer’s 2017 Hestia lounge chair; a dramatic staircase she created for a client in Munich; an interior design project in Japan’s Kanagawa Prefecture; the Nagoya desk, in leather and oak, designed by Meyer.CreditProduct shots: Nicolas Héron (2). Interiors: Mark Seelen (2)

Now 73, he has finally left the company, naming his longtime protégée, 45-year-old Frauke Meyer, the company’s creative director. (His wife, Déborah Comte-Liaigre, remains as artistic director of the company’s interior design service.) Meyer worked with Liaigre for 18 years and is committed to maintaining his streamlined aesthetic while lending a “different eye.” The furniture and lighting may become “a little more feminine and related to fashion,” she says, “maybe a bit more playful.” This approach will announce itself first in her design for the company’s new international flagship in Paris’s Eighth Arrondissement: She intends to make the commercial space in the store more homelike, contextualizing the lush yet understated furniture with flea-market finds such as feather sculptures and contemporary art. As she says, “I want people to realize that Liaigre can also be poetic in its simplicity.”

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How Low Will Market for Antiques Actually Go?

Even New York’s prestigious Winter Antiques Show has changed its rules. Founded in 1955, the show once required that exhibited pieces be at least 100 years old. In 2009, the organizers and dealer committee changed the cutoff date to 1969 to include midcentury objects. In 2016, they removed the date restriction entirely, paving the way for contemporary design.


“Sun and Moon,” a bronze and horse hair sculpture by the artist Erin Sullivan hangs above John Procario’s “Freeform Luminaire II” and next to Amy Cushing’s “Incandescent” at the Todd Merrill Studio. Credit Stefania Curto for The New York Times

“By expanding the datelines we were registering changes in the antiques world,” said Michael Diaz-Griffith, the fair’s associate executive director. “We’re just allowing it to happen instead of being so rule-bound that we create an artificial zone where those market shifts, and shifts in taste, can’t be seen.”

One exhibitor to take advantage of that change is Jason Jacques Gallery, which was once known primarily as a dealer of late 19th and early 20th century European ceramics but is increasingly focused on contemporary design.

At the 2018 Winter Antiques Show in January, its presentation included a pair of black plywood benches sprouting moose antlers by the fashion designer Rick Owens (about $5,500) and a new seven-foot-tall Rococo-inspired porcelain wall piece resembling a medallion by Katsuyo Aoki and Shinichiro Kitaura ($250,000).

The medallion “was probably one of the most Instagrammed pieces in the entire fair,” said the gallery’s director Jason T. Busch, noting that he expects contemporary design to become an even larger part of his business in the coming years. “We’re going to always have work from our historic program, but I think it will be integrated within the contemporary.”

The online antiques marketplace 1stdibs (to whose magazine this reporter occasionally contributes) has also been looking to capitalize on the trend. It began a contemporary category in November 2016. One year later, contemporary design represented 15 percent of the company’s furniture sales, and the offering had expanded to include about 30,000 products by more than 500 artisans and small manufacturers.

“It’s our fastest growing category,” said Cristina Miller, the company’s chief commercial officer.


The Jason Jacques Gallery booth at the 2018 Winter Antiques Show in Manhattan. Credit Jason Jacques Gallery

Indeed, a recent survey 1stdibs commissioned found that professional interior designers used about 65 percent contemporary products in their projects last year, and only 35 percent vintage.

The Declining Value of Antiques

Compared with the heyday of antiques collecting, prices for average pieces are now “80 percent off,” said Colin Stair, the owner of Stair Galleries auction house in Hudson, N.Y. “Your typical Georgian 18th century furniture, chests of drawers, tripod tables, Pembroke tables,” he noted, can all be had for a fraction of what they cost 15 to 20 years ago.

In 2002, Mr. Stair sold a set of eight George III-style carved mahogany chairs for $8,000; in 2016, he sold a similar set of eight chairs for $350.

In 2003, he dispatched a Regency breakfront bookcase for $9,500; in 2016, the sales price of an equivalent piece had plummeted to $1,300.

