Foreign exchange

The International Contemporary Furniture Fair, better known as ICFF, reached its American drinking age this year. Yet the 21st annual convergence of modern product designers, manufacturers and distributors on New York City’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center held no wild, self-congratulatory party. Rather, upright quiet dominated, as makers retreated from the crystalline shapes, florid images and shtick humor of recent years.

Among the 552 exhibitors at the ICFF, the small handful of Canadians seemed poised to teach the rest of us a thing or two about managing the recession beyond aesthetic choices. Consider this analogue: just how different is peddling modern design in a country of 30 million, even in the best of times, from selling it in a market that’s 10 times as large and equally leery?

The parallels came to light immediately. First I met Vancouver’s Derek Morton. Three years ago he gave up a career in financial software to found Utility Furniture; today that company is called Park Studio, and it was making its international debut at the ICFF. Next to Morton stood another Vancouverite, Kurt Dexel, of Dexel Crafted, who has been building cabinets as a hobby for the last decade but ultimately ditched civil engineering for his rakish creations, also three years ago. As U.S. unemployment figures continue to soar, it seems likely that Silicon Valley dropouts and former financial wizards will be calling these two talents for path-forging advice.

Morton’s treen plates and bowls intimate a second tutorial, in frugality. These objects’ wood figures and wormhole punctuation marks seem too artistic to have happened by accident, but they were simply salvaged from trees felled by disease and age, and then lathe-turned.

Fiscal conservatism also spells community. A quartet of Canucks — Dan Planko, Ridgely Studio Works, Rollout Custom Wallpaper (all based in Vancouver) and Tsunami Glassworks (based in Windsor, Ont.), all friends through Toronto’s Design Exchange — pooled their resources to occupy a sizable booth at the fair. And in that spirit of teamwork, the booth introduced visitors to Parrot Fly glass tiles, a collaboration between pattern-happy Rollout and neighbouring tile manufacturer Interstyle (of Burnaby, B.C.). Stimulus packagers, take note.

Planko had some good news to report, too. By the opening of the show’s third day, he had sold out his Rewilderness Project, a series of anime-style deer heads made from old lamp harps, reclaimed furniture legs, discarded drink coasters and other salvage. Aren’t deer heads pass? “I think they’re popular,” he admitted absentmindedly, “but when I saw these old hunting trophies at my cousin’s home in Slovenia, I just wanted to make them.” That consumers are snapping up Planko’s faux does (or bucks, as the case may be) suggests one final lesson: following one’s instinct may be the recession’s best salve. CI