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Architecture Mon Jun 15 2009
Think you could fill a Soldier Field-size stadium with people interested industrial furniture design? Well, you can. For the next three days more than 50,000 people will be descending upon the Merchandise Mart for NeoCon, the National Exposition of Contract Furnishings. It's the largest exhibition of "contract furnishings for the design and management of the built environment" in North America. In other words, a trade show for people looking to furnish (mostly) public spaces.
And it is massive. With over 1200 exhibitors featuring everything from readymade classroom murals to hospital waiting room chairs, the conference will occupy 1.2 million square feet inside the Mart from Monday the 15th through Wednesday the 17th.
But it isn't just about upholstery for corporate board rooms. Designers from all over the world attend this yearly conference to showcase their latest ideas -- ideas that, until they're unveiled here in Chicago, don't have a definite future. Barstools that spent years in development and cost thousands in prototype manufacturing could end up in a chain of hotels in Singapore, or in the private suites at Yankee Stadium, or, if no one's interested, in the garbage. The stakes are high, many of the design firms world famous, and best of all, entry is free.
I spent Sunday morning at the Sofitel with Suzanne Trocmé, London-based design and architecture editor at large for Wallpaper Magazine, former contributor to Architectural Digest, author of several books including Attention to Detail, which has recently been released in paperback, and designer of the "little black dress" line of furniture for Bernhardt Design, a family-owned furniture manufacturer out of North Carolina. Trocmé is unveiling her Allée chair design at this year's NeoCon, but she's interested in a lot more than furniture design. For instance, helping you design your apartment.
How do you translate Attention to Detail, which focuses so much on choosing material and designing your actual space, for people who may not even own their own home? Some people are dealing with apartments where they can't even change the color of the paint on the wall.
I'm not saying we should all have this, and I certainly don't have this. A cobbler always has holes in his shoes. I don't have this kind of budget at all, I mean I'm a jobbing journalist and a jobbing designer. But a lot of it is about taking an idea and seeing how you can adapt it to yourself.
I rent my house. You can find such interesting rental properties, and if you build up a good relationship with your landlord -- and of course it depends on if you rent from a property company or an individual -- you can paint the walls. I think you can say to somebody, "Look, this magnolia white is quite nice but would you mind if I painted one wall taupe?" They usually don't mind so much. The key is to find a place with good bones to begin with.
How do you convince people that design isn't just a commercial pursuit -- it isn't just about making and acquiring things?
People don't realize how much planning goes into their urban environment, how important architecture is, how buildings affect us. People are fundamentally phototropic -- we walk toward light. It's our instinct. So if you create [a space] with no light, without the idea that there is somewhere to go, then the spirit is completely quashed.
How do you think Chicago measures up on the urban planning spectrum?
Chicago is one of my favorite cities in the world, because you have water here, which is fundamental. We like -- and we need to find -- water. We weren't static for long as human beings, we became lake dwellers very quickly. And water is how we started bringing things, that's how trading routes happened. So here you've got water, you have bridges, you have an instinct that there's somewhere to go. And if you don't feel static then you feel that there's a future, that there's hope. So psychologically it's a great city for hope and for the future ... which is why it's great that Obama comes from here as well. You feel there's something in the air.
What about the buildings?
The architecture itself, of course, is very important. Not many Europeans realize this, but Louis Sullivan was the inventor of the skyscraper and his experimental area was Chicago -- it's where he first built. And you know, I love seeing who worked for whom. Louis Sullivan actually had Frank Lloyd Wright working for him. And then Lloyd Wright had John Lautner working for him. Three of your greatest architects.
New York is a very European city, as is San Francisco. But Chicago is American. And it's a statement of Americanism. There's also a lovely rough urbanism about Chicago. The fact that you see i-beams, you see metal, you see materials, you see industry here. I personally like that.
Why is Chicago known as an easy place for young architects to build?
New York has been a frustrating city to build in -- their land laws are so arcane it's unbelievable. Chicago has had a much more liberal attitude toward building. In New York you've got this -- what's deemed as -- fantastic Bozar architecture and you can't put something next to it that will make it look out of place. But actually that's rubbish and the French prove it. The Parisians mix and match contemporary with old beautifully, and I'm glad they have done that because it makes other people realize that you don't have to be so precious about things that are old. If you don't like it, you can throw it away.
One of your other books, Retro Home, was -- in part -- about successfully combining one era's style with another. Plenty of Chicagoans live in bungalows that they unfortunately decorate with nothing outside of Prairie or Frank Lloyd Wright style. Can you recommend, very practically, some other materials that bungalow or Prairie-style homeowners can incorporate into their spaces?
You certainly don't need to add any more wood, that's for sure. I think you have to go with something very contemporary while still incorporating natural elements. There are designers who are making very contemporary pieces with traditional artisan or craft techniques, like lost wax casting. Look for contemporary, natural designs -- Chinese designers are a good start.
How do you go from being a writer to a furniture designer? And, any parting advice to students, especially Chicago design students, looking to make a similar leap?
One of our advertisers at Wallpaper Magazine, Jerry Helling, is the president of Bernhardt Design. We were walking around the ICFF in New York and I said "I've had it with these pink fluffy merengue chairs and these green monsters in the corner -- these aren't chairs, these are show-stoppers. I hate statement furniture! Furniture should be like this, and it should be like this," and I started drawing sketches on my pad, and he says, "Why don't you do it?"
Anything is possible. You don't have to be limited by your degree. You can do anything in the world -- you just have to know how to get it.
For students: look to your own back yard. You don't have to move to another city. Like Voltaire's Candide, certainly travel, but it's when you return home that you'll ultimately find what you're looking for.
About the Author
Katherine Raz is a freelance writer and the Community Manager for a non-profit arts organization. She's trekked all over Chicago in search of thrift store and estate sale bargains, and writes BackGarage, a blog about stylish apartment living on a garage sale budget. A two fisted-drinker and Chicago resident for over a decade, she lives in Ravenswood with her fiancee, Jem, and loves the Chicago Bears.