Don’t be deceived. Beyond the stucco walls and terra-cotta tiles of Sarasota’s in-your-face Med-Rev architecture, this city is becoming a hotbed of modern design.
Trendy new products can be yours almost as soon as they reach the world’s fashion capitals, and if the latest designer sofa or table isn’t in stock, savvy local retailers can special order anything your heart desires.
For locals trolling last May’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York, the reality began to hit. Some of this stuff was already in Sarasota stores. From hot new Alessi kitchen gadgets to Kartell’s funky plastic chairs, Arne Jacobsen’s Swan chair and a reissue by Charles and Ray Eames, it was there—and here. More than 20,000 buyers, designers and architects flocked to the 25-year-old ICFF to see prototypes, party with design superstars and get their own firsthand takes on trends.
“It’s energizing,” says Robert Henry of Sarasota design firm Tidmore-Henry. “We’ve been coming every year since the show first started and are thinking of getting a group from our ASID chapter to join us next time.”
Tidmore-Henry also makes sure to attend a few off-site parties (some of which, like Stella McCartney’s for the hot new British company Established & Sons, garnered more press coverage than most new products this year). “It recharges your battery, and you get great ideas for color,” Henry says about the show.
This year he was impressed with lighting innovations. “Swarovski is doing new shapes in chandeliers—spheres—that are contemporary and interesting, and the new LED lights from Herman Miller are great,” he says. Design guru Yves Behar’s much-publicized Leaf Light for Herman Miller caught Henry’s eye. “I like the technology; it allows you to direct the light and control the brightness in a room,” he says.
At Exit Art’s three locations on St. Armands Circle and Longboat Key, you can be among the first to order the Herman Miller Leaf Light or the 50-year-old Eames Lounge and Ottoman (updated in seven new versions to celebrate the famous chair’s golden anniversary). With a nod to the green movement, the company also showed the lounge for the first time in a sustainable tropical wood veneer.
Visiting the Danish ICFF exhibits was not unlike a trip to Sarasota’s new shop, dkVogue. Since the store focuses on mid-century Danish reproductions, many of the same pieces displayed in Sarasota were also on view at the show.
Demand for mid-century heightened when design magazines began mixing ‘50s chairs with everything from country farm tables to Deco lamps. Now mid-century icons are back with a vengeance, used as accent pieces in traditional as well as contemporary homes.
What goes around really does come around: A major trend at ICFF was the reissue of pieces designed in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Local modernists will have coveted new choices, because furniture companies are also scouring their archives for mid-century pieces that have never been commercially produced before. Richard Schultz, an exclusive outdoor furniture brand, is introducing additional pieces to a collection the eponymous company’s founder designed 40 years ago. Their classic 1966 collection and a new line called Swell can be special ordered through Robb & Stucky Outdoor. Another hit of the show was a chair sketched by Danish design legend Hans J. Wegner in 1960. Now offered for the first time in series production, this and 500 more Wegner designs manufactured by Carl Hansen & Son are available locally through dkVogue.
Another of ICFF’s much-revered exhibitors is Blu Dot, a textbook case study for starstruck design students who present their prototypes with hopes of being discovered. Founded by three college pals as a design collaborative 10 years ago, Blu Dot has had its furniture gracing the sets of TV shows Friends and ER. Its Hot Rod Beds will be used by the kids on MTV’s reality show, Real World. At ICFF, the Blu Dot Buttercup Rocker drew crowds.
“Their stuff is gorgeous,” says Michael Bush of Home Resource in Sarasota’s Rosemary district. Bush recently installed the company’s Chicago 8 Box in a client’s home. “It’s a really innovative combination of maple or cherry boxes supported by tubular steel rods,” he says. Bush confides that the client originally found the piece on an Internet retail site, Design Within Reach. “But they featured it in their exclusive wenge wood, and she was looking for cherry, which we were able to order.”
If you didn’t know that Ray Eames was Charles’ wife and not his brother, you can bone up on local retailers’ information-rich Web sites. Debbie Stanick, owner of Exit Art, says she gets Web orders from all over the country for her offerings from Herman Miller, Kartell, Alessi, Vitra and other designer brands. “They check out the Web site first, but a lot want to place phone orders; people still like to talk to a human,” she says.
Another good Web site, oddly, is from IOPTICS, Sharon Katzman’s fashion eyewear shop in Burns Court. At www.iopticseyewear.com you can link to Alessi and Kartell for histories of the products and designers. More brands are displayed in the store.
At dkVogue (which just took on Vitra’s line of Verner Panton mid-century classics), out of town Web site browsers are lured to the local store with an offer of complimentary airfare.
There seems to be no end to Sarasota’s hunger for Kartell’s funky shapes and colors. “We can’t keep the stuff on the floor,” says Home Resource’s Bush. Stanick carved a big display center for both Herman Miller and Kartell at her Chart House location. And Katzman, whose tiny eyeglass shop holds just so much, keeps excess stock at her home.
But ICFF is more than furniture; it’s about new surface materials as well. The big news was metallic finishes and jewels for the home. You’ll need a designer to see Phillip Jeffries’ new wallcoverings, handcrafted in Japan by mothers and grandmothers who use an age-old technique at a 100-year-old factory. “They apply 24K gold leaf with chopsticks and special brushes, then hand-rub it,” says the designer, Philip Bershad.
The gold and silver leaf papers, along with a new lacquered wallpaper line, are offered by Phillip Jeffries’ local trade showroom, Designer’s Source of Sarasota. To Bershad, the product is a bargain at $168 a yard: “That comes to $18 or $19 a square foot; to have someone come in and gold leaf your walls is at least $80 a foot,” he explains.
At the opposite extreme, a technology-driven floor covering material shown at ICFF is available (in exclusive permutations) locally at Exit Art and Living Walls. Called Plynl, the woven vinyl from Chilewich comes in different weights and textures for floor mats, area rugs and placemats. “It’s an innovative, architectural-looking product,” says Alison Levin Bishop, president of Living Walls. “It’s perfect for Florida because people want easy here, and it’s almost indestructible indoors or out. We’re even selling credit card purses out of it; at $12, they’re really in demand.
And that’s a change for this city, she adds. “Contemporary is a big market in Sarasota today, but it wasn’t when my parents opened our store in the ‘70s,” she says. “Back then, my mother said she had to love everything they bought for the store because if it didn’t succeed, she’d own it all.”