Contemporary furniture show puts fun in front of avant-garde

June 06, 1993|By Janet Cawley | Janet Cawley,Chicago Tribune

NEW YORK -- The operative words in contemporary furniture this year are "fun," "bright," "comfortable" and "suitable for cocooning" in the stay-at-home '90s.

The sparse styles, sharp angles and basic black palette of past ** years were on the wane in May at the fifth annual International Contemporary Furniture Fair, replaced instead by bright colors, curves and some visual humor.

Aris Paganakis' series of chubby, cheerful pieces look as if they just waltzed out of "Beauty and the Beast" or escaped from Toontown.

The brightly colored grandfather clock scrunches and tilts. The huge, comfy wing chair soars upward and tilts to one side, providing ample space to toss a leg over the arm. The bulbous chest of drawers looks ready to lean over and talk to the table.

"The whole concept is, 'When you leave your house, what's your furniture doing?' " says Mr. Paganakis. "It's animated and has relationships."

Mr. Paganakis, 30, who works in Easton, Pa., says he grew up with Warner Bros. and Walt Disney and was "always into fantasy." He describes his style as "surreal."

Tanya Hovnanian of Los Angeles came at her playful inspiration from a different background: Until three years ago, she was a real estate lawyer in New Jersey. Now she designs and crafts sensuous, hand-forged steel pieces, including "Lolita," her plush, cushioned chaise with a scrolled back.

There's a waggish edge to her work: Consider the steel "lace" on a table or the bar stool wearing a fringed skirt, which she describes as "antiques of the future."

But unusual doesn't mean impractical. Marianne McNamara, who has managed the show for all of its five years, says "this year more designers are addressing how people live.

"The comfort aspect is more important. We still have avant garde, but this year the designers have realized that people have to be able to actually use [the pieces]. . . . The result is more people are writing orders.

"There's a lot of bright color now. At one time, there was a lot of blackhigh-tech, but the '90s is back to home and comfort. There are more upholstered [pieces]. . . . It's part of the nesting thing."

One of those who seems to have zeroed in on this is designer Dakota Jackson, who was showing pieces from his "engineered design" collection, which also might be called "getting back to basics."

"Fifteen years ago, I designed an opulent bed for Diane Von Furstenberg," he says.

"It sold for close to $20,000, had rays of pink satin and an aurora borealis [lighting system]. . . . [Now] I've begun to approach a blend of simplicity, where generic meets style." Which means he designing for a general audience, the styles are far simpler and the prices lower (though still darn pricey for a good night's sleep: The "Big Sleeper" bed, focal point of his display, will cost $11,775 in queen-size ash with a black finish).

The series also includes a whimsical night stand, and an armoire and a bureau to come.

Mr. Jackson has compared the swelling curves of his bed and other furniture to the full-figured paintings by Colombian artist Fernando Botero. At the same time, its enticing, lush feel makes it hard to resist trying it out right on the design floor.

In the more balanced yet still functional department also come the chairs of Cognoscente, a Los Angeles firm where designer Steve Kokinis has fashioned six elegant wooden chairs from maple and apple plywood, each designed to look like an architectural landmark: the Empire State Building, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Duomo in Florence, the AT&T (now Sony) Building in New York, the TransAmerica building in San Francisco.

Summing up his style -- and that of much around him -- he says, "It makes people smile."

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