The End of The Trend

Could it be time to retire the outdated notion of design trends?

European design brand Se's new collection focuses on rendering "noble materials in timeless forms". Picture / Supplied

Sometimes a word ends up permanently consigned to an era. For a while, it captures something essential to a particular cultural mood or look or attitude, but after a few years, it begins to jar a little each time you hear or read it, and eventually, it just sounds hopelessly outdated.

“Funky” is one such word. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it perfectly conveyed that something had a bright, inexpensive, urban energy, but now when you hear an apartment described as “funky”, you immediately assume that it’s going to have way too many different colours on the walls, and maybe a funny smell in certain rooms.

“Groovy” had its time in the 1960s and 1970s and will likely never be used as an approving way to describe something again, except in a wry tone. There are more young urban professionals living in our cities than ever before, yet nobody calls them “Yuppies”, maybe because they don’t live in “classy pads”, or sigh “Bummer” when their credit cards are denied at the bar. “Lame” is gone. “Rad” has run out of steam. Even “cool” is teetering on the edge of not being, well, cool anymore. And here’s one more nomination for a word that is already past its use-by date and needs to be immediately binned. Trend.

“Trendy” has almost entirely vanished, and is now only deployed in a Kath and Kim accent to describe something that you would never be seen dead in. But somehow the closely-related “trends” has survived, and still regularly appears in cover-lines of interiors magazines and websites touting improbable decorating ideas. “Six Spring Trends For Kitchens”. “This Year’s Wallpaper Trends”.

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We don’t know about you, but we don’t re-do our kitchens or walls either seasonally or annually. Even more than once a decade seems like a bit too much work. But we suppose “20 Sofas That You Won’t Need To Replace For The Next 20 Years” doesn’t convey the same, jaunty sense of relentless product consumption as “125 Trends To Update Your Home This Winter!”

Here’s something you are probably loosely aware of but don’t see admitted often: trends can be invented by editors and “trend-spotters”. Trends are a staple of the fashion industry, where consumers are often willing to update the clothes they wear every year or even every season — and over the past decade, “fast fashion” producers like H&M, Zara, Glassons and Supre, who take concepts from the seasonal designer shows and produce cheap, fast-turnaround “on trend” items at a massive scale — have made it much easier for consumers to keep their wardrobe “up to date”.

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The problematic side of this is that, over the past 15 years, the amount of clothing produced (and disposed of) globally has doubled. China alone now produces over 6 billion metres of clothing a month. And when you translate that fast-moving product ethos to the furniture and design industry, where most items are significantly larger and more materially complex than a T-shirt, requiring even more resources to produce and more space in landfill to dispose of, the environmental problems created by keeping our homes “on trend” become clear.

What’s more, the furniture and design world is now so huge and diverse it’s impossible to make accurate pronouncements about what might be “trending”. Increasingly, editors of noted design publications are declaring trends dead, frustrated by the impossible task of meaningfully reporting on good design while subscribing the idea that the items being showcased will be out of date next year.

In his 2017 Milan Report, Marcus Fairs, editor of the popular design blog Dezeen, put it this way: “Honestly, we tried looking for design trends. Really we did. But without running a statistical analysis of everything that was presented across the city, and comparing that with past years, who’s to say whether any one material, colour or form is in the ascendency? And does it really matter, given that we live in eclectic times when anything goes and there is no dominant aesthetic? And when most furniture and lighting design is copying the fashion industry and creatively pillaging from the past rather than looking to the future?”

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Of course, there are times when global movements (like the growth in sustainability awareness) or advances in technology mean a number of designers simultaneously become interested in exploring a particular form or material or approach, such as the rise in CNC (computer numeric control) cutting and 3D printing, which has given designers the ability to explore new forms that were previously extremely difficult to produce at scale.

David Trubridge, one of New Zealand’s most internationally recognised furniture and lighting designers, describes these industry-scale movements as a kind of “collective consciousness or pattern that we’re connected to in some way, but it’s a complex system and can’t be broken down into component parts”. What designers create, he says, comes not from external “trends” or a designer hive-mind, but “from each designer’s artistic imperative, their internal drive”.

The Coral Light by David Trubridge. Picture / Supplied

Trubridge makes the point that by the time trends in such a large industry can be recognised, they’re effectively already passe. “Trends can only be discussed retrospectively by those who were observing them after they’ve happened,” says Trubridge.

“We don’t know what the trends of the future are going to be. The people I like to call the ‘style tribe’, they like to try to create those ideas. Trends are a fashion construct, a commercial construct. They’re a way to get people to buy more today.”

