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Signs of Life in Long Stagnant High-End European Furniture Market

Hints of novelty and a sense of reawakening, together with the innovative use of some new materials, were all very much in clear evidence at this year's Designjunction, one of the quirkier events on the packed London design calendar.

Photo: A stained-glass driverless Mini: The shape of future transport?
A stained-glass driverless Mini: The shape of future transport?
Photo: A stained-glass driverless Mini: The shape of future transport?
A stained-glass driverless Mini: The shape of future transport?

There has been little genuinely new at the high-end of the European furniture and accessories market for a while now. That has been evident for the past couple of years at the prestigious Milan furniture fairs and the established London shows, notably 100% Design and Tent London. These have all been generally described as lacklustre and disappointing by visitors and media alike. This year, though, there were tentative signs that that may be changing.

Overall, a number of 2014 shows have highlighted several burgeoning trends in European design. Nowhere was this more clearly apparent than at Designjunction, a four-day trade event staged as part of the London Design Festival.

Since its inception in 2011 – by Design Curator Deborah Spencer – Designjunction (together with its counterpart, Lightjunction) – has sought to be the very antithesis of the conventional trade show. Set in disused buildings, rather than an exhibition hall, it was first held in a former Tramshed in London's East End. For the past three years, it has been staged in a three-storey 1960s former postal sorting office in Holborn.

The event focuses on the latest in furniture, lighting and product design. It offers a combination of established global names – such as Andreu World, Zanotta and Artemide, the lighting giant – together with upcoming brands offering single-shot design wares, from cushions and bags to bespoke stationery and watches.

Designjunction is as much about pop-up shops and 'flash factories' offering printing and the likes as it is about products. Curated and designed by Michael Sodeau, an award-winning London-based designer, it has a deliberate industrial feel, opting for an open layout, cardboard boxes, exposed concrete and strip lighting in preference to slick, uniform stands.

In keeping with this, street-food vendors serve from vans on the ground floor, where exhibitors as diverse as Tom Dixon (with his Factory Outlet) and Thorsten van Elten's retail brand Theo also sell their products at knock-down prices during the event.

There is the inevitable seminar programme, a feature increasingly used by trade show organisers to draw visitors in and keep them there. Designjunction's headline acts this year included the Italian design icon Alberto Alessi, British architect Nigel Coates and Tricia Guild of Designers Guild, as well as international presentations on design in Africa, China, Morocco and Scandinavia. It is patently keeping a foot in the old camp, while exploring new markets for its clientele.

There is clearly a hunger across the world for this kind of hybrid event – Designjunction has successfully branched out to Milan and New York over the past couple of years and plans more carefully-curated overseas ventures. There is also a crossover among edgy international events, with Ventura London setting up a camp of fresh designs there, having successfully showcased emerging talents through Ventura Lambrate in Milan, Ventura Interieur at Kortrijk in Belgium and Ventura Berlin. What the exhibitors may lack in genuine novelty right now, they make up for diversity and quirkiness.

The mix of attractions at Designjunction also provides a handy snapshot of the state-of-the-art of design in the UK.

The overriding theme was a celebration of British design. A number of Modernist pioneers – notably Anglepoise, Ercol and G-Plan – made a showing, but small entrepreneurial brands dominate the event. Some, such as Theo, Places and Spaces and Bruno + Bean, literally set up stalls on the ground floor, selling directly to visitors. It is the maturing companies, such as Deadgood, James UK and Innermost (all established by UK designers), and Workhouse, which prides itself on embodying 'British boutique design', that are gaining momentum.

It wasn't all just about the UK, however. The Dutch are still a major force at the cutting edge of design. At Designjunction, for example, Ineke Hans furnished the pressroom with her simple school-like collection of colourful tables and chairs.

Photo: Anglepoise’s Paul Smith lamp.
Anglepoise's Paul Smith lamp.
Photo: Anglepoise’s Paul Smith lamp.
Anglepoise's Paul Smith lamp.
Photo: Carbon fibre creativity: Sodeau’s Halo chair.
Carbon fibre creativity: Sodeau's Halo chair.
Photo: Carbon fibre creativity: Sodeau’s Halo chair.
Carbon fibre creativity: Sodeau's Halo chair.

There was also evidence of a number of iconic brands revitalising themselves to appeal to contemporary buyers. A classic example of this is the collaboration between Anglepoise and British fashion designer Paul Smith, resulting in the creation of the colourful Special Edition model. The lamp remains essentially the same, but the surface treatment takes its cue from Smith's trademark colours and stripes. For both brands, it is a prime example of legacy with a twist.

In keeping with the legacy motif, British design is known for its dynasties – the Conrans, in particular, with product designer Sebastian, fashion designer Jasper and homewares designer Sophie all following in the footsteps of their father, the legendary Sir Terence Conran. At Designjunction, Jacob Dyson, the son of Sir James Dyson, the famous vacuum cleaner magnate, continued the engineering-led design tradition established by his father with the launch of his Ariel suspension lights.

True design aficionados, though have a genuine fascination with process and materials as well as with finished products. As a result, many were only too keen to get a preview of Michael Sodeau's Halo chair on the Hypetex stand, a masterclass in just what can be achieved with coloured carbon fibre. Priced for the art market at about 15,000 pounds per chair, this is not a mainstream furniture venture, but a bid by a materials manufacturer to show just what designers can achieve by harnessing their latest innovation.

This was exactly the marketing approach adopted by DuPont's Corian material when it was re-launched some 10 years ago. In order to encourage people to use and specify a material that had actually been developed in the late 1960s, the company commissioned designers to show what it could deliver – an approach we can expect to see far more of.

In a similar vein, car producer Mini twinned with online architecture and design title Dezeen to fulfil the urban yearning for 'transport for the future' via its Mini Frontiers sideshow. The 'what if' principle never fails to attract designers and media coverage and this proved no exception. The vehicles on show ranged from a stained glass driverless Mini (created by Dominic Wilcox) to Lucy McRae's study of the effects of zero gravity on the human body in 'Preparing the body for space'.

Commenting on the show overall, Ashley Gilbert, Commercial Director of Anglepoise, the renowned UK lighting brand, said: "This year, the visitors were diverse. While they were mainly from the UK, across all sectors, there was also a strong showing of buyers from the US, Asia and mainland Europe.

"As a result of the show, we are now planning to take on several international retailers and also have a few immediate projects in discussion. High-profile editors, journalists, art directors and general creatives also came by. We even had a surprisingly interesting visit from one of the world's most prestigious car companies.

"Traffic was higher on the first two days, dropping off as the weekend went on, albeit still with a steady flow of positive engagement. It's highly likely we'll be going back to Designjunction, but there's a lot that could happen before then."

Novelty-led, as it was, Designjunction was still a sell-out show, with queues of design-minded visitors attesting to its reputation. Everyone from Tom Dixon and Michael Sodeau to design commissioners from John Lewis to Transport for London and visitors from Europe, China and Japan seemed to be in attendance. It is now clearly established as a serious player on the international scene.

Photo: Designjunction 2014: Signs of life in the European creative sector.
Designjunction 2014: Signs of life in the European creative sector.
Photo: Designjunction 2014: Signs of life in the European creative sector.
Designjunction 2014: Signs of life in the European creative sector.

According to Sodeau, there were more than 21,000 visitors over the four days of the event. With its surprisingly buoyant overall mood this year, it seems inevitable that event will continue to develop and continue to surprise.

Designjunction 2014 ran from 18-21 September at The Sorting Office in London.

Lynda Relph-Knight, Special Correspondent, London

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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