There are exceptions. Some designers and homeowners still mix antiques with contemporary furniture to create eclectic interiors, and particularly stylish pieces can bring high prices. Dealers of Asian antiques, like Betsy Nathan, the owner of Chicago-based Pagoda Red, report strong sales to overseas buyers (“We’re shipping back to Asia now,” she said. “In a million years, I never would have imagined it.”) Some passionate collectors also are willing to pay for pure historical value.

Mr. Stair’s highlights from the past year include a George I cut-gesso and giltwood table that sold for $31,000 and a Louis XVI mahogany desk that sold for $13,000.


George III style carved mahogany side chairs. Left, sold for $8,000 in 2002. Right, sold for $350 in 2016. Credit Stair Galleries

But antiques that move for more than $10,000 in his auction house are rare, he noted, and the market for midcentury modern furniture without a recognizable name attached – popular just a few years ago – is also flagging.

“It’s just as fickle,” he said. “Unless it’s special, has a name brand or is sexy, it’ll die just as hard as a piece of brown Georgian furniture.”

Changing Tastes

Dealers, auctioneers and designers point to a number of reasons for the declining interest in antiques and rapid rise of contemporary design. More homes have open-concept, casual living spaces rather than formal dining rooms and studies, which reduces the need for stately mahogany dining tables, chairs and cabinets.

“In these big rooms, a contemporary piece becomes a piece of sculpture,” said Christine Van Deusen, a New York designer who recently commissioned numerous custom creations from Maison Gerard, Cristina Grajales Gallery and Iliad for a client’s duplex penthouse on the Upper East Side. “Vintage and antiques are finite, but creativity is infinite, so I can do things that I could not do if I were only looking for things that were in existence.”

Midpriced retailers like Restoration Hardware, West Elm and CB2 make it easy to buy tasteful furniture on the cheap, with little hunting required.

And a new generation of homeowners may be rebelling against the preferences of their elders.

“The 40-something crowd isn’t looking to put a highboy in their house,” said Ethan Merrill, the third-generation president of Merrill’s auctioneers and appraisers near Burlington, Vt. (and Todd Merrill’s brother). “They relate more to pop culture, fashion-oriented materials and rock ‘n’ roll.”


Regency mahogany breakfront bookcases. Left, sold for $9,500 in 2003. Right, sold for $1,300 in 2016. Credit Stair Galleries

For many people today, “an English antique represents something that is kind of sad and tired,” said Thad Hayes, a New York interior designer who has recently been emptying antiques-filled homes and designing new rooms with contemporary pieces for wealthy clients both young and old.

Contemporary design, he said, “represents something that’s a lot more optimistic and positive.”

A Search for the Exceptional

Big auction houses like Christie’s have adapted to the new market by being choosier about the pieces they accept for sale, and selling less.

“There’s no denying that there’s been, in the last 10 to 15 years, something of a sea change in taste and collecting habits,” said William Strafford, a senior international specialist in European furniture and decorative arts at Christie’s in New York. “We are wanting to move away from too much volume and to give the pieces we do offer a very strong, stylistic identity, or the breathing space to be seen as collectors’ items.”

Although the overall market for antiques is shrinking, said Mr. Strafford, activity at the very top remains strong, as ultrawealthy buyers acquire the finest museum-grade pieces, regardless of category, period or origin.

“With the explosion of international wealth, and the reach of the internet, we’re able to reach buyers with extraordinary spending capacity,” said Mr. Strafford. “We can often sell quite traditional decorative arts to these new emerging markets such as the Middle East and the Far East, most particularly China.”


George III mahogany and parcel-gilt mirrors. The one on the left sold for $3,300 in 2002, and the one on the right for $1,800 in 2014. Credit Stair Galleries

To create a rarefied context for high-ticket objects, Christie’s has developed a new type of sale, which it calls the Exceptional Sale. “It’s a very small, really curated sale that tends to be about 30 or 40 lots, and it’s the best of the best of the decorative arts,” said Mr. Strafford.

Last April, one of Christie’s Exceptional Sales set the auction record for English walnut furniture when it sold an immaculate circa 1730 George II bureau cabinet for $967,500 (including the buyer’s premium) that previously belonged to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Such blockbuster sales seem to do little to prop up antiques that don’t come from the Met or weren’t owned by celebrity collectors.

