“Super Normal is a reminder of some pretty obvious points, as well being what we consider to be a pointer to a more sophisticated approach to design than the purely visual.” - Jasper Morrison
The word “normal” was hovering around the ICFF (International Contemporary Furniture Fair) last month, seeded by an exhibition at the Vitra showroom gallery entitled Super Normal. “Normal” means something like average or standard, something definitely not “innovative”, and is not a term usually celebrated in modern design. Combine “super” with normal and you get all kinds of definitional contradictions and ambiguities. The show was curated by designers Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa and is supported by a book from publisher Lars Muller - Super Normal: Sensations of the Ordinary. It’s a good read.
Everyday utilitarian objects are featured - stripped of any marketing polish and, generally lacking an overt design cache. The show is less a tour de force than a comment on the fact that most new pieces of design launched today are more about decorative styling than function. Most of us acknowledge this fact in private, but few will cop to it publicly. So it was bold of Vitra to highlight this body of work. It was the least normal exhibition at the ICFF, and therefore the most memorable. Click here for shots taken in the Vitra gallery, or you can see them all online at Design Boom taken when the show was in London.
“Normal” is probably the best way to describe the ICFF itself this year. The show was very functional, but predictable, and lacking any rebellious elements. The exhibitors were mostly the usual suspects, lined up in rows of booth spaces in the commonness of the Javits exhibition Hall. The Editor’s Awards are a good guide to the show, and the “Body of Work” award went to Herman Miller which is about as “normal” and expected as an award can get.
There were numerous less well-known designers featured, which we have come to expect and appreciate with the ICFF. The Elsie series from Nine Stories Furniture in Brooklyn - handsome tables and shelves made from junked cars - and the Balloona stool by Natalie Kruch from Umbra are two normal examples of innovative, genuinely clever designs incorporating recycled materials - but both have largely visual rather than functional appeal. The coverage in the New York Times was also quite normal. They predictably highlight new young designers and trends that run against function, this year focusing on chairs that are intentionally difficult to sit in, political statements against Wal-Mart, designs based on Excel spreadsheet logic, and other conceptual exercises. “Normal” is not usually not News.
There were also numerous innovative new products that dealt specifically with function. Pablo Pardo has been deservedly winning awards for his new LED lighting. Another stand out was this ingenious electrical outlet solution by the Canadian company Bocci and designer Omer Arbel. Their display looked like heap of scrap wire and plastic plates, but their product was something that would please a minimalist Miesian purist. Arbel has designed a system that eliminates standard electrical wall plates and allows us to plug directly into the wall. Especially clever given the building code issues, it employs a special tool that gives you access to the concealed power source. Smart, humble, clever and very visually pleasing, this product simultaneously removes constraints and simplifies. Simplicity is often not “normal”.
There are numerous ambiguities and ironies swirling around this concept of “Super Normal” and its place in our modern design community. The greatest irony might be that while the Vitra opening party was in full, claustrophobic swing upstairs, the “normal” work on display a floor below went largely unnoticed and seemed a bit lonely. Maybe this is normal also.
If you want to see something definitely not “normal” in New York, the current show at the Guggenheim by artist Cai Guo-Qiang is about as provocative and abnormal as it gets. I Want to Believe is a fantastic show and installation, and the Guggenheim building itself is one of the least normal, and highly successful, pieces of modern architecture in the modern world. Clearly, Art’s goal is not normalcy. But Design’s? I’m confused, but that’s super normal.
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