The basic designs for all furniture already exist -- pieces enabling you to sit, sleep, eat, write, and store things. Yet new versions continually arrive, from designers intent on finding new ways to look at old functions.
Designers of furniture -- from the worlds of art furniture, interior design and furniture manufacturing -- reflect on why they design something new and where their ideas come from:
-- Johnny Swing creates "art furniture" from familiar materials at hand. What's novel about his penny chair is not the form, which is based on a modern Italian model, but that except for its legs the chair is upholstered with a "fabric" made entirely of pennies. Swing also designed and made a chaise covered with 6,400 nickels welded together.
Formerly a sculptor in New York, Swing now crafts unusual, sculptural items of furniture in Brookline, Vt. He exhibited the two pieces at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York in May.
"Lines formed by those who wanted to sit down surrounded by money," he says.
Why use what most people would call spare change?
"I usually work with found objects, which are limited in quantity. It occurred to me that coins are easier to get. I just go to the bank, give them $20 or $50 and they hand me rolls, and the price never changes," Swing said. "When I switched from pennies to nickels, I wondered if I could afford it. But the cost of the nickels was the least expensive part. The chaise's stainless steel legs, the cost of making the molds and the 200 hours of welding that it took each cost a lot more than the nickels."
Swing has created many other unique designs, including a chair out of a steel I-beam that weighs 200 pounds. For his next piece, he is working with 1,000 baby food jars. "I'm thinking of having each one lit by a one watt light bulb so the piece will have 1,000 points of light," he says.
Recently Swing and a collaborator, John Carter, redid a New York subway car as a display booth for a soft drink company. Furniture in the display includes a table on wheels, built of working television monitors with a glass top. The screens are active, thanks to three built-in video cameras and two VCRs. The images range from the people looking at the display to films.
Where do his ideas come from? "It's about keeping an open mind and maintaining a childlike mentality," Swing says. "One of the hardest things is letting an idea grow and develop instead of censoring it because it sounds dumb."
Still, he says that designing and making furniture imposes some limits. "It has to be comfortable and if it's seating it has to support the back."
-- Clodagh, a New York-based interior designer, is inspired by antiques and other objects she discovers during her travels. The immediate impetus is usually that she needs something for a particular job that she can't find. Currently, Clodagh is mulling over a new bookcase design. She wants it to have thick wooden shelves and thin uprights of brushed steel.
"What's available commercially is often too slick for me," she says. "I don't like things that are too perfect.
"My shelves are filled with fragments that because of their shape or texture or even their energy inspire me," she says. "I travel everywhere with a sketchbook, a tape measure and a camera. I constantly go to flea markets and find interesting shapes which I buy and store on shelves."
She may reuse a particular idea or form over and over. For example, a footed bowl from Samoa with an unusually thick belly proved so provocative to her that it led to a collection of home furnishings, including tables, a bed, lamps and candlesticks. The pieces, which she has dubbed her "Primitive Collection," have been used not only in decorating jobs but also marketed individually.
"Right now on my office floor is a hip flask in the shape of a buoy and a piece of pewter that I picked up at a yard sale," Clodagh says. "Sooner or later, they will probably lead to a new design or design element."
-- Fred Schubert represents the field of mass-produced furnishings.
"I get ideas for furniture through travel and observation," says Schubert, senior vice president of design at Drexel Heritage Furniture of Drexel, N.C., who is likely to travel with a sketchbook and a camera.
Architectural details and furniture Schubert saw on a trip to England found their way into a new Drexel's new "Nine Elms" collection. A horse hitching post he saw in London was adapted as a bedpost.
The popularity of very large rooms that are nevertheless lived in quite casually has created the need for large pieces of furniture that are not too formal. To meet the need, Schubert designed the Nine Elms dropleaf cocktail table. The table opens to 56 inches, which makes it almost as wide as one of the dining tables in the collection. The same table might also appeal to someone who enjoys informal dining in the living room and has no formal dining room.
"As a designer, I pay attention to what happens in the home," says Schubert. When he noticed that it's difficult to move large pieces of furniture to clean, he decided to put some pieces on casters. "Our servers have casters, we have put casters on dining chairs, and we will put them on a big bed. People are more mobile and so is their furniture," he said.
On the Web:
Drexel Heritage - http://www.drexelheritage.com
Johnny Swing - http://www.fasterfineart.com
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