The End or a Trend?

Will other 18th and 19th century furniture pieces ever return to fashion? Many designers say that antiques will rise again but, after nearly two decades of decline, few are willing to predict when.

“The pendulum is going to swing just like it does in politics,” said Mr. Hayes. “It always does. But I don’t see it coming anytime soon.”

Jamie Drake, the New York interior designer, also views the current dismissal of antiques as a trend, “just as color trends have moved from neutrals to vibrants, back to neutrals, back to vibrants,” he said.

In his own home, most of the furniture and art is contemporary and modern, “but I do still have some antiques,” he said.

A home without them, he added, “would be like a sentence without punctuation.”

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No, Your Furniture Shouldn’t Drip or Burst

Adventurous mid-20th-century designers and manufacturers set out to test the limits of new plastics, and part of the fun was that no one knew how well the materials would age. The makers came up with unprecedented forms, too, just to see what would happen.


Dr. Eiber also owns a resin and Styrofoam bookcase by Mr. Pesce, which bulged and warped as gases formed in its depths. He drilled a hole in it to release the pressure. “Except for that slight irregularity, it’s been great,” Dr. Eiber said. Credit Robin Hill Photography

Why not, as the Italian designer Gaetano Pesce proposed in the 1960s, mold polyurethane foam lounge chairs into the shapes of the colossal marble feet on Michelangelo’s David?

Dr. Al Eiber, a retired physician in Miami, acquired a Pesce foot in the 1970s and mournfully threw away its ruined remains two decades later. He and his wife, Kim Kovel, came home from a short trip to find that its filling had inexplicably burst through its pinkish outer layer.

“It was like a nuclear explosion in our living room — foam had ripped through the skin,” Dr. Eiber said. The toes looked cancerous, and “the whole top of it, just boom!” He tried to donate its components to a museum for autopsy, he said, “but no one was interested.” He also owns a resin and Styrofoam bookcase by Mr. Pesce, which bulged and warped as gases formed in its depths. He drilled a hole to release the pressure, and since then the shelves have supported books well. “Except for that slight irregularity, it’s been great,” Dr. Eiber said.


A transparent inflatable chair designed in the 1960s by Quasar Khanh. Today, these chairs must be wrapped in sheets when deflated to shield the sharp wrinkled edges from breakage. Credit Benjamin Chelly, courtesy Albin-Michel/Galerie47

Last year, a skinless version of Mr. Pesce’s foam foot went on view at the R & Company gallery in Manhattan, in an exhibition titled “SuperDesign,” which explored radical Italian furniture from the 1960s and ’70s. (A version of the show, minus some of the more fragile pieces, is now on view at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura in Toronto.) The foot belongs to Dennis Freedman, a creative consultant in New York, who owns about 200 pieces of modern and contemporary design.

The terra cotta-colored foam has become grooved and furrowed, which reinforces its resemblance to ancient and Renaissance sculptures. “Because it has deteriorated, the connection between the inspiration and the actual piece is so much richer,” Mr. Freedman said.

In the last decade, scientific studies have been conducted on timeworn plastic to determine how to identify ingredients and cope with decay. Marc Mineray, a design historian and dealer who owns Galerie 47 in Paris, said that specialists had learned to protect and repair the transparent inflatable seats that have been for sale at Maison Gerard. They were designed in the 1960s by the Paris-based Vietnamese inventor Quasar Khanh.


A 1960s Futuro, a white fiberglass pod made in Germany and meant to serve as a portable ski lodge, suffered damage while stationed outdoors for decades at various sites in Germany. Credit Tim Bechthold/The Design Museum Munich

When the Khanh chairs are deflated, they must be wrapped in sheets to shield the sharp wrinkled edges from breakage. If the surfaces end up perforated, patches can be cannibalized from other works by Mr. Khanh that are deemed unsalvageable. “You have to sacrifice one to repair the other,” Mr. Mineray said. If the PVC becomes abraded or discolored, mild soap can sometimes undo the damage, he added, but there is “no miracle to hope for.”

