Is design culture-centric?

Is the furniture design mindset and market in EU very different from that in the USA? If yes that which of the two do you feel is more open to fresh ideas and healthy debates? Any recommendations?

I’m inclined to say that Europe is more open to “fresh” ideas and debates about design than the USA. Just look at all the well-known contemporary and avant-gard manufacturers in Europe. The USA has relatively few in comparison, although there are a plethora of very small outfits in New York and on the west coast if you do a bit of digging.

I don’t have that much experience with Europe, but I do with the USA so I’ll give my thoughts on that:

I’m not convinced that Americans only care for “traditional” furnishings really. Some areas of the country certainly seem to buy traditional almost exclusively, but you’ll find closet modernists and lovers of design just about everywhere. Some locations (New York, Miami, California for example) have a large, thriving design scene. The business side of the market is probably the main driver of the appearance that Americans have uber conservative furniture tastes, in my opionion.

The general “furniture industry” (think High Point / IHFC) from the manufacturers to the retailers have become so risk averse and resistant to change that you’re unlikely to see anything different from them until things get very desparate - and even then, most will probably go down with the ship instead of taking a chance with something new. Everywhere you go, people are selling traditional and their half-hearted attempts at watered down “modern” (think Pottery Barn, etc.), trying to compete in a commodity market sucking every last ounce of quality and design out of their products. The great downfall is nearing the tipping point, I think. What modern/contemporary/avant-gard furniture that is on the market is often too expensive for 75% of customers to buy, or even consider when some retailers will sell you an entire set of furniture for what a single item might cost from, say, Moooi.

Thanks for your thoughts. Shall pm you my views later. Awaiting more inputs from designers with experience from Europe.

although it might seem that way but it’s not like that at all. furniture in europe is all based on a very traditional system of manufacturer>designer>market kinda like the way architecture or art was commissioned in the past. only the look is modern or high tech but the system of working with designers is still as old as the european culture. they also have built up a very routine channel for presenting and marketing which is probably the least flexible of its kind due to tight economic nature of europe. i say this because i saw it upclose in italy.
the set back is that companies and designers are used to manufacturing in europe and can’t really manufacture in places like china because the chinese don’t work the way they do in europe specially when it comes to designer-factory relation. europeans demand a certain quality which differs from the concept of quality in a country like china.
only companies like IKEA have some leverage because their designs are not at all high end or dependent on specific manufacturing processes that require great detail.
americans have the same problem but in a less dramatic way since their furniture industry is based more on either standard home/office furniture or mainstream american style which you can find in catalogues and antique magazines.
if you take a walk along robertson in LA you’ll see both types but you’ll also notice the european furniture they have imported to US is very different from those you find exhibited in milan mobili fair.

i find american furniture companies late followers of the industry. they’re either like herman miller, very dry, pragmatically considered designs in range with their own catalogues past and present ( i knew don chadwick he was kinda like that too, although sometimes he flipped a joke or two!) or very conservatively selective like 73lotus said. they usually blame it on the US market but i think the real reason is that american furniture was never able to create an identity for itself just as american architecture has not been such a hot collection of works with the exception of works by FLWright and some other big names who were not really born americans.
imo americans in general have little interest in design, art, and architecture but have high interest in everything which is mainstream to some fluctuating but significant degree sprouting from popular culture which comes out of publicity / hype generated by magazines/film and more catalogisation and search on internet for those who look for deals and selection ie one chair in ten different colors and material!! that’s why furniture companies in US are now focusing on consumer behaviors instead of identity. and we know who benefits most from that if infact there’s any benefit in it on the long run.
so those who enter these fields in US suffer more when it comes to identity therefore less likely to be able to pull off an original, well thought out piece of work while in europe they complain about over congestion and saturated job market when each and everyone of them infact has confidence in cultural support and eventual backup for the pieces they would make if they had established themselves as well known designers.


Americans (from all backgrounds) every year visit more museums than just about any other country on earth. We have a huge number of artists, architects, and designers. Those people are producing work which is primarily purchased by Americans. You may not find most of that work to your tastes (I don’t like a lot of it either), but that doesn’t invalidate it. America is an incredibly diverse society. The fact that modern design is less popular than country pine doesn’t make us a nation of philistines.

Anyway, to address the original post, I don’t think the market is that different in either place. Both markets are largely dominated by traditional styles of furniture. If by “fresh ideas” you mean modern design, I would argue that most modern design hasn’t moved on much since the 50’s and 60’s, and is thus pretty far from fresh. But yes, modern does do better in Europe, although this is mostly styling. You will have just as hard a time convincing Europeans as you will Americans that they should adopt a really radical idea, or some completely new way of living.

