It’s no great mystery that the term “contemporary” means different things to different people and that in our industry, there is often some difficulty putting a handle on a meaning. When we design new products we are often confronted by this conundrum when tasked to ”show us something contemporary” by individuals unable to define a specific product direction.
“Traditional” furniture reflects a past time, traditional to the time of its form and creation. But it’s no less contemporary for the period in which it was created than it would be if built now. Re-interpreted now, it is certainly “contemporary” even if executed in a traditional form. And if we say “transitional”… literally transitioning from one form to another, whether current or past, it’s quite contemporary to make transitional forms of products in our business – a nod to the past while giving something a more modern feel.
Being “of the present time” is to be present in the moment and comfortable with new interpretations of divergent, yet equally compelling, views of design. Our work is defined by a modernist frame of mind. We appreciate the past as a reference, but we interpret in modern forms just as other designers are interpreting with a real feeling for the traditional. That might appear contradictory, but in fact it makes perfect sense. It’s critical in a competitive market to set and define one’s place. It works either way. Both reflect a contemporary frame of mind, just a different orientation.
Illustrative of this notion is the appearance of interesting blends of these ideas especially in current wood finishes. In fact, in furniture now I think I can say it’s all about the finish. With urban country and industrial forms and metal/wood mixes ubiquitous in the market, and the primary finish dominating as any form of grey on a broad grained wood, what we’ve been watching is the use of the new colour palettes and materials in style development. Traditional profiles executed in recovered oak and barnwood, rough hardware and really tooled finishes. Makes sense, old being new again, or “contemporary” as I have been saying. But what is very exciting right now, is how many more modern forms – Mid-century, Scandinavian, and Euro-modern – are being brought to market executed in rustic, “recovered finishes.” It speaks to a real and present interpretation of contemporary, without the usual boundaries.
In many ways the convergence of contemporary finishes onto many style forms is quite new, since diverse styles have always seemed to maintain their own finish environment. But now we are seeing this incredible melding of form and finishes. Driven by rustic greys – either to the cool or warm spectrum, clarity of grain and low level of sheen – these new finishes have brought all furniture forms into a contemporary mode.
So modern may be contemporary, but also traditional, depending on one’s point of view, and traditional may be contemporary but it’s also quite modern. Not a paradox at all but a confirmation that being in the moment, living and belonging to the same time, is mostly about understanding what we see and experience. It’s all part of the continuing evolution of form and design.