Museums have performed major interventions to put plastic objects on display. A restored 1960s Futuro, a white fiberglass pod made in Germany and meant to serve as a portable ski lodge, was installed last year alongside Die Neue Sammlung-The Design Museum in Munich.

The pod had suffered damage while stationed outdoors for decades at various sites in Germany. Its legs had been shortened, the shell was gouged and dirty, convex Perspex windows had been removed, and the interior had been flooded by rainwater and slathered in plaster.


The Futuro’s legs had been shortened, the shell was gouged and dirty, convex Perspex windows had been removed, and the interior had been flooded by rainwater and slathered in plaster. Diverse teams of experts were required to treat the giant artifact. Credit Pamela Voigt/The Design Museum Munich

Tim Bechthold, the museum’s senior conservator, said he enjoyed brainstorming with the diverse teams of experts required to treat the giant artifact. “That’s what makes it so exciting” to be in the fast-changing field of conserving plastics, he said.

The niche subject’s specialists have agreed upon a few dire diagnoses. Some 1970s versions of Verner Panton’s S-shaped chairs were molded out of a thermoplastic polystyrene called Luran-S. When it shatters, the shards can be reassembled with adhesives for exhibition purposes, but no owner should hope to sit on them. “It’s nearly impossible” to make them structurally sound again, Mr. Bechthold said.

Prospects may also be gloomy for biodegradable works that the Berlin-based artist Jerszy Seymour made in 2007. He splashed blobs of a thermoplastic polyester, tinted in bright pinks and yellows, across sand blocks to form a suite of furniture. It belongs to the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein in Germany.


The restored Futuro was installed last year in Munich alongside Die Neue Sammlung-The Design Museum. Credit Jörg Koopmann, courtesy The Design Museum Munich

Susanne Graner, the head of the museum’s collection and archive, said the pieces “were stable until last year, and then they started to drip.” A yellowish clear liquid with “a distinctive smell” puddled at their feet, she said.

No one knows yet what ingredients are in the ooze, or whether any treatments or storage conditions will halt the deliquescence. Mr. Seymour meant for the objects to break down someday, Ms. Graner said, but museum stewards have a responsibility “to preserve these objects as long as possible.”

Mr. Seymour laughed heartily when asked about the seepage and became philosophical about “whether we need to hold onto anything from the past.” He would be happy, he said, to see the furniture at Vitra devolve into “a pile of drips at the bottom of a bowl, and you can quote me on that one.”


Some 1970s versions of Verner Panton’s S-shaped chairs were molded out of a thermoplastic polystyrene called Luran-S. When it shatters, the shards can be reassembled with adhesives for exhibition purposes, but no owner should hope to sit on them. Credit G. Cigolini/De Agostini, via Getty Images

Furniture components with questionable futures are now pouring out of 3D printing equipment. Some polymers used in the machines are notorious for irreversibly yellowing, flaking, and turning cloudy and viscous.

Mr. Freedman, the collector, said he did not mind the marks of time already evident on his Solid C1 epoxy resin chair that Patrick Jouin made with 3D printing techniques in 2004. “It was clear when I got it, and it’s turned a golden color,” Mr. Freedman said. “The yellowing of the piece speaks to the fact that it was experimental at the time it was made, when its clarity could not be made stable.”

Ms. Graner said that despite the problems inherent in some plastics, she still enjoys learning about contemporary artisans at play with “a free outlook on materials.” In her profession, she said, a sort of “poetry that’s sometimes really surprising” arises from analyzing how something was originally dreamed up, what guesses were made at its birth about how long it would last, how predictions for its life expectancy have changed, and how best to lay hands on it.

What a joyless world it would be, and how many fewer conservators there would be, she said, “if designers didn’t take risks.”

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Currents: Services: Custom Sofas From Interior Define


Rob Royer believes there is a yawning abyss in the furniture market between the inexpensive cookie-cutter couch and the luxury lounge. So last year he founded Interior Define to bridge the divide. The company works with factories to manufacture its own sofas, each made to order. Customers are pampered with a degree of customization (sizes, fabrics and a few other features can be selected), but the prices reflect the savings the company makes by dispensing with warehouses and middlemen. Mr. Royer estimated that his sofas cost 30 to 40 percent less than comparable ones sold by conventional retailers. (The Sloan sofa, shown here, starts at $900.) Customers can see the collections in a Chicago showroom, where Interior Define thriftily has its offices, or peruse them online. Not all of the customization options are posted on the website, he said, so be sure to ask. Information: 872-802-4119 or interiordefine.com.

