From concept cars and crockery to robotic chairs and the world’s most stylish new hotels, the creations of these nine up-and-coming international designers are redefining the place where form meets function.
Author Ted Loos
The Robot Chair
Part mad scientist and part provocateur, the Amsterdam-based Laarman stormed the art world with his witty, complicated creations. Case in point: a “robot chair” that debuted at New York’s Friedman Benda gallery this spring. This miniature prototype is really a piece of theater. Four robot arms score and fold a single piece of metal, origami-like, until it forms a tiny chair. This “industrial dance,” as the 30-year-old Laarman calls it, has a utopian ideal behind it: He envisions a future in which “robots can fold anything on request at different places in the world.” He’s not always so practical—one not-yet-realized design is a bioluminescent lamp powered by genetically modified animal tissue.
Plate, fruit bowl, cup and saucer
Few people have taken the concept of recycling to heart like Dutch designer Esther Derkx. Her whimsical Improved! crockery, made by baking new patterns onto well-chosen cast-off dishes in a ceramics oven, is a bold aesthetic statement for the green generation. “I got my inspiration from walking around flea markets and secondhand stores, when it occurred to me that there were so many used dishes being sold,” says Derkx, who’s based in Utrecht. Improved! works, she says, because she does it out of love, not as a form of environmental penance. On one plate, she has screen-printed an image of a man doing yoga over the piece’s original old-fashioned roses. Says Derkx, “People see the humor of the figures that are sitting on top of their grandmother’s flowers.” And that’s an improvement.
Side Table no. Thirty Three
The name makes them sound like an ’80s rock band, but the New Traditionalists are actually four designers who formed a savvy Connecticut-based furniture company. The designs are rooted in familiar objects, but they’ve been updated with modern forms and finishes. Their Side Table no. Thirty Three is a worn lacquer and onyx piece with laser-cut leather, while Chair no. Twenty Nine ($4,800) is their interpretation of a classic wingback: The contrasting piping was inspired by Oxford saddle shoes, and the brown pony leather is an over-the-top evocation of horse country. Says cofounder Brady Wilcox, “We are able to give people what they want—and also what they didn’t know they wanted.”
Stiven Kerestegian was appalled by the wasteful practices of salmon fisheries in his native Chile, so he formed ES and patented a process to turn discarded fish skins into a soft, durable leather. Then they designed dozens of unlikely products made from it, like the award-winning Chilote House Shoe, handmade out of free-range Patagonian wool with salmon leather soles. Customers even include one of Santiago’s fisheries. “Things have come full circle,” says Kerestegian. “Now a company has silky suede conference room seating made from the same material it used to discard five years ago.” Nothing fishy about that.
Playa Vik Jose Ignacio
The resort town of Punta del Este, on the Uruguayan coast, is the South Beach of South America—a bustling, lively and sometimes outrageous nexus of fun. Hotel and design entrepreneurs Alex and Carrie Vik wanted to offer a quieter, more relaxing version of that notorious scene. So in June they opened the 10-room Playa Vik Jose Ignacio just 12 miles away, on a pristine, private beach. The main building, courtesy of architect Carlos Ott, is filled with works by international art stars like James Turrell and Zaha Hadid. The Monaco-based Viks are bullish about the range of activities at the hotel. “Where else can you ride your horse from cowboy country to St. Tropez?” asks Alex. Ponder the question while you soak in Playa Vik’s black granite infinity pool, cantilevered over the ocean.
When style guru Tom Ford started trumpeting Los Angeles–based Reza Feiz’s ingenious furniture and objects, Feiz’s company, Phase Design, took off.
Though he takes inspiration from 20th century design icons such as Pierre Koenig and Charles and Ray Eames, there’s nothing predictable about his work. Feiz’s sculptural BBC Chair (from $2,060) looks solidly stationary, but it actually swivels. The feel is even more surprising. “The biggest response we get from people is how comfortable the piece is, since it looks so geometric,” he says.
Emerson House dollhouse
“I was a toy buyer, and I was tired of seeing so many ugly ones on the market,” says Douglas Rollins. So he joined forces with Tim Boyle to form New York–based design company Brinca Dada, and “dollhouses seemed like a natural place to start because so many people love modern architecture.” With the supersleek Emerson House ($299), Rollins and Boyle have taken the kitschy elements out and reminded us that a dollhouse can be a piece of serious architecture. Sturdy enough to be childproof, the house has appeal far beyond the playroom. Says Boyle, “Many of our orders so far are for adults.”
Darren Luke was a star at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, and after graduating he was snapped up by Opel, the stylish European unit of General Motors. Just 29, Luke is already an assistant chief designer and the brains behind cars like the GTC Paris, which debuts at this month’s Paris Motor Show. The GTC is what Luke would drive if it were in production. “This car can appear as the bad boy,” says Luke. “But then, in an instant, it can win over your sensitive side with its simplicity.”
Upper House hotel
Thirty-five-year-old Andre Fu has designed some of Asia’s top luxury hotels, never repeating himself but always providing a signature style: dramatic interiors without the disorientation that usually comes with them. The Hong Kong– based wunderkind calls the work of his company, AFSO Designs, “emotional,” but adds, “all my hotel designs emphasize the feeling of calm and comfort.” That certainly applies to the one-year-old Upper House hotel (www.upperhouse.com) in Hong Kong. Combining materials such as limestone, shoji glass, bamboo and bleached oak with playful lighting and original sculptures by some of Asia’s top artists, Fu has achieved a seamless and symmetrical melding of warm Asian design influences and a cool internationalism.