Turning furniture upside down

Designers poke fun at the 'seriousness' of contemporary furniture with a host of funky pieces that invite bashes, scratches, and dings.

What if you came home from work, swung from the chandelier across your living room, and then hurled a vase at the kitchen floor - just to see how the porcelain cracks? (And it wasn't even a bad day at the office.)

A new Dutch company called Do wants to turn your passive encounters with furniture into a creative partnership.

When you smash that vase, called Do Break, it becomes one of a kind, your own creation, and moves beyond the control of the designer. As the Do catalog explains, the "consumer has to engage in self-development before [the products] can be put to use."

And, of course, in the case of the unbreakable rubber-lined Do Break, there's an added incentive: "Destruction has never been so satisfying," the designers suggest.

"Right now, we're more or less curators," says Joanna van der Zanden, manager of Do Create. The consumer is a collaborator.

Another product, Do Hit, which requires smashing a steel cube into a seat with a sledgehammer - included with the chair when you buy it. And if you bash it into something seriously uncomfortable? "Then it becomes your unique sculpture," Ms. Van der Zanden says, unfazed. "Unfinished things are OK. If it goes wrong, it's OK. It's not about being perfect."

That approach gives a gentle poke to the implied perfectionism and lean lines of minimalism now dominating contemporary furniture design.

Brand mentality

Fashion and form hold little sway for Do, a counter-culture company that bills itself as promoting "mental growth." Indeed, Do describes itself as "an antidote to the one-way world that we live in."

The Do brand was dreamed up in 1998 by KesselsKramer, an edgy Amsterdam marketing company that had done campaigns for such companies as Levi Strauss.

Erik Kessels and Johan Kramer wanted to "change the conventions of brands." Long before they had a product (the usual brand route), they had a brand "mentality."

Then in partnership with Droog, a Dutch collaborative making waves of its own in the contemporary design world, the Do Create collection emerged (www.docreate.com). All eight products - including Do Swing, Do Hit, Do Break, Do Cut, Do Scratch, Do Frame (a roll of ornately printed adhesive tape that allows you to frame any object or surface), Do Reincarnate (invisible threaded device for hanging electrical products), and Do Shirt (a vastly oversized cotton T-shirt that can be wrapped as a turban or serve as soft sculpture) - were presented for the first time at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York last month.

(Although you can order items online, the only place to buy the entire Do Create line is at the Apartment in New York's Soho area.)

But more than breaking a mold (sometimes literally), Do is also consciously injecting humor and fun into consuming, which, as the company points out, "is not really a highly imaginative activity."

"Humor makes you feel active," Van der Zanden says. "Perhaps when we remember how wide our imaginations were, and can still be, we can play again."

And play is the operative word. Do Scratch is a lamp with a black matte surface that you scratch off to let the light out. Do Cut, a hollow ribbed totem pole, comes with a handsaw to slice it into pieces - maybe a fruit bowl, umbrella stand, stool, a lampshade, you decide.

Van der Zanden likens the Do mentality to reviving some of the inspiration of childhood.

"When you grow up, you stop dreaming about things that might not be possible. Do products allow you to live out dreams." You don't have to be James Bond to swing from the chandelier. You don't even have to be mad to throw a vase. It's guiltless fun.

True to its philosophy of active engagement, the Do catalog requests on its final page, "do react," and gives a questionnaire about whether you'd like to sell Do products, join Do, or just be updated. But there's one final option: "Please leave me alone, you crazy people."

Other designers offer their take

The Do brand isn't the only company with a sense of humor in the serious, minimal world of contemporary furnishings. A Vancouver company, Flavour Design, cooked up a kitchen stool made of an overturned restaurant-grade brazier pot. "In the hot seat" swivels with delicious ease and is surprisingly comfortable.

A company called b9 furniture, in Chicago, displayed an illuminated plastic armchair in a flowery sofa-fabric pattern. No problem finding your seat in the dark.

On a similar theme, Totem Design Ltd. of London introduced boo! - an interactive polypropylene seat that lights up as you sit down and goes off when you stand up. A sort of beaming whoopee cushion.

While furniture that lit up was a mini-trend at the furniture fair, recycled materials found their place, too.

Can comfort and whimsy mix?

Henry Holland, a student at Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication near London, demonstrated the comforts of a bench made of old upturned telephone directories stacked in a row. The directories were from Milan. "Finest Italian phone books," Mr. Holland says with a smile.

But Mike Bradbury might win the prize for humor and comfort combined.

The designer at Stone Circle, another English company, has brought "the possibility of luxuriating in the bath into the sitting room," as the literature advises, by creating a daybed-cum-chaise that looks distinctly like a traditional tub.

"When you're in the bath, you're relaxed and calm," Mr. Bradbury explains. "It re-creates that cocooning feel." With minimalism so popular - and a bit spiky and angry, he says - he wanted to do something inviting and playful. "Home's supposed to be comfortable, not an airport departure lounge."

The daybed, upholstered in creamy-soft hide, is called Porcelain and is approached like a regular bath - kick shoes off and step in. And with its sleek lines, it still keeps to the minimalist code.

But you may want to relax in your real bath for a while before writing out the $7,500 check.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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