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Design Notebook: The Furniture Maker Scott McGlasson

At the moment, the black walnut tiles were all Mr. McGlasson had — that and a pencil sketch on a piece of quarter-inch hardboard. Last Monday found him laying out his high-tech design kit: a free pencil from Youngblood Lumber, a 4-foot-long straight edge, a Starrett square, a bevel, a punched metal disc and a Pink Pearl eraser.

The eraser was getting the heaviest use. He hadn’t liked the hardboard template when he first drew it four months ago. And it hadn’t improved through desuetude.

Ideally, when the chair was completed, it would be well proportioned, impeccably finished and sustainably sourced. It would express Mr. McGlasson’s personal vision as a craftsman.

Practically, the piece needed to be something he could build with about $200 to $300 worth of materials.

And while the test model could take 40 hours to assemble, he would budget just half that time for the production version. (The chaise longue, by comparison, consumed 120 hours.)

Mr. McGlasson also obeyed an overarching imperative: The chair needed to make a profit, and a decent one at that.

“I get hassled on price sometimes,” he said. “Some people will say, ‘Really, isn’t that a little much?’ And I’m like, ‘What do you make?’ I’m sure my hourly rate is a lot lower than theirs.”

Mr. McGlasson estimates that his hourly rate is $85. But Woodsport is a one-man studio (at least until he hires a new assistant).

This means that he spends hours of every workday answering sales inquiries, shipping finished work and posting promotional images on Instagram. In a sense, his hourly rate for this work is zero. “The only time I’m actually making money is when I’m standing at the lathe,” Mr. McGlasson said.

That lathe, by the way, cost $4,000.

This is the perverse economy of furniture making. A completed set of six chairs could run $10,800. The federal poverty guideline for a one-person household is only $1,000 more.

“That kind of money is kind of insane,” Mr. McGlasson said. “People say that to me all the time: ‘I love your stuff. I wish I could afford it.’ And I say, ‘I wish I could, too.’ ”

At these prices, it’s hard to believe that a high-end woodworker would cut corners. But, in a literal sense, cutting corners on a bandsaw is the definition of the job.

The question is what kind of corners a designer chooses to cut. Should the legs be straight or tapered? Should the wood tiles be beveled or flat? Should the back slats be solid or laminated, straight or bowed?

The chair he was imagining would be 36 inches tall, with a ladder-back up the spine. How many rungs should there be? “Two or three,” Mr. McGlasson said.

Each of these choices determines the labor that he needs to put into executing a piece. The easy chair had masculine arms, but the dining room version would go armless. “Arms? It’s a pain,” he said. “I have a price in mind for this chair. The bigger the pain, the more time it takes me. And the more I need to charge for it.”

He added: “I also think it might look more elegant and clean without it.”

Mr. McGlasson sometimes characterizes his style, with its unfussy geometry and clean appearance, as “rustic modern.” It’s furniture he wants to make and furniture he can sell. And these two priorities are not necessarily in competition.

For example, he likes to use logs that he collects with a local sawyer, a weathered maverick named Vince Von Vett — “Triple V” for short.

These are blowdowns from the lake country suburbs. It’s environmentally sustainable, which makes a good story for the Woodsport website. And the harvesting gets him outside during the summer, which is where he wants to be.

These are also the cheapest boards you can find. At the lumberyard, select-and-better-grade walnut costs $6 to $8 a board-foot. Triple V mills the trees for a quarter of that price. (Mr. McGlasson’s own backbreaking labor is free.)

The tiles for the new dining chair came from field trips with the sawyer. And the fetching curls and burls in the grain looked like prisms under bright light.

Another way to put this thought is that if your aesthetic doesn’t jibe with your pricing, you’re not a furniture maker. You’re a contractor, spending half your workweek installing kitchen cabinets and constructing office tables off someone else’s blueprints. Or you’re a hobbyist.

