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DECOR : The Fresh Air at N.Y. Furniture Fair Comes From S.F.


It could have been a stool or a cabinet. Instead, the thin pieces of Finland birch evolved naturally into a table. Streamlined and small, it requires no hardware, weighs just 3.2 pounds and collapses at the flick of a few fingers and the zip of a zipper. Yet it is strong enough to support the weight of a grown man.

"Two hundred pounds, which I'm not quite," said the designer, Sigmar Willnauer of Berkeley, who chose the wood for its combination of flexibility, lightness and strength. The same wood is used in experimental airplanes and for boomerangs, he said.

Willnauer is one of a group of San Francisco Bay Area designers who sought to make their mark last month at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York, an annual showcase for innovation in furniture design. And they did.

Before the fair had ended, the group was invited to take its display to London and Paris. And Willnauer had reason to dance on his tabletops. He was named new designer of the year, earning the fair's official acrylic-cube trophy, which he pronounced "very well done."

The fair, this country's answer to Europe's prestigious design shows, draws many people with lofty goals, though not all succeed as Willnauer has.

The fair, in its seventh year, attracted 400 designers and exhibitors and more than 11,000 visitors to the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. Over four days, manufacturers, designers, store buyers, architects and the public convened to survey the good, the wacky, the elegant and the unusual.

Most designers and companies are American, despite the fair's claim to worldliness. Willnauer is German, but he is quick to say, "Producing in America in a very intelligent way is very important to me."

This year, sophistication won out over the experimental. Zip Table was just one example, its smooth lines almost sober compared with the style of last year's winning newcomer, New Yorker Gaston Marticorena, who in May, 1994, showed, among other things, a bench made from a hay bale slipcovered in clear vinyl. The comparison is apt for another reason: This year, the Bay Area appeared to outdistance New York as the nexus of fresh design.

"There is an enthusiasm and positiveness which I do not find in New York or L.A.," Willnauer said. "There is much more irony and sarcasm in those other places. That represents itself in the work and the attitude."

His first hit design, the Zip Light, was a graceful, ingenious combination of leather and recycled rubber, held together with a zipper. With its distinctive white-hooded shade, it became an icon of lighting almost instantly. Willnauer has sold 10,000 Zip Lights in 2 1/2 years, a feat for his 3-year-old, three-person company called Goods. Each is $195.

Nearly two dozen Bay Area companies attended the fair here, 20 displaying together under the banner of San Francisco Portfolio. The contingent was big enough to occupy an entire aisle of the show and strong enough to generate conversation about an emerging American style.

"They came with a very definite aesthetic," said Susan Szenasy, editor of Metropolis magazine, which sponsors the fair.

The San Francisco look appeared sophisticated, purposeful and restrained but not humorless.

Consider the mind-set behind a carpet runner shaped like a row of giant pebbles. This latest rug design from Vicki Simon could make you want to skip down the hallway. A gleaming wall-mounted vanity mirror from Abraxas can be moved up and down as well as from side to side, to accommodate people of all heights. A smart little coffee table from Co-Motion conceals a Lazy Susan for storing compact discs.

For refined salon furnishings, there were Agnes Bourne's showroom pieces, sculptural blond furniture from Enos and elegant polished solid steel from Shannon & Jeal. Craft-based shelving and cabinetry were displayed at Cipra & Frank. "Mid-century modern" was the inspiration for an updated '50s collection by Ted Boerner, a prime mover in pulling the San Francisco group together.

"There is a lot of design in San Francisco," Boerner said. "It's always surprising, even to us."

Can the uninitiated tell a table designed in San Francisco from one designed in New York or Philadelphia?

Well, you can certainly try. Just as the skyline of Manhattan is more accommodating to the blocky World Trade Towers than Philly's or San Francisco's would be, a New York-style table--say, one by Bone Simple Design in steel wire, hand-routed wood and sandblasted glass--speaks a distinctive New York language of urban survival.

A Philadelphia table in the hands of John Kelly, who began designing furniture while an architecture student at the University of Pennsylvania, respects historic styles and materials almost as a matter of course; his are Shaker-inspired and made of cherry wood.

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