Move Over, Taxidermy: Contemporary Design Gets Lighter and Cleaner
By STEVEN KURUTZJULY 29, 2015
Danny Giannella, left, and Tammer Hijazi, founders of Bower, carry one of their signature mirrors in their Brooklyn shop.
CreditCasey Kelbaugh for The New York Times
The Contour coffee table by the Brooklyn-based design firm Bower is one sexy piece of furniture.
It has a smooth curved base made of lacquered white wood, with a top of delicately veined Calacatta Paonazzo marble that’s inset at one end with glass tinted peachy pink. The effect is somehow cool and warm, contemporary and retro. You can picture it decorating the apartment of Richard Gere’s character in “American Gigolo,” cast in soft morning-after light.
The Contour series (there are coffee, dining and side tables) is also one of the more striking examples of a nascent design trend.
For years, design in New York and elsewhere has been dominated by the “new vintage” look, with its love of taxidermy and salvaged barn wood, its nostalgia for dark hunting cabins and 19th century gentleman’s clubs.
What design insiders are seeing lately is a brighter, lighter, more contemporary aesthetic, one that still favors organic materials but with a more refined sensibility and cleaner lines.
To the eye of Glenn Adamson, the director of the Museum of Arts and Design in Manhattan, the look possesses a “lightness of touch, a low-key feeling.”
For Newell Turner, editorial director of the Hearst Design Group, there’s “a lot of influence from Scandinavian design.”
Jill Singer, the design writer and co-founder of the online magazine Sight Unseen, can’t give it a pithy label (“I’m not a good namer,” she said), but she isn’t at a loss to describe what she is seeing: “Extremely sophisticated palette. Mixing of materials. It’s been percolating for a long time.”
Think 1970s instead of 1870s. Vancouver or Palm Springs instead of Brooklyn or Portland, Ore. As Ms. Singer said, “My partner and I were joking that the new ‘Put a bird on it’ is ‘Put a cactus in it.’ ”
The look was much in evidence at Sight Unseen Offsite, an annual design fair by Ms. Singer’s publication, held in Manhattan last May to coincide with the International Contemporary Furniture Fair.
Designers exhibiting at Offsite, including Bower, favored blond or bleached woods and polished metals like brass and copper. Peach, white and sky-blue tones were in abundance; furniture and lighting mixed wood with sumptuous materials like marble and bronze.
“Three years ago when we started, we only made things out of wood,” said Danny Giannella, who founded Bower with Tammer Hijazi. “It was limiting, and we liked mixing materials. We liked the veining of this marble.”
In addition to the Contour tables, the firm was showing C Lights made of curved brass tubes and opal glass globes and a series of Line wall mirrors, in silver, black and copper, created from 20 pieces of glass precision-cut by water jet. A Miami nightclub owner would love them.
Mr. Giannella and Mr. Hijazi aren’t the only Brooklyn woodworkers experimenting with materials and embracing a look that’s more crafted than reclaimed. Asher Israelow, who operates his eponymous studio out of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, made his Lincoln chairs from black walnut but incorporated brass dowels.
Using brass instead of wood, Mr. Israelow said, counters the image of his studio as a rustic wood shop and adds visual refinement. “Polished brass has a lighter, ephemeral quality,” he said. “In my own shop, we’re cutting brass as much as we’re cutting wood.”
Mr. Israelow’s furniture was at the Architectural Digest Home Design Show in Manhattan last spring, alongside several designers whose work shared a resemblance. They included the Rhode Island-based duo Ben & Aja Blanc, who showed their Half Moon coffee table made of white oak and Imperial Danby marble; Eric Trine, a California designer whose Octahedron Stool exemplified recent enthusiasm for thin lines and copper-plated surfaces; and Fort Standard, a Brooklyn design studio that combined simple Shaker inspired style with rich tanned leather to create solid hardwood chairs that felt stealthily luxurious.
Lighting, too, is moving away from the neo-industrial look and toward something more like the fun, Memphis-esque focus on pattern, shape and color favored by the Seattle- and Brooklyn-based Ladies & Gentlemen Studio, or the chic brass desk lights with globe bulbs that Karl Zahn recently showed at E.R. Butler. (The new Edison bulb, it is becoming apparent, is the globe bulb.)
Like many designers who began their careers during the recession, Dylan Davis and Jean Lee, the team behind Ladies & Gentlemen, started by repurposing vintage items and selling them on Etsy. “We still have the sensibility of making something simple and playful,” Mr. Davis said, “but direct vintage references have been replaced with a more reductionistic approach.”
Ian Collings, a founder of Fort Standard, said he also has grown more experimental and current. His recent designs are, in part, a reaction to the “live-edge and rustic features” of the new vintage aesthetic, he said, which made every restaurant interior (and many people’s living rooms) resemble a turn-of-the-last-century apothecary.
There is, it seems, a fatigue with all those mounted deer heads and chunky farm tables that overtook Brooklyn’s hipper neighborhoods over the last decade and was imported to parts of Los Angeles, Paris and elsewhere.
Frank de Biasi, a New York-based interior designer, said that the first time he entered Freemans, the Lower East Side restaurant stuffed with antiques and taxidermy that arguably kicked off the trend, he marveled.
“I thought it was the coolest thing to have something so rough, so undone,” Mr. de Biasi said. “Would I want to live there? Probably not.”
While it’s fine to appreciate American heritage, he said, “We can move on, embrace something that’s more designed.”
For Mr. Adamson, the museum director, this more sophisticated version of small-batch, handmade Brooklyn design points to what he cautiously calls “an upswing.” “Not to say everything is great in the world,” he said. “But there’s a comfort with creating an elegant interior after the depths of the recession.”
Mr. de Biasi, who has been recommending Bower’s tables to his clients, said the lighter touch speaks to his current mood, and presumably to the well-heeled homeowners who hire him.“It’s calmer, quieter, more soothing,” he said. “The forms are more polished. It just feels right.
You can find the new look in the marble-top credenzas and consoles by Egg Collective at Design Within Reach; in the Fancy Chic low table with a copper-plated base at Ligne Roset; and in the stunning Elliott coffee table by Minotti made of polished gold sides and a rose marble top.
By KERRI MACDONALD
After a late-night glimpse of the taxidermy division at the Vienna Museum of Natural History, Klaus Pichler spent three years roaming the museum with a camera.