Mr. McGlasson practiced both of those occupations. And before that he, too, was a hobbyist. These were honorable pursuits.

“I’ve had bad jobs,” Mr. McGlasson said. “I scraped the sides and painted houses in the summer heat. I drove an ice cream truck that made no money. I ran the in-school suspension room in a junior high.”

At that time, in his 20s, he was training to be a teacher. A perk of the job: free classes in the district’s adult vo-tech program. “I had no idea how a door was made,” he said.

His tastes were simple from the start. “I liked Donald Judd,” he said, referring to the conceptual artist known for his boxes. “When your skills aren’t that great, it’s easy to look at Donald Judd and say, I can do that.”

He built a bedroom set for himself and his wife, and then a crib. “I was sort of burning out on working with kids,” he said. “I was having kids of my own.”

Then he met a Minneapolis architect who began giving him jobs in custom millwork and fabrication. He assembled reception desks (ramparts for corporate headquarters) and built-ins for condo conversions.

Mr. McGlasson didn’t quit this trade so much as the trade quit him. “When the economy went in the tank, it really made me stop doing things the way I was working, building whatever came along,” he said.

For $25 a week, he set up a table at the Mill City Farmers Market, above the Mississippi riverfront. And he started hawking his original bowls, benches and cutting boards.

Today, some of these early designs fill a showroom in his new wood shop. This is a five-room suite in a hulking old can-spraying factory, which he splits with four other woodworkers. A shopmate flies a remote-control plane under the blast-safe windows that cross the 28-foot ceiling. Mr. McGlasson bikes to the bathroom across the factory floor.

For 5,300 square feet, the wood shop pays $2,000 a month, on a 10-year lease. Mr. McGlasson’s share works out to $600 a month.

An industrial shelving unit on the north wall holds his templates and forms. The key to profitable furniture is replication. He has learned to turn down commissions for one-offs. “If someone called me up and said, ‘Can you make a bathroom vanity?’ I wouldn’t do it.”

This standard would guide the model chair, too. On Tuesday, he redrew the jig (or template), raising the seat by three-quarters of an inch and chopping the top by almost two inches. Coming off the bandsaw, it looked like a lowercase letter h, in Helvetica backslant bold.

“Yesterday, I might have been mired in a little self-doubt,” Mr. McGlasson said. “And today I thought, that’s the chair. Why is there always this effort to change it, to make it something it’s not?”

The back slats would come from walnut he’d milled down to 1/16th-inch veneers. The concept was to laminate them with a very slight curve. He glued these sheets together and clamped them to a solid wood form. Next, he placed the form in a 5-by-5-foot vacuum-sealer: a sous-vide bag for a side of elephant steak. The device cost $1,000.

“This is a ton of work for a stupid little detail,” Mr. McGlasson said. “The piece of wood that comes out of this is a lot stronger than if it was solid wood. So it can be thinner. It’s a detail I like.”

Mr. McGlasson had selected the walnut boards he would be using for the frame. He began to trace the template in three parts: a back leg and post; a seat rail; and a front leg. The plan was to cut them out, join them, then tape the rough outline to the jig and rout the edges.

A router is a violent machine, Mr. McGlasson said. And it makes a mess. The wood shavings will go in a two-cubic-yard Dumpster, with a haulage cost of $100 a month.

If the chair were to enter his furniture line, Mr. McGlasson could farm out these parts to a CNC shop, a computer-controlled router that makes quick, cheap, identical cuts. But then Mr. McGlasson held strong preferences about how the figure of the wood should lie. And he wanted to avoid the imperfections.

You can’t pay a computer to care about knots.

Mr. McGlasson relies on other mechanical shortcuts without apology. “Machines are golden and they’re expensive,” he said. He swears by his timesaver: a belt sander he bought for $4,500.

And the lathe, he added, “took me from a dude in a shop making whatever came along to a designer who was producing original work that people sought out to purchase.” This machine is where he turns his popular tables and lamps, whose voluptuous bases suggest the bust mannequins at Lane Bryant.

