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Mad Men Retro-styling and Natural Textures Rock NY Furniture Show

Mid-20th century design returned with a real vengeance at this year's New York International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF), a development many attributed to the continuing popularity of Mad Men, a 1960s-set television drama.

Photo: Retro styling meets contemporary tech: The Luno music centre.
Retro styling meets contemporary tech: The Luno music centre.
Photo: Retro styling meets contemporary tech: The Luno music centre.
Retro styling meets contemporary tech: The Luno music centre.

Mad Men-inspired mid-20th century design made for a strong showing at this year's New York iteration of the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF). Natural, warm textures were also well-represented, with many exhibitors showing wood- and stone-surfaced furniture and finishes.

Thanks, in part, to the aforementioned Mad Men hit TV-show, 1960s retro interior design was the talk of this year's event. From furniture to fittings to wall coverings, the Mid-century design trend was pretty much ubiquitous. This was seen as particularly important in the east coast US markets, a region known for having bolder tastes than other parts of the country.

A prime example here came courtesy of Studio:PGRB, a Miami-based  designer lighting specialist. Explaining the thinking behind his latest range, Raymond Barberousse, the Founder of the business, said: "We're consciously trying to recapture the Mid-century Modern aspect of lighting.

"Our biggest markets are New York and California. We find the tastes on both coasts are very different to those found in the Midwest. While we do have a small market in Chicago, that is largely a legacy from where we started. Our biggest market, though, is clearly the East Coast."

Another exhibitor majoring on Mid-century inspired items with a modern twist was Luno. Based in Los Angeles, the company was debuting its retro-inspired music centres at the event.

Jennifer Farmer, the company's Co-founder, said: "They have a Mid-century vibe, complete with Brazilian-style doors and that Marshall salt-and-pepper top.

"Each unit also comes with a little mini-bar included and a set of whiskey glasses. You get the whole Mad Men vibe, along with storage space for about 150 records.

"We also make the consoles and a listening chair. This is set at the same height as the speakers, ensuring you get the best effect."

Although styled to look retro and designed to play vinyl LPs, the system also boasts powerful modern electronics and speakers. Highlighting its more contemporary flourishes, Farmer said: "It's compatible with Airplay [Apple's streaming protocol] or you can just plug in for any of your own digital devices. Right now, we are selling direct, but we have had a lot of interest from retailers at this show."

Another exhibitor looking to take advantage of the popularity of mid-20th century retro styling was Walker Zanger, a Los Angeles-based supplier of designer tiles. Acknowledging this, DJ Intal, the company's Marketing Manager, said: "I'm seeing a lot of Mid-century going on right now. I think it's interesting that it's coming back."

Again, although styled to look retro, Walker Zanger was showing products with a distinctly modern twist. Intal said: "A lot of people are fascinated by the whole Kaza collection, largely due to the fact that it is fashioned out of concrete. Concrete has been around for a long time but, uniquely, we turn it into decorative wall pieces.

"A lot of people like the whole 3D effect that we favour. It's definitely eye-catching and it is also designed to work with light, meaning you see a different shadow effect depending on which way the light is coming from. You could move it around and create a whole new design as a consequence."

Tom Schlegel, Regional Sales Director for Jaclo, a New Jersey-based bathroom fittings company, was also finding success by blending the old and the new, albeit in a less overtly Mid-century design context. He said: "One of the hottest things this year is taking a contemporary style and combining it with a traditional finish. We have taken that approach across the whole of a large project – an upscale hotel that paired contemporary style with a satin brass finish. The result looks really cool."

Schlegel did, however, note the more forward-looking tastes prevalent in the US coastal markets, saying: "New York is very polarising. Someone is either ultra-contemporary or ultra-traditional. The West Coast, by comparison, has more of a laid-back feel. It is more transitional."

