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The Show Must Go On

Tokyo, Milan, Paris, London… Eindhoven. Every reputable city in the world seems to have its own design fair these days but does more necessarily mean better? What is the relevance of design fairs today in the fast changing industry that is design? 

By Jeroen Junte / 28-10-2010

The design world used to be so straightforward. During the year, there was Milan and maybe one other fair to visit, often not too far away.

For instance, Maison & Objet in Paris for the French, Stockholm Furniture Fair for the Scandinavians and the Netherlands had to make do with Cologne or Kortrijk, close to the border but not quite on home ground.
Nowadays designers, producers, consumers and media get to choose from various fairs − every month. New York, Tokyo, Paris, Madrid, Moscow and Shanghai and even 'secondary cities' such as Eindhoven each have their own design fair, often stretched out to nothing less than a design week.

Ah yes, the past. Straightforward indeed. But no better. Isn't it true that these fairs have loads more options for designers to promote themselves, or for consumers and journalists to inform themselves. Not necessarily, because lurking in the shadows is the danger of overkill. If most fairs offer more or less the same content, why would a consumer or journalist make the effort to visit? Furthermore, both financially and in terms of work load it's impossible for designers to attend every single event. So, before each design fair, everyone is asking themselves: should I stay or should I go?

An answer to this question, which mainly preoccupies designers, was searched for during the debate The Show Must Go On. The event took place Monday evening as part of Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven, and was organized by Designplatform Rotterdam in conjunction with Premsela Dutch platform for design and fashion. Timing this event during Dutch Design Week was no coincidence, as through this event the Netherlands is aiming to take part in the already overloaded market that is design fairs. Some critical reflection can't hurt.

Before the debate Designplatform Rotterdam's website had published two essays about the sense and nonsense of design fairs. Arjo Klamer, professor of cultural economy at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, described the economical value that design fairs have, while journalist Peter van Kester wrote about the recent history of the events.

The debate kicked off with a presentation of an infographic map made by graphic designer Richard Vijgen. At first glance this map clearly shows the differences in participant numbers, and time between fairs. For those not in the know, in terms of participant numbers, Milan ranks first then ICFF in New York followed by The London Design Festival and a fair in the Chinese city of Guangzhou. What’s striking is that apart from New York and Guangzhou, the better part of the rest of the fairs concentrates on the European continent. Unfortunately, visitor numbers and the difficult to measure publicity numbers didn't show up on the map.
With these facts set out − it became clear that a select group of fairs was calling all the shots − the economic use of design fairs was discussed by a preliminary panel including designer Marcel Vroom, professor Arjo Klamer and Robert Jan Marringa, program manager of the branch organization Design Cooperation Brainport.

"Economically speaking, design fairs are becoming less and less important," stated Klamer. Getting professional contacts is both quicker and easier via internet, however, within the design industry, opinions and product promotion are just as important. In this 'economy of attention seeking' everything revolves around establishing personal contact, making fairs an important economic factor.

Vroom justly noted that through the mass of networking and pompous self-promotion, design fairs are often fleeting events where everything revolves around first impressions, without room for deeper exploration. Or, as Vroom concisely summarized the overall result of a fair participation: "Building new contacts? Yes. Maintaining long-term relationships? No."

Luckily, the more design fairs, the greater the freedom of choice. Therefore, designers may be able to better judge as to which fair is suitable for which purpose. "If you're looking for a producer then maybe a smaller, specialized fair is the place to be," stated Brainport's Marringa. "If you're in search of a dialogue about your work or industry recognition, then go for a fast-paced fair with lots of press."

Even so, in this search for the economic merit of fair participation, one aspect was neglected: the role of the visitor. Worse still, it was as though they were a necessary evil in the eyes of the panel members. Or, as moderator Lucas Verweij commented provocatively: "At Dutch Design Week designers, producers and all manner of critics are hindered by the presence of chattering house wives." However, that same audience can make or break the fair participation for a designer or producer. Because, the more visitors, the more media attention, the more revenue is earned through advertising, and as the end result, the better the fair.

The second panel discussion, with journalist Tracy Metz of NRC/Handelsblad, product designer Miriam van der Lubbe, and journalist Peter van Kester, dug deeper into the cultural merit of design fairs. Most designers see design fairs more as a stage to showcase their skills than a way to generate income. It's no surprise that Milan's design week − the largest and most hyped − is still the favourite of most designers, as Van Kester discovered after a few phone calls. This was immediately seconded by Van der Lubbe who has been participating in Milan, and Milan only, for almost ten years: "If you go, carefully choose which fair and go for it 100%," was her advice.

The evening of discussions didn't produce any earth shattering insights, partly due to the fact that Van Kester's findings failed to correlate the explosion in the number of design fairs half way through the 1990s with the explosion of the internet. His note that cross pollination between art and design has heightened the standard of design fairs in past years was also overlooked, as was Metz's opinion that competitions don't actually add to the quality of design fairs, even though each fair features its own design awards .

These loose ends probably wouldn't have influenced the outcome of this evening of discussions, because all panel members and visitors unanimously agreed that design fairs are useful. What their use is exactly, that is for the designer, journalist or producer to find out for themselves.

Event photography: Tanja Perisic

Pictured from left to right: Marcel Vroom, Arjo Klamer, Robbert Jan Marringa, Lucas Verweij 

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