An earlier generation of woodworkers was almost religious about hand tools. In the movement called Studio Craft, an artisan expressed an individual credo through consummate skill and strenuous human effort. You could see it in the hand-planing, the subtle gouges and rips.

Building a chest of drawers this way could take four to six weeks, said Peter Korn, an author and the executive director of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, a woodworking school in Rockport, Me.

“When I was a self-employed furniture maker, I made every mortise and tenon by hand,” Mr. Korn said. “Because I enjoyed it, and it was about integrity. And I starved.”

Students can still study that art at the center. Sometimes it’s the best method for the job. But they also practice joinery with a machine called a Festool Domino. A few years ago, Mr. McGlasson bought his own, despite the $900 price tag. “I wanted to hate it,” he said.

Mr. McGlasson runs across plenty of Studio Craft furniture at American Craft Council shows, where he sometimes rents a booth. He can appreciate the technical proficiency that goes into melding six types of wood into a single table. He calls it “extreme woodworking” or “woodworking for woodworkers.”

But woodworkers are not his clientele. To reach his niche, he is paying $5,800 for perhaps 100 square feet of floor space at the Architectural Digest expo. Kiki Dennis, who runs Kiki Dennis Interiors, in Brooklyn, sourced a Woodsport credenza for a Park Slope client who attended last year’s show.

“Her style was sort of minimal, and she loves beautiful wood and an organic sensibility,” Ms. Dennis said. “And I think that’s definitely evident in his pieces.”

The credenza is one of Mr. McGlasson’s best-sellers: a four-panel rectangular box on a stark steel or bronze frame. The corner door-pulls follow the natural wane, or curve, of the tree. The credenzas cost $4,000 to $7,000.

“Furniture is expensive,” Ms. Dennis said. “Even not-especially-well-made furniture or not-solid-wood furniture.” Mr. McGlasson’s minimalist designs and unfussy workmanship could match a new dining room set a decade from now, she added.

Finishing credenza doors with a timesaver, in other words, leads to the appearance of timelessness.

On Friday morning, the riddle still plagued him: two slats or three? “That’s one of the things I’ll get hung up on,” Mr. McGlasson said. “It seems so simple, but that’s the tricky stuff.”

The chair was standing on the concrete floor, clamped and dry-fitted. He had trimmed the seat rail and lowered the back leg, lending the chair a bit of a louche slouch. “Now I like the proportions of it,” he said.

This posture tilted the sitter toward the slats, though. The two-rung version recalled an ex-husband after an amicable divorce: He may appear supportive, but he doesn’t actually have your back.

Mr. McGlasson clamped on a third rung, sat down, and then stood up again and took in the profile. He had his verdict: “Two is better than three. It looks a little more mod. You put the third on there, and it looks like it’s built for comfort.”

As beer o’clock rolled around, it was time — past time — to finalize the chair. “I’ll make a spec piece every once in a while,” he said (that is, a design with no committed buyer). “I’ll knock a week off my schedule. But it’s sort of stolen time, and I’ll start getting really antsy. I’ve got to get back to making money.”

Mr. McGlasson finally punched insertion holes with the Domino and chiseled the seat back slats. Glue, sandpaper, rope, oil. By noon on Saturday, the chair was done.

Correction: by noon on Saturday, the chair was finished, but still not done. The design was fine from the leg down. But to Mr. McGlasson’s eye, the top felt homey, the equivalent of a Rockette wearing a sweater-vest.

By necessity, he had moved on to turning four tables and four lamps. But he wanted a do-over with the chair. “If I had a little more time, I’d make another one right now,” he said. The seat-stays, he realized, should be shaped slabs of walnut, as thick as the back rail.

A week ago, he’d woken up in a fit of anxiety about piloting his Ford F-150 through the Lincoln Tunnel on the way to the home show. “This is not part of the furniture maker’s skill set,” he said. He was thinking of leaving the RB dining chair back home in St. Paul. If someone in New York tried to order it, what would he say?

Designing a sublime piece of wood furniture was an achievement. But at the end of 40 hours, Mr. McGlasson had managed something even rarer. At $85 an hour for labor and $250 in materials, he’d lost $3,650 on a $1,600 chair.

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