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Whimsical Furniture With A Functional Edge

Displays at New York's annual contemporary-furniture exposition were less about trends and more about the staying power of well-designed pieces

HOPEFUL musicians head for Nashville. Aspiring actresses fly off to Hollywood. And promising furniture designers who want to be "discovered" trek to the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York.

The fifth annual event, held May 16 to 19, put long-established furniture designers such as Dakota Jackson nose-to-nose with lots of fresh faces. New designers hope to take some orders, generate media interest, or even win a contract with a big manufacturer.

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This year's new furniture looked more substantial and less trendy than some of the designs appearing in the last few years. People can confidently put most of the pieces displayed this year into their homes and not have to redecorate next season.

For the first three days of the event, architects, interior designers, retailers, and representatives of big manufacturers wandered through the jumble of new furniture creations. On the final day, the public was invited to see the 375 exhibitors' works in the cavernous Javits Convention Center. International exhibitors included those from France, Great Britain, Italy, Austria, and Japan.

Richard Glasgow, a sculptor and furniture designer from Dallas, says that his first trip to the New York show was "a hundred times better than what I anticipated."

"I was looking for exposure," Mr. Glasgow says. "It was a good place for it. In fact, I've created a monster." He sold everything in his inventory and has orders for more pieces.

Glasgow was having a hard time selling his sculpture in Dallas. "The market is almost nonexistent," he says. "I heard about this show, and I directed my sculpture toward furniture and just made it functional...."

This was also the first year for David Strauss, who owns his own design firm in Newton Centre, Mass. He was "counting on making some connections with galleries in New York." The fair helped him generate a mailing list of architects and designers who are interested in his work.

Aris Paganakis, of Easton, Pa., made a big splash last year with his zany cartoon-inspired chest of drawers topped with a "High Victorian" mirror. He was back this year with a collection jokingly called "Aris in Wonderland," that included a "No Standing" lamp, the "Missed Manors" chair, and the "Fat Boy" chest of drawers. The furniture curves impossibly, as if you were seeing it reflected in a fun-house mirror. It can either look delusional or delightful.

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Dakota Jackson introduced a line of bedroom furnishings that is aimed at a general audience. He has always produced one-of-a-kind beds for celebrities, so his "Big Sleep" line is a departure of sorts. The lines of his bed, night table, and armoire are "full-figured," Jackson says, and are reminiscent of fairy-tale illustrations or animated cartoons.

While Mr. Paganakis's fantasy furniture is guaranteed to charm his audience, entertainment was emphatically not the order of the day at this year's show. Furniture that is calculated to bring a smile does not usually sustain the long-term style statement its designers aim to achieve.

A new '90s air of sobriety and realism was also apparent in the lack of gaudy "faux finishes" that were a design rage in the late '80s. Andrew Rouse of Anglo Inscape Inc. in New York uses interesting surface treatments in his furniture designs. He employs a process that etches silver leaf with mineral salts.

Designers are still experimenting with intriguing surfaces. But they seem to be less interested in playing games with perspective, as was popular a few years ago. Fake marbling is definitely out, Mr. Rouse says.

"I don't want to make a piece of furniture that's so hot for six months that it's only hot for six months," says Rouse, whose small company also gained from exposure at the ICFF. "We're already bidding on jobs [from the show]."

This year is the third time the Helix Company has shown at the fair. "Each year has gotten better," says R. Benson Greer, company founder. "Attendance was up at the show."

Mr. Greer's Dallas-based firm is starting to gain a New York reputation since it's been represented here for consecutive years. "People are starting to recognize the product with our name," he says. "We're getting established."

This year Greer aimed for contract buyers, which include suppliers to restaurant and hospitality companies. "In years past, it's been architects, designers, and retail outlets around the country" that have responded to Helix exhibits, he says.

Compared to the lush and perfectly orchestrated photo spreads in design magazines, it's much harder for designers to present their work in a harsh convention-center setting. In fact, the furniture can sometimes look boring.

Yet the setting allows for a range of interaction that would otherwise be impossible. Groups of students milled through the exhibits, debating the merits of new furniture designs. A section of the convention center was reserved for furniture prototypes by design students who had won contests at their schools.

To reach out beyond the confines of the convention center, the ICFF set up displays in department store windows at Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, and other stores.

According to several designers exhibiting at the fair, creating furniture that is both evocative enough artistically to gain attention and solid enough to take constant use is the paramount goal. At its best, contemporary furniture is art that connects directly to people's lives because they use it every day.

"The idea is to try to translate sculptural media into very accessible things for people to use," Strauss says. "It's not a jump from life to `art."'

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