Following Design’s Pied Piper

The still-young ICFF is a fraction of the size of the Cologne, Scandinavian, and Paris furniture fairs. It is also comparatively informal, offering the big players a chance to get more mileage out of their costly displays for Milan-the king of furniture fairs.

For independent designers and funky upstarts, ICFF is an opportunity to get on the map. Though it does not attract the international audience of the other fairs, the New York event is a chance to launch companies and products in media’s backyard. Veteran exhibitors say they get more publicity than orders out of ICFF. But business is really at the heart of every exhibitor’s hopes.

One visitor who is a welcome sight in anyone’s booth is Rob Forbes, founder of Design Within Reach, the mail-order and online catalogue that has in just a few years become a definitive source for classic modern and contemporary furniture. (See DWR’s coverage of the ICFF.) DWR has 50,000 clients (including architects, designers, and general consumers), and a mailing list of more than 250,000.

Forbes elicits a warm reception, hopeful reactions, and eager pitches everywhere he walks. As one furniture designer remarked, Forbes is one of the few ICFF attendees who represents a genuine commercial prospect for exhibitors, large and small, funky and not so. His interest can mean a prototype being put into production.

What draws him into a booth?

To the disappointment of budding designers, Forbes is not on the look-out for the next new thing. He’s not out to discover the coolest, newest, singular design. Rather he seeks people with whom he thinks he can develop exciting, fruitful, and ongoing partnerships.

“What you look for, ultimately, is someone you feel you can trust, and who you feel you can develop a long-term relationship with,” he says. “It’s sort of like dating. When you first meet someone, beyond the initial attraction, you ask yourself, ‘Is this someone I can build something with? Is this someone who’s going to call me back?’”

We approach Sandy Chilewich’s booth, and they greet each other like old friends. She shows him some of her new stretch-vinyl weave patterns, and shares her latest good news: celebrity chef Jean-George Vongerichten has custom-ordered placemats for one of his restaurants.

Chilewich produces placemats, runners, floor covers, and totes made from stock and custom-designed weaves from a mill that commonly supplies mass-market plastic outdoor furniture. “The good thing about working with someone like Sandy is that you’re confident you can fill a large order, and that everything you get will be made with consistent quality and care,” Forbes notes.

Forbes is no design guru and has no pretensions as such. He looks for the basics in a product: “Simplicity, integrity of construction, sound materials,” he says. “Simplicity meaning something not so subject to trends.” So this is what Forbes really wants in a product: staying power; products whose value will grow over time.

At the booth of Italian manufacturer Magis, whose lively line features colorful products by Jasper Morrison, Karim Rashid, and Marc Newson, Forbes is greeted by Alberto Perazza, who runs the family business with his father, company founder Eugenio Perazza.

DWR sells a few Magis products, including the Bomba Stool by Stefano Giovannoni and, recently, Marcel Wander’s candylike injection-molded plastic storage bins, Pebbles. (“It’s useful, it’s strong, you can sit on it, it’s versatile, it has wheels,” Forbes says.)

“Why aren’t we selling that?” Forbes points to a bright red plastic cabinet by German designer Verner Esslinger. The modular Plus Unit has intelligent, shiny aluminum connectors.

For Magis and others, DWR represents access to an enormous market. The company’s online presence is a benefit for companies overseas. But the solidity of these relationships is not exclusively based on sales figures. Like an attractive date, DWR can boost a company’s image. Perazza says, “With or without big orders, it’s a valuable place for our products to be because it educates a large audience about design.” Products gain in value as they gain recognition, so showing in DWR provides that exposure.

Alan Heller agrees. “DWR is doing a mega-service for the design community and consumers. It helps people understand the progression of good design, from Eames to Bellini.” His company, Heller Inc., is the maker of the fiberglass Bellini Chair.

Forbes tests Heller’s new release, a stacking chair by William Sawaya of Sawaya Moroni, admiring its balance of rigidity and flexibility. This, Heller says, is due to the materials—a combination of polypropylene and fiberglass.

Everywhere, Forbes bumps into people he knows, which is as much a part of his mission at ICFF as seeing what’s in the booths. We run into Niels Diffrient, whose new featherlight, energy-efficient task light is being introduced at Humanscale (the company also makes Diffrients’ Freedom Chair, which DWR sells); and Jens Bernsen, a Danish design critic who is in town to speak about sound and design at a symposium at the Cooper Hewitt.

We grab lunch at a sandwich bar and stand and eat, lamenting that with all the chairs in the joint there’s no place to sit. Poul Christiansen, who is at ICFF to enjoy the launch of his NONChair for Kallemo, joins us. From where we’re standing, we are aghast at what we see in one of the booths: an Eames fiberglass shell in an unholy union with a conventional five-wheeled task-chair base. “You wonder what Eames would do if he was a young man designing today,” Diffrient muses. Conversation veers from the surge of reissues (Jacobson, Wegner, Magnussen) to the emergence of gels.

If his job really is like dating, as he says, Forbes is a polite, down-to-earth suitor courting an array of types, from the brainy to the philosophical, offbeat to serious. Ultimately, he knows how to pick the best matches.