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Blueprints for Quirky Design

What do an inflatable leather chair, a seat made with rubber bands and lampshade with a haircut have in common? Each is quirky -- and each is British-designed. And they were all on display this past weekend at 100% Design, Britain's largest contemporary design show.

With about 450 exhibitors varying from big, established international furniture manufacturers to British designers straight out of school, the exhibit showcases the coolest and newest in contemporary interior design, both in Britain and around the world. It also provides a window into emerging trends like the penchant for wittiness and a movement toward angles that are almost, well, awkward. There's also serious interest in unusual materials, such as DuPont's Corian, carbon fiber, and newly developed coatings for foam.

British design especially reflects a dry wit. "There has been a lot of humor in British design over the last two to three years," explains Vicky Richardson, the editor of Blueprint magazine who heads the show's Blueprint Awards. Or as Jon Powell, director of Modus Furniture, a British contemporary furniture manufacturer, explains: "There's a slight rawness to British design that you wouldn't get with most European designers. It's more honest, more playful."

DROOG WIT. Scores of designs on display illustrate Richardson's point. There's Bakebean's inflatable leather chair, which, being covered in the finest of leathers, is a far cry from a blow-up beach raft and costs $1,758. Then there's the rubber-band seat, by top British designer Tom Dixon. Forget upholstery. This steel frame is covered in wide blue rubber bands (and is actually comfortable once you get past the feeling that you're likely to bounce into orbit).

And there's Jon Male's British Hide, which takes the craze for cow and zebra hides somewhere completely unexpected. Male's floral-patterned rug is cut in the shape of an animal hide. Another example of wit comes from a designer finalist for the Blueprint Award for Best New Exhibitor. This was the brightly colored Standing Hanger by London-based designer Magnus Long. While it could be used as a hanger, it's more likely to be used as a sculpture.

The trend toward humor started in Holland some 10 years ago, when a group called Droog came on the scene. Droog -- which means "dry," to signify the dry wit of the pieces -- was a reaction to the clinical and unemotional nature of minimalism popular in the early 1990s. Droog design aimed for simplicity, but without the soberness of minimalism. Instead, its designers used humor to create an emotional bond with the user.

"UGLY BEAUTIFUL" LOOK. Slowly it filtered to Britain, finding a natural base in a country where people are happy to veer toward the eccentric. "British designers don't like to do the expected," says Richardson. Perhaps that's because Britain, which has a very small furniture-manufacturing industry, struggles to compete with Spain and Italy in the world of sleek elegance. (Or maybe, offers Jay Townsend, designer of the inflatable leather chair, it all comes down to the weather -- you need humor to deal with it.)

But other trends are also on view in the exhibition hall -- and on the awards finalists list. One is what Richardson calls the "ugly beautiful" look of pieces with lots of sharp angles and edges. Among the finalists for Best New Product is British designer Modus' ISO seating for public and domestic spaces. While it's elegant and refined, it also has a sharp, angular look to its steel legs and support structure. Foscarini's dynamic Big Bang suspension lamp is also a mass of angles.

The winners of both the Best New Exhibitor category and the Best New Product category also embraced this trend. A new hot design firm called Autoban, based in Istanbul, Turkey, won in the Best New Exhibitor category for its Bergére chair, a sleek, angular wooden seat. In a similar vein, the edgy bar stool Miura, from the Italian company Plank, won for Best New Product.

GLITTERING FLOOR. The Miura also reflects another trend. The seat appears to be supported by next to nothing. That's thanks to new materials. The stool is made of polypropylene reinforced with carbon fiber, the strength of which enabled this unusual design.

Other designers have developed products that rely on new materials. Feek, a Belgian company that's a finalist for Best New Exhibitor, created a foam seating range that's coated with a water-resistant, flexible product. "It's the new wave upholstery," says Frederik Van Heereveld, Feek co-founder and designer. "It's cheaper and more comfortable."

Another product from the Best New Product finalists came from British company Altro. It's a sparkly floor covering, representing a much more decorative aesthetic of interiors. It also uses a very complicated -- and expensive -- manufacturing process, where small beads are put into a resin base and covered with a top coat.

PC ON ICE. Interestingly, the people attending the show also voted in a separate Best New Product contest from the same list of finalists. The result was quite different. Rather than design, the public went for function. The winner was The Jaw, an ingenious product that will clamp your computer tower to the underneath of your desk. "Maybe the public was reacting against all this experiment with color and form. They prefer something functional and down to earth," says Richardson.

One last display couldn't be missed. It's the ultimate power desk. Made from DuPont's Corian, which is usually used as kitchen-countertop material, this grand white desk is an example of designers using materials in different ways. Designed by Stephen Johnson, the desk sets out to get rid of computer clutter by integrating the PC's innards into the design. The disk drives, on-off button, and all other relevant things from the tower have been set into the front edge of the desk. The CPU and speakers are hidden away behind Corian underneath. It's a neat way to eliminate cord tangle.

The sleek desk has a matching filing cabinet, both of which can be locked simulaneously with a central locking system like you have in your car. But that's not all. Ten-carat diamonds are inlayed into the desktop, hence its name: Diamond Ice. It truly is the desk with everything. There's only one thing to be wary of -- the price. At $1,321,085, it's a real bank breaker.


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