At this year’s Maison & Objet design show in Paris, Donald Trump’s presence was palpable. The fair opened a few hours before his inauguration, and as I walked the halls the following day, at booth after booth, President Trump and the Women’s March on Washington were on everyone’s minds.
Perhaps it was because France will have its own presidential election in April, and following Brexit and Trump, many see the country’s populist movements as newly formidable. But the social and political implications of Trump and his cabinet are also now undeniable worldwide. Throughout the weekend, the nearly 4,000 miles between the U.S.’s capital and France’s seemed to disappear. In Paris, thousands of demonstrators marched to the Eiffel Tower in solidarity with the estimated 470,000 protesting in Washington.
My first stop at Maison & Objet was the booth of French crystal maker Lalique, where I met the Columbus, Ohio-based artist Terry Rodgers. He had been commissioned by the company to create his own take on René Lalique’s 1927 vase of dancing bacchantes. Unlike the original, which replicates the same female figure around the vase, Rodgers’s version displays nine different women, each embodying contemporary ideals of beauty. “I wanted to do something in crystal that felt more modern, rather than something stylized or in a pattern,” Rodgers told me. “I wanted the figures to be independent, and I wanted them to be strong. That’s what’s bizarre about the march today: It was a reaction to suppression that started occurring verbally 10 months or so ago. People are finally like, ‘No, we’re fighting back!’”
The vase, at least aesthetically, could be at home in the Trump Tower penthouse. Still, there’s much to admire about it, from its quality of craftsmanship to Rodgers’s sentiment behind it. I find it refreshing that Lalique continues to innovate in the traditional, rather staid world of crystal. The 129-year-old company has in recent years started working with contemporary artists and designers—including Damien Hirst and Zaha Hadid—a move that shows a willingness to forge new paths, be playful, and take risks. Though Rodgers’s limited-edition vases “may not get people to march,” as he put it to me, they do carry a subtle social message. Only through this sort of collaboration could Lalique do something so unexpected and original and poignant.
Risk-taking, for the most part, seemed to be absent from this year’s Maison & Objet. There was so much stuff, yet so little soul or humanity. Very little excited me. There were exceptions, however.
I got a laugh when I stopped by Spanish porcelain company Lladró’s booth. On display was a new collection called Dog With Candy, a trio of figurines that are so absurd they’re delightful. One was a bulldog with a large lollipop sticking out of its mouth. There was also a Chihuahua covered in marshmallows. The third? A Jack Russell terrier with licorice balancing on its nose. Does the world need these? Absolutely not. I have to admit, though, they’re hard to resist. I was glad to see the brand, known for producing detailed figurines, not being so serious. We could all use a laugh these days, after all.
For me, the fair’s highlights were from the companies that clearly jumped out of their comfort zones, whether via craft or concept, to create something unexpected. They included designer Jaime Hayon’s whimsical Folkifunki tabletop collection for Portuguese porcelain maker Vista Alegre and the Italian rug brand Golran’s new, Dimore Studio-designed Paralleli collection (above), a playful re-interpretation by of the traditional Persian rug.
Another to catch my eye was Basel-based designer Ini Archibong’s literally cutting-edge Erosion collection for the stone company Lapicida, produced with one of the largest CNC shaping mills in the world. French designer Noé Duchaufour-Lawrance’s Folia collection of lamps and glassware for crystal maker Saint-Louis—which was shown not at the fair, but in the brand’s Paris showroom—was also a favorite.
The ultimate standout? A futon. Yes, a futon. I’ve been telling furniture companies for the past few years that there is a void in the market for a well-built futon. With the Müller Wulff-designed Berlin Loft bed-settee, French brand Ligne Roset has stepped in to fill it. It’s not a groundbreaking product, but it’s exactly what high-end furniture makers should be thinking about and making today: a flexible piece for someone in their twenties or thirties who can pay for quality and who doesn’t want to buy an Ikea throwaway. The Berlin Loft is an elevated version of the dorm room standard. Its elegant form and frame bear no resemblance to the cheap metal varieties common at big-box stores across America, but it meets the same functional need.
Berlin Loft taps into one of my design proclivities: the idea that something can be at once casual and upscale. In Paris, the hotel where I was staying, the recently opened Amastan, and a newly refreshed restaurant where I had dinner, Divellec (above), both embody this. At Amastan, in the Eighth Arrondissement and a short walk from the Champs-Élysées, designers Juan Pablo Naranjo and Jean-Christophe Orthlieb of Studio NOCC have created homey, intimate spaces that feel warm and lived in, yet also distinct. By painting the herringbone parquet flooring dark blue, for example, they made an old style look and feel fresh. Marble, brass, and other rich materials are used throughout, but the hotel doesn’t feel at all stuffy.
At Divellec, designed by Karl Fournier and Olivier Marty of Studio KO—the firm behind London’s Chiltern Firehouse—the 2,690-square-foot interior feels at once historic, unfamiliar, and modern. Referencing the space’s previous 30 years in a wholly original way, the rooms mix velvet banquettes, tropical plants, mirrors, wicker wall coverings, and wool carpets in various arrangements. A curved pink marble bar takes center stage. The vibe feels both elevated and down-to-earth. It’s the restaurant equivalent of the Ligne Roset futon.
From Paris, I took the Eurostar to London for a visit to the new Design Museum. An ethereal experience, the four-story, 108,000-square-foot museum’s clean-lined interior, designed by John Pawson, is so stunning that it’s easy to lose oneself in it. I caught an exhibition there, “Fear and Love,” that impressed me. The ambitious presentation (on view through April 23) explores the relationship of design to issues like sexuality, robots, and agriculture through newly commissioned projects by Neri Oxman, Hussein Chalayan, and Christien Meindertsma, among others. Complex in concept but straightforward in its presentation, “Fear and Love” helps bring design out of its niche and into a realm of global ideas. It’s a show that every major CEO and politician, Trump included, should see.
After London, I flew to Zurich, where I previewed Annie Leibovitz’ traveling “Women: New Portraits” exhibition (on view through Feb. 19) presented in partnership with UBS. I had missed the show when it was recently in New York, and I was glad to catch it, especially at this particular moment of political unrest. (Over the past year, it’s also traveled to London, Tokyo, San Francisco, Singapore, Hong Kong, Mexico City, Milan, and Frankfurt.) A continuation of a Leibovitz project that began more than a decade and a half ago, the show features portraits of a wide range of prominent women, including filmmaker Laura Poitras, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, philanthropist Agnes Gund, Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, and journalist and activist Gloria Steinem. Looking at Leibovitz’s telling portraits of all of these incredible women naturally led me to thinking about the marchers around the globe the weekend before. Indeed, the gallery wall appeared as its own sort of manifestation of a march. As with Lalique, it was pleasing to see a company—a bank, no less—putting its weight behind such a globally important effort, one that’s especially crucial right now.
As I flew back to America after five days in Europe, I felt strongly that the world needs—and should demand—a lot more innovation, soul, and humanity from not just politicians, but also companies. Design can be a great tool in achieving that.