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Culture

Designing for the Future in Cologne

Form follows function in the design world, but now comfort is becoming increasingly important as displays at the International Furniture Fair show.

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Whimsical forms like this pony chair may be fun, but are they comfortable?

From January 14 to 20 the world of furniture and interior design will gather in Cologne, Germany for the annual International Furniture Fair. Billed as the world’s largest "global business platform for the home furnishing sector", the event is expected to draw some of the biggest names in design, not to mention curious buyers.

Ranging from kitchen to bathroom, living room to bedroom, some 1,450 companies from more than 50 countries will be displaying their products.

Some of the items featured are very high tech, such as the domestic robots featured at the "Ex Machina" exhibit. And some are more comfort-oriented like plush sofas and special body-contoured mattresses. Of course there are also the more mundane items for the industry expert: upholstery samples, pillow fillers, bathroom fixtures, and kitchen cabinets. But just about everyone who visits the fair is likely to find something that suits his or her taste.

High-tech meets comfort

The focus for this year’s fair is on the trend to comfort – but don’t just think German Gemütlichkeit and fluffy pillows. In this day and age, comfort must be defined pluralistically as anything that makes it easier for us to enjoy our home lives. This includes new technology and sleek functionality as well as plush upholstery for lounging around in.

The Swiss company De Sede, is one example of a company hoping to capitalize on the trend. With its "wellness oasis", an oval sofa that turns into a chaise lounge or bed at the push of a button, the company offers what it calls a blend of "Oriental ambience and western comfort". And for those who can’t quite sink back and relax at the end of the day, the multi-functional sofa can be outfitted to integrate a computer screen in its arms. The work may not be less stressful, but the position is certainly more comfortable.

Another example of blending comfort, design and technology is a set of "intelligent" shelves by the Danish company Montana. The crystal-clear glass shelves are light and transparent, and equally as easy to operate: the drawers magically slide open with a light touch of the hand.

On the more playful side of comfort is a mechanized whisky chair designed by the Scottish team of Ron and Monique Ferris. Covered in plush red velvet and emblazoned with a gold emblem, the chair with lion head arms looks more like something out of a baroque palace than a 21st-century design fair. But the chair is expected to revolutionize the way its "sitters" and whisky drinkers think of furniture’s function. The trick: a mechanical feature spurts whisky from one of the chair’s arms right into the sitter’s glass. As long as the supply of whisky doesn’t run out, there’s no need for the contented sitter to leave the comfort of the chair.

And if you own one of the domestic robots featured at the Ex Machina exhibit, you may not even have to leave your chair to get the paper. As the exhibit dedicated to the history of robots from 1950 to the present shows, automation and computerization have led to remarkable improvements in the way we conduct our daily lives. So even if C3P0 and R2D2 sounds like science fiction fantasy, it’s not entirely improbable that bleeping creatures will make their way into our homes, helping to take care of tasks we’d rather not tend to.

A home refuge

Alleviating stress and increasing home comfort is what the future of home design and furnishings is all about. Wellness areas, home spas in the bathroom, soothing colors and soft lighting are all aspects of the trend towards increased comfort.

According to designers there will be more luscious jewel colors, tone-in-tone palettes, and clear, simple forms. Sofas will be larger and fuller in the coming years, filling up much more of the living space than in years past. And designers will mix materials, combining natural elements like bamboo and rattan with industrial ones like clear plastic and glass. The whole effect will be one of a rejuvenating retreat.

Since September 11, there has been a marked tendency for people to retreat into the comfort and security of their own four walls, says the Director of the Association of German Furniture Industry, Dirk-Uwe Klaas. People are creating "islands of comfort" in their homes where they can escape the "hustle and bustle of a busy world."

"Whenever the outside world becomes threatening, whenever it leaves us feeling cold, people want to retreat into their happy and comforting home," explains Klaas.

Cocooning

The tendency to create a home refuge is not entirely new, however. "Cocooning" is another word for this phenomena and it has been observed by market analysts and sociologists over the last few years.

In the words of the American market guru, Faith Popcorn, cocooning is "the need to protect oneself from the harsh, unpredictable realities of the outside world." People focus their energies inwardly and domestically. They tend to prefer staying at home to going out, and while doing so are discovering new interests in the home.

Furniture sellers have noted that this trend equates into big business for them. In the US alone over 143 billion dollars were spent last year on interior decorating and home improvement. The next few years will probably not be much different, especially since the Europeans are beginning to follow the Americans into the comfort zone.

But the future of furniture and design is not easily predictable. As the exhibit LIVINGvisions at the International Furniture Fair shows, "economic and social changes lead to new types of living, new approaches, new attitudes and new ways of experiencing space and buildings." Furniture no longer stands alone, but is experienced as part of our emotional space.

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