73Lotus (Twin Cam Europa?): I’m curious what kind of tipping point you see coming. As much as I’d love to see people stop buying traditional stuff and start buying modern, I haven’t seen any sign of that happening.

I guess I see a tipping point on the horizon coming from the business side, not necessarily customers’ interest in contemporary design. Most of these companies have become so risk averse that they will go belly up before taking a chance on something new. Stroll through High Point and you’ll see an ocean of basically the same furniture: homogenized design, occasionally pushed in a new direction, but always blunt enough to ‘appeal to everyone’ (or so they would like to think). There’s too much secrecy, smoke-and-mirrors marketing, high pressure sales tactics (often reminds me of a used car dealership!), and a general ‘it used to work, so why change it’ attitude that permeates everything. To many CEO’s, managers, sales reps, “cutting edge” is a pottery barn side table in a pastel lacquer or anything from IKEA. Everything is thought of as commodity when a lot of customers seem to want something a bit more niche-oriented. Its the same attitudes that have Detroit all in a tizzy. The trade publications play it up (in general) and talk about how things will be back to normal once the ‘recession’ is over and we come up with a slightly wittier advertising scheme.

Then again, my corporate job has left me rather embittered with the whole scene, so my views might be a bit clouded…

I think one must look at some of the contemporary-specific shows and exhibits if you want to see what contemporary American furniture design is about. ICFF (and the indie shows around town), CaBOOM, etc. Its the same in Europe though, the very small companies and individuals are presenting the most cutting edge stuff. Someone must be buying the stuff, though - many small outfits seems to do pretty well, although no one has published any numbers anywhere that I can find.

I don’t know if prodes was really specifying ‘modern’ or not. Its very much the case that modern, and even postmodern, is something of a history lesson now, although its a common misconception among those in the big furniture industry that ‘modern’ is the bleeding edge of design…

If I divided a room of 100 people into two groups, (The savers and the spenders)

I bet the savers would fill 15% of the room and spenders85%.

The saver will buy something that lasts or has long term value.
The spender will buy something fashionable and hip.

“Modern” is making the crossover from saver mentality to spender mentality In the US for the first time via Target and IKEA

I bet the percentage of “savers” in Europe is still higher than the US, but the spender mentality in both location (EU&US) is growing at a quicker rate. Hence products under the guise of modern is offered to the spenders at IKEA. IKEA does not waste a penny trying to pick up the purchasing power of a saver mentality person. Looks to me like standard Pareto 80-20 business marketing principles. I will make 80% of my money from 20% of my customers.

I just hope that the crappy coffee tables With legs that easily fall off at big box stores do not tarnish the original image of Modern as High Quality. If the end customer starts to equate Modern with CRAP then we have a bigger problem to fix.

purchacing or producing quantity does not mean interest. i can eat ten hamburgers a day from in and out, macdonalds, burger king, jack in the box but does that mean i have a taste for food?! no, it just means i eat alot of unhealthy food. so it does invalidate it.

this has nothing to do with diversity or modern furniture as the example above demonstrated. hamburger is a modern food and there’re so many burger joints. it has to do with what motivates people to use design.

if i am motivated to eat a hamburger is it because i’m hungry or is it because i enjoy good food?

it’s not a question of saving or spending. i could save at the same time that i spend which i think that’s what most people do anywhere in the world.

IKEA is not furniture in the true sense of the word. it’s simply an economic means to help organise your surrounding living environment at home or office.

IKEA has taken atvantage of the fact that people need flexibility in life but also need it to be cheap, affordable, and design wise in fashion and acceptable. their furnitures don’t involve innovation. maybe they’re even against inovation since all their products follow the same routine philosophy of being cheap and easy to assemble.

it has already happened that marketing in US automobile makers as well as other industries including furniture have sensed there’ a percentage of americans equating modern with crap. that’s why we see these retros of charger and mustang. even some furniture companies are doing retro pieces but i don’t think that’s a good solution since younger generation in a few years won’t even care what a retro is and rather see something that fits better with their life style functionally and aesthetically.

that’s why i said identity is a major issue in american design mostly because everything is borrowed either from the recent past, cultural/historical references which are too cliche and overused, and pop culture that is ephemeral, and ambiguous.

the only positive aspect might be the fact that americans have more space to buy furniture for as compared to europeans or japanese.

If chosing to spend your money on something doesn’t indicate interest, what does it indicate exactly? I’m not talking about McDonalds or Bob Ross paintings. The US spends more money to support real art (the kind that goes in museums), design, and architecture than anyone else. And incidentally, we spend more on fine dining than any other country. And, yes, fast food too. We produce a lot of junk, but that’s because we have 300 million people and plenty of money. You get the bad with the good. Name another country that has more than one TV channel devoted almost entirely to design. There are surely a lot of people who don’t care about design or art, but that percentage is certainly not significantly higher than it is in any other country.

