The new pin-ups of American design - Monocolumn | Monocle


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14 May 2010

The July 1961 issue of Playboy featured an unlikely line-up of (fully clothed) playmates. They were America’s finest designers who were shot standing next to, or seated on, some of their celebrated creations. Among others Eames, Saarinen, Risom and Bertoia were deemed sexy enough – perhaps not for the centrefold, but definitely for a spread – that showcased America’s prowess at the forefront of modern design manufacturing.

A brief flick through Playboy today reveals a distinct lack of current design stars, suggesting taste in furniture among Playboy‘s readership has degenerated since the 1960s. Or, perhaps, that such greats are no longer to be found in America. Ahead of ICFF, the New York-based design fair that starts this weekend, the city is awash with the American design industry and it’s an altogether different industry from that of the mid-century heyday of furniture design and manufacturing.

Though the stands at the Jacob K Javits Convention Center, where the fair itself takes place, will house the new European furniture collections, fresh from their debuts in Milan (with the odd American brand here and there), the buzz isn’t about the latest sofa or light. No, the two projects on everyone’s lips this week are the launch of a bike website and a biodegradable pen.

Detractors claim the American design industry is lagging behind its European and Asian counterparts but in the bikes and the pen alone there’s ample proof that it’s thriving more than ever, just in a different direction from its furniture heritage.

“There’s a huge growth in interest and awareness of how people get from A to B in the States at the moment,” says Rob Forbes, the founder of Design Within Reach and the man behind, an e-tail outlet selling beautifully conceived, expertly functioning bicycles based on classic European designs.

“Americans are realising that they can make a choice about how they travel. It’s a lifestyle choice and buying a bike today is very similar to the buzz that came with buying modern, manufactured furniture in the middle of the last century. Cycling makes cities more liveable places, it improves the quality of life,” Forbes explains. As a good-looking, neat-operating facilitator of this process is a pretty perfect exponent of good, contemporary design.

Leon Ransmeier of DBA is the designer behind the 98 pen – a 98 per cent biodegradable pen made from a potato-based plastic (yes, potato) containing non-toxic ink. “Simple solutions can solve big problems,” says Ransmeier – in this case the problem being that 100 billion disposable, non-biodegradable Bic pens filled with toxic ink have been sold since 1950. Designing an alternative, though a tiny step in a herculean journey to convert the masses, is a vital step no less.

And, with a launch party hosted by Salman Rushdie and André Balazs, the humble pen will have a high profile start.

A website and a pen aren’t traditional stars of a design fair but it was that very traditional star of design Charles Eames who said the real question to be asked of good design is: “does it solve a problem?” And though you won’t find Forbes or Ransmeier in Playboy anytime soon who could argue that these two creations aren’t as relevant design pin-ups for today as any new chair?


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