Last week I attended the New York International Gift Fair, where sellers and, presumably, buyers come together in a glorious congress of stuff, for one week twice a year, as detailed in my pre-show post. These wholesale shows happen all over the country – the world, actually – and in terms of sheer size New York’s show is dwarfed by, say, Atlanta’s Gift Mart (a truly scary, scary place: hell to the New York show’s purgatory). But still, if you’re not used to seeing so much stuff all piled into one location, the New York Gift Show can be a bit mind-boggling in its scale.
Of course it depends on what floats your boat, but for my purposes I planned to skip the bulk of the show (categories like Resort, et cetera ) and focus on just a few key areas: Accent on Design, Handmade, and Pier 94, where many of the home furnishings vendors had set up their wares. Anytime I ventured outside of these perimeters (the Tabletop category notwithstanding), my heart began beating wildly and I began to perspire, so overwhelming was the sheer amount of junk being peddled. And the way it was being sold changed accordingly. There’s just a world of difference between talking to a real-live glassblower like Caleb Siemon – a man who has spent years perfecting his craft and is presenting his lovely glass vessels and lighting – as opposed to an overeager and underpaid salesperson lunging at you as you walk past, desperate in her suggestion that you sample one of the glitter tattoos manufactured by the company she works for – butterfly or motorcycle? Rainbow colors or jewel tones? I felt terrible saying no and for a millisecond considered getting a glitter tattoo peace symbol on my forearm just to give her something to do. But my aesthetic sense prevailed and I said no thank you. Besides, I doubt any sticker-based products would have adhered since I had broken into a panicked sweat.
I went with the inimitable style maven 5th Joy, and she added to the fun as she identified the good, bad and the in-between in the jewelry category (an aspect of human creativity that is an utter hieroglyph to me). Check out her post on the show to see her favorites, especially a very cool jewelry line that her practiced eye immediately picked from the pile of contenders.
The show can be wildly inspirational: you see a lot of stripped to the bones displays that reduce all the pomp to, in the case of one booth, a chicken wire backdrop and cinder block shelving. It sounds like some sort of poultry prison, but it actually created a strong environment for buyers to see what was being sold, in this case lovely and graphic textiles from Hammocks & High Tea among other well-edited handmade goods.
I also loved seeing the high-concept products brought into the real world. Like in the American Design Club booth. Staffed by bored hipster doofus types, this design collective is just so over the commercialization of everything, apparently, that they make me look like a member of the Trump family. Yet the American Design Club members manage to come up with a whole bunch of clever, functional and attractive products in spite of themselves. Go America! Or is their pro-American designer position ironic? I’m not sure…maybe the fact that this group has a booth at the show at all is some sort of Performance Art piece, a statement about our obsession with consumption.
A few other highlights from the show:
Audrey Sterk’s line of wallpapers. Audrey Sterk began her career as a decorative painter, and as I engaged in the practice for years, I have strong opinions on what I like in decorative painting (which, incidentally, sometimes excludes my own work). If I’m being totally honest (and why not? who even reads this thing?) Audrey Sterk’s work has never been my favorite look for painted furniture, as it is very pale and coastal, and even though I live in a pale and coastal place, I don’t want a painted surface that expresses as much. However, I love, love, love – as the lady bloggers all say – Audrey Sterk’s wall coverings. Any designer who manages to achieve a look that is so completely current while referencing historical New England deserves many accolades. Her wallpaper designs are lovely: streamlined, graphic and in great contemporary – yet also historically-appropriate – palette. And besides, the Audrey Sterk booth was a happy place. The women working there appeared to be positively thrilled to be at the show (and this was three days in!), even taking our picture with an instant camera, after which they nestled the photo into a commemorative frame as though we were at Disney World. Only they didn’t charge us a bazillion dollars for the keepsake photo. They were so happy at Audrey Sterk that they made me feel happy. And that’s no small thing.
Stiles in Clay bones salt and pepper shakers. Clever and handmade, these salt and pepper shakers are fun and sculptural and a little medieval, without being gothic, if you know what I mean. Check them out here, where you can also find a list of locations where they’re sold.
Sweet Bella. A company that brings in the loveliest handmade pieces from all over the world. The aesthetic is simple and utterly consistent across their lines, even though you see items from places as disparate as Italy and South Korea. My favorite – and a line I plan on adding to The Roving Home store’s Paper Goods category when it debuts in March – is the Siwa Paper Accessories from Japan. Crafted from waxed paper, the same kind that is used to make Japanese screens, the pieces are simple, functional, durable, and, humble as they are, elegant. I’m looking forward to featuring them at The Roving Home.
John Derian everything. Even though John Derian went over to the Dark Side last Fall by designing a “collection” for that version of Wal-mart known as Target, I still love his aesthetic: vintage without being slavishly so. The day after the Gift Show I actually went way out of my way (by New York standards) to trek far below the tourist zone in midtown in order to go to his store on E. 2nd Street in NoLiTa or NoHo 0r whatever the neighborhood is called these days, and the place was just delightful. Cozy but very modern, with piles of vintage things, both original and re-imagined. And his employees seemed so cheerful and happy to be there, even though it was 5 minutes to closing time on a miserable winter day. Not to keep reiterating the Happy Staffer theme, but it is a rare and lovely thing to find happy people in retail, and when I encounter them I treasure the experience.
While the New York Gift Show frightened me in its vast, untempered celebration of stuff, it also inspired me. The reality is, we need stuff in our lives. Humans have been buying and selling – mostly out of necessity – since humans began. And it’s heartening to see that even in our culture, which by every measure is wildly out of control in its consumption, there are still many, many people who value making stuff, and making it in meaningful ways. I have not even scratched the surface of the level of talent and creativity that were on display at the show. Yes, there were depressing moments of taxidermy like the mirrored and mounted antelope head and, of course, glitter tattoos, but there were also rows and rows of designers and crafters and creative types who work hard to think about and create products that make our lives better and more beautiful, all at one time. And what does it matter if I have to break a little sweat to find them? They are out there, doing their thing. Go America.