73Lotus: I don’t see that change coming from the business side. I do think consumer interest in “real” design is growing, but not enough to warrant some massive shift in the way the business works. See you around at HP. :wink:

you talk as if i haven’t seen US upclose. just how many people do you think go even look at paintings in galleries let alone buy that crap? if you go to art galleries in SF or LA you won’t find even one person in the galleries. they’re always empty. sometimes i wonder how do these people make a living? i think the “bad” as you put it is over 90 percent and the “good” probably less than %5. the in between might be considered mediocre publicity!

as for TV channels devoted to design, it’s funny to say that in US, when we all know it’s like a big ad station. americans go for that because they buy hyped things.

This conversation seems to be getting quite interesting friends, but don’t we all feel that all the information is just from one side of the world, I must say this - till now I am rather convinced that the Americans are quite a bit interested in a debate at least, could this be because there are not many participants on this board from the other side of the world?!

To clarify what I meant by ‘fresh ideas’ – yes, I agree to a certain extent I was referring to how open a mind-set we are to radical ideas that swerve away from the tried-n-tested. I tend to agree with the few of you who have explicitly stated that the conventional mode is still followed – whether in the EU or US; and also that the ‘tipping point’ is perhaps at the manufacturer-retailer-designer nexus rather than at the buyer end.

Just Scott Bennett states that design really has not moved and for that matter I do not even know if it will. As 73lotus wrote “The general ‘furniture industry’ - from the manufacturers to the retailers have become so risk averse and resistant to change that you’re unlikely to see anything different from them until things get very desperate”.

Well in my opinion unlike a canvas which is generally controlled by a single artist, a good piece of furniture is a product of good teamwork”; this includes the conceptualisation (we the designers) and visualisation (manufacturer’s design manager) – the engineering – the production – and the marketing. Unless the latter do not fully impose their trust into the former, every concept is nothing but an egg which may or may never fertilise!

All of us (designers) come up with ideas and often the visualizers (manufacturers design managers) are also open to reviewing them but when it comes to moving it further the risk of investment in terms of time and money often holds back, and the egg looses its time for fertilization. After all how much can any visualizer assimilate from just looking at a single image or a fraction there of??

I firmly believe that every single person has an eye for design; maybe they don’t express it beyond ‘looking for something different’. Here is where the all- significant role of the ‘tipping point’ comes in. If the manufacturer and the marketer can visualise and tap the potential of the avant-garde generation-next, then and only then can design truly progress. And for this I am sure there are plenty of us out there who are waiting for someone to recognise and appreciate their tangent thinking. After all, we can’t ignore the 85% spenders?!

Well if there is a manufacturer or his visualizer out there who comes across this conversation please do give us your point of view. I guess all of us still await views from designers with the EU experience.

The average annual attendance at the Met (that’s one museum among several thousand) is 4 million, or almost 11,000 every single day. How many people go to the Iranian National Museum?

majority not US citizens. mostly tourists. same in europe.

that’s why i mentioned galleries instead of museums because it’s a more realistic representation.

One of the great things aboout furnature design is that people are not intimidated compared to a gallery.

I got some cheap skiing tickets in Aspen one year. While enjoying an apres-ski beer, I was visually pulled into a gallery by a great Peter Max painting. The nice lady at the gallery imediately went into comparing and contrasting all the art at the shop.

Definitely not appealing to me, too hoity-toity, but It wasn’t a sales pitch to buy the painting either. And yes, If I had 12,000 in my pocket, It would look great at home.

Furnature is tangible. Americans like that type of stuff. Just present the furnature in a non gallery format.

in LA there’s a design center. it’s always empty as well and most often you see several showrooms either closed for the day or empty!

furniture design had its heyday in late eighties. nowadays designers design for decorators. they get their feed back from a large pool of decorators who haven’t even studied furniture design! sometimes they’re not even decorators. they’re housewives or like people who worked in hotels who now have decided to get into the business. they do one house in hollywood for an actor/director/whatever and all of a sudden they become a style guru!!

no wonder furniture design is so boring to a lot of designers.

Yeah, unfortunately the facts disagree with you:

“18 percent were international visitors”


That percentage is going to be even lower at regional museums where foreign visitors are less likely to travel. You appear to have some kind of fervent disdain of Americans, but the facts don’t support your claims here.

Denver just got a Libeskind.

Milwaukee just got a Calatrava.

Maybe there should be more furnature exhibitions?

that’s like,

the farmer asking the fox: who’s your witness?
he says: my tail.

read this:

" a recent search on google for sources including the phrases “success” and “art museums” yeilded 105000 results!!

sorry, but i think i’m getting crucified here in a piss bowl again.

Whatever. I’m done.