Falling squarely into the ultra-modern category was Easy Drain, a Netherlands-based bathroom fittings company. This year, it was in New York to show its range of stylish minimalist shower drainage systems. For Marcel Minnen, the company's Export Manager, there is a clear division of tastes and preferences across the US. He said: "We find that we have to tailor products not just within states, but also to the preferences of individual cities. In Miami, it is a more traditional square drain markets, while Chicago is far more linear.

"Our latest releases are the Dot and Square drain range, both of which have been received very well. While there is a trend to make drains as slim as possible, we have taken exactly the opposite approach with the Dot and Square. We have gone from extra-small to extra-large and that seems to be something that architects and designers in New York really like."

Photo: Bathroom fittings from Jaclo.
Bathroom fittings from Jaclo.
Photo: Bathroom fittings from Jaclo.
Bathroom fittings from Jaclo.
Photo: Walker Zanger’s Kaza tile range.
Walker Zanger's Kaza tile range.
Photo: Walker Zanger’s Kaza tile range.
Walker Zanger's Kaza tile range.

Minnen believes that the US is potentially a huge market for his company's products, saying: "We have been selling into the US for three years now. We have already learned that they are very open-minded over here. They are willing to make the switch from an American-style traditional bathroom into a barrier-free shower or wet room, something that they can design in line with their own requirements. It is that latter aspect that really appeals to them."

Similarly finding a ready market in the US was Basaltina, a Rome-based supplier of architectural rock products. John Donatelli, the company's Manager for its North American sales, said: "In New York City, if it's grey, they use it. Our material comes in a warm grey colour, so it's more of a city kind of a material. It's not a colour that would be popular in the southwest, though."

While tastes in different parts of the US may dictate the success or failure of many products, practical considerations are also clearly a factor. Despite the overall low population density and cheap land prices resulting in larger homes across the majority of the country, apartment-living in the coastal cities remains a key niche in the furniture market.

One company targetting comparatively cramped city dwellers is Greycork, a Rhode Island-based furniture maker. According to Johan Wilcox-Healy, the company's Chief Product Officer, Greycork is currently targetting younger buyers in the more populous coastal centres.

Explaining the company's strategy, Wilcox-Healy said: "A lot of East Coast cities, such as New York, Boston, and Washington DC, are huge for us, mainly because we are more of a millennial-focussed small space furniture company. San Francisco, LA and those other big hubs are also important for us."

Greycork is targetting these well-defined markets with a number of smaller products particularly suited to compact city spaces. Its chosen sales channel is also designed to appeal to younger buyers.

Wilcox-Healy said: "While we are now planning to open up a show room, the majority of our sales are online. We use a range of different videos and ad promotions to gain awareness. So far, this has resulted in great sales. Millennials like to shop online and they want that quick purchase."

The company is also positioning its products as more durable than many of those offered by its flat-pack rivals, a proposition supported by its supply of replaceable parts for repair or customisation. Highlighting the thinking behind this, Wilcox-Healy said: "You can keep assembling it over and over and over, it's not going break like many of the flatpack products. We try to use superior materials, such as plywood, instead of using particleboard or MDF and putting edge-banding around it. That kind of thing is okay for the first year, but then it starts to chip.

"With that durability in mind, we also had to factor in personalisation over the longer term. In the case of our sofa, for instance, you can literally just twist off a leg and replace it with one of a different style. Similarly, you can put on a different slipcover and revamp it that way. Everything is very replaceable. Also, though, if something breaks or if a dog chews a part, you can just replace one piece, without having to buy the entire thing all over again."

Photo: Greycork’s compact, Millennial-friendly furniture range.
Greycork's compact, Millennial-friendly furniture range.
Photo: Greycork’s compact, Millennial-friendly furniture range.
Greycork's compact, Millennial-friendly furniture range.

The New York International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) 2016 was held at the Jacob K Javits Center from 14-17 May. According to its organisers, the event featured some 700 exhibitors and attracted around 32,000 visitors.

James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, New York

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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