The Expert Eye: Barry Harwood at BKLYN DESIGNS

Editorial Staff Furniture & Decorative Arts

Often the best way to experience the past is to see its influence on the present. To that end, I invited Barry Harwood, curator of decorative arts at the Brooklyn Museum to accompany me to the annual BKLYN DESIGNS exhibition (May 8-10), presented by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo. Over forty local designers showcased their work—from custom crafted furniture and modular housing to decorative silk pillows and longboard skateboards. Although most exhibitors touted sustainability and green design, this year’s booths were also flush with historicism. Here we offer some highlights and a slideshow of Harwood’s picks.

To the chagrin of design purists, wallpaper has made a comeback—and this is not your grandmother’s floral flocked paper. Among the four exhibitors devoted exclusively to wallpaper, Flavor Paper (a New Orleans-based company soon to open headquarters in Brooklyn) works with local designers to create bold handscreened papers that are a pastiche of modern living and historical references-a remix of William Morris in shocking psychedelics, or traditional damasks designed by Dan Funderburgh that incorporate motifs of tradesman’s tools and urban detritus. As Harwood noted, “Wallpaper is a relatively affordable way to make a bold design statement—for a few hundred dollars you can completely redo a room-the only problem is that you really have to commit to one scheme.”

Another vendor, Grow House Grow, offered similarly subversive if slightly more macabre designs, each inspired by a story. Source material for the elegant wallpaper made by Brooklyn illustrator Katie Deedy included the occultist Aleister Crowley, the 19th-century frontierswoman “Cattle Katie,” and the ill-fated captain of the Titanic.

Allusions to the past also took many forms in the furniture on view at BKLYN DESIGNS, from a Nakashima-derived wood table by Eric Manigian to a klismos-style chaise longue at Matthew Fairbank Design. One of the cleverest designs is the Standard Chair by Uhuru Design, which combines salvaged Louis XVI style chair backs and legs with a plate steel seat and front legs and aluminum mesh, which, Harwood noted, references traditional caned seating. Available in six well-chosen colors, the Standard Chair stood out as an informed yet fresh approach to this ubiquitous form.

Woodworker Palo Samko‘s booth offered a delightful blend of impeccable craftsmanship and whimsy. Here a large-scale dining table with a small inset diorama of a preacher and flock of sheep (with one black sheep, of course) was treated as a discovery rather than an eccentricity, while elegantly shaped chairs, with small details such as a dimpled backrest, call to mind Sam Maloof’s studio furniture.

Among designs for children, IglooPlay by Lisa Albin had a wonderful multifunction piece called the Tea Pod—a biomorphic pair of upholstered foam cushions with one removable plywood tray top, which can be configured as a chair, a stool, or a table—a design that instantly recalls Roberto Matta’s sculptural seating from the 1960s.

One of the highlights of BKLYN DESIGNS was its exhibit of work by Pratt students curated by professor Tim Richartz, which offered some of the most memorable and playful designs. A glass-top table with a spaghetti-like bentwood oak base by Michael Chuapoco was hard to miss even though it was buried under promotional literature. Other notable designs included Elizabeth Pavese’s Indulgence chandelier made of knitted parachute cord and a bicycle wheel rim, and Evan Dewhirst’s Buoy Chair, a stabilizing work stool made from a repurposed water buoy paired with an aluminum body and cork seat. Perhaps not surprisingly, the student display borrowed its materials from the past, but not its ideas.