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The Design World Is Stuck in the Past—and It’s Starting to Get Very Old

Enough with the tribute-act merry-go-round. Where are all the new ideas?

Eames Chairs Alastair Philip Wiper/Shutterstock

On a recent episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Jerry Seinfeld was driving around Los Angeles with his guest, Neal Brennan, a stand-up comedian and cocreator of Chappelle’s Show, who turned out to be funny in his dispassionate view of material things. He wasn’t interested in watches or cars. Exasperated by his apathy, Seinfeld asked, “Don’t you care how a suit fits? How a couch is upholstered? Don’t you care?!” The response was gripping like a data breach. “No,” said Brennan. “The only thing I really value in the world . . . [is] ideas. New ideas are the only thing I care about.”

That is a crisp way of expressing my current thinking on product design. Countless pieces of furniture debut every year, but only a few make a serious impression. Recently, design has been in an era of prolific reeditions—work that has reemerged from the past, and always with a killer backstory. A chair that was discovered in a lost sketchbook, a drawing that had escaped notice in the archives for half a century, a design deemed too bonkers to put into production at the time.

Having a sense of history is essential, especially if you’re serious about aesthetics. But during the last few seasons, high-end design brands have released so many reissues with such passion that the word iconic has lost all meaning. Yes, new work is shown, but it’s frequently overshadowed by the enthusiasm over the special anniversary collection or the classic reborn for today, limited to only 10, and available in white for the first time!

While most are worthy creations deserving of being dusted off and admired anew, the design landscape is starting to feel like another formerly revered band’s anniversary record, followed by a Greatest Hits Live, Ultimate Hits, two box sets, and an additional Ultimate Hits release. Is there a B-side party anthem that we’ve missed? I am all for reminiscing, but scientifically accepted notions of time dictate that we can only move in one direction.

Furniture’s revival of the fittest pushes us deeper into an already endless love affair with midcentury modern design, which officially feels like a hangover. And that has to do with the aesthetic becoming so mainstreamed, knocked-off, and mass-produced that I am dying to see work that dares to reject rosewood. I like a sofa with a built-in backstory but not at the risk of aesthetic uniformity and a fanatical devotion to the Barcelona daybed. You can honor the legends and buy a few classics, but let’s keep moving. Mies will be fine.

What we need are more designers willing to take risks and anticipate the design needs of the future. No one knew 60 years ago that we’d be attached to laptops, phones, tablets, and all their chargers and accouterments, or that sitting would be equated with smoking. Is there a healthier—and still beautiful—chair out there, waiting to emerge from the creative brains of artists like Patricia Urquiola and an organic, lab-created material that’s as cozy as cashmere, improves circulation, can charge our digital accessories, and still look like a sculpture?

If furniture continues to be a tribute to one golden era, our homes are destined to become mere Greatest Hits compilations. Meanwhile, emerging talents have to take to Instagram to search for independently minded patrons or start producing their own “inspired by” works that vaguely resemble the originals that the market is already saturated with.

My vote is for new ideas. I’ll be riding shotgun with Brennan.

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