The problem with buying what’s fashionable today, of course, is that before too long, like “groovy” and “funky”, it seems terribly dated.

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Right now, terrazzo — a traditional Italian flooring surface that contains chips of coloured marble — is having a moment. You can’t open an interiors magazine without seeing it multiple times, and not just on floors, benchtops and bathroom walls, but on everything from vases and side tables to wallpapers and T-shirts.

The ascent of terrazzo started in 2014, when British designer Max Lamb released a collection of objects in a new engineered marble called Marmoreal for the company Dzek. The versatility of the material caught the imagination of the design world, and the characteristic speckled pattern caught the eye of the fashion world.

Now, four years later, the obsession has worked its way out to the lowest price points of the market. That’s a bit unfortunate for the people who invested in terrazzo benchtops when Marmoreal first came out — who are presumably now hoping hard that their expensive new kitchens aren’t going to be permanently typecast as “very 2016” because of a swathe of cheap terrazzo-patterned notebooks and throw cushions.

Terrazzo furniture at a 2017 exhibition. Picture / Getty Images

For the furniture industry, where quality products are made with the expectation they will last at least one, and ideally several decades, the rise of “get the look for less” cheap copies is especially galling because of the time and investment that goes into producing products designed for longevity.

Trend-driven derivative production significantly affects the original designer, as David Trubridge knows first-hand. His recognisable design style has been copied repeatedly, here and overseas, sometimes subtly and sometimes blatantly.

Several years ago, he was made aware of a company at a Hong Kong lighting show that was selling exact replicas of his designs under their own name. It was upsetting at more than a business level. “It felt like they had come into my house, ransacked my house, stolen a whole lot of stuff and sold it as theirs,” he recalls.

“I wanted to go over there and rip them all down and smash them on the floor. It was a horrible feeling that these things were no longer mine. They were something other people thought they could just make and sell for their own profit.”

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After pursuing several expensive legal channels to try to stamp out the copying, only to find it popping up again elsewhere like a Whack-a-Mole, Trubridge eventually joined a Spanish-based collective called Redspot that uses a class-action model, monitoring intellectual property infringements and instigating proceedings against companies on behalf of the designers they represent.

Given that trends are fundamentally damaging to both the design industry and the environment, it’s no surprise that the leaders of the design industry back away from them as much as they can. Neale Whitaker, former editor of Vogue Living and Belle magazines is a renowned critic of trends, yet admits it’s hard to escape them.

“For someone who says they don’t like trends, I do spend a lot of my life talking about them,” he says. “It’s all very well to say ‘dismiss trends’, but for a lot of people, trends are all they have to hang on to. That’s their yardstick, their template. So what I normally say is not ‘dismiss the trends’, but ‘if you don’t like them, don’t feel you have to use them’. Trends come and go. It would be naive of me to dismiss trends completely, but I think people should go easy on trends, take them with a grain of salt.”

Former editor (now Brand and Content Director) of design bible Wallpaper* Tony Chambers has taken a stronger stance. For years the magazine has championed the words of the legendary German industrial designer Dieter Rams: “Less, but better”, encouraging people to save their money for quality purchases rather than fritter it away on low-priced in-season updates.

“This more thoughtful, well-educated and conscientious consumer is a good thing,” Chambers writes. “They may well buy a little less, but they’ll be buying better.” Now that’s a mass movement we can get on board with.

Picture / Supplied

If we’re changing the topic, what do we talk about instead? Here are five conversation starters for better design.

1. Originality
Some people have the misconception that designers try to discern future trends to “keep ahead of the pack”, says David Trubridge. But true originality comes from exploring an idea in a way that’s unpredictable, he says. “When some incipient idea is lurking at the edges of my vision and I’m trying to find it, it has its roots in today, but as it grows it becomes a new piece of territory that I’m discovering and creating a design out of. That’s moving forward. You don’t know where you’re going to go with it. The direction you take comes from your personal integrity that you have to follow.” Design items that have become classics over the years have all started out as original ideas.

2. Materials
High-quality materials are essential to products that will go the distance. Increasingly, consumers want to know exactly what their new couch or cushion is made of, and where the materials came from. If a product doesn’t come with clear information about this, and the salesperson doesn’t seem to know, that’s a red flag that it may contain materials that have a negative impact on your health or the environment.

3. Sustainability
Closely linked to materials is the sustainability of a product, which includes whether the product can be easily recycled at the end of its life, the resources consumed in the manufacturing process, the way the workers who produce the product are treated, and how far the product has to travel from the point of production to your home.

4. Longevity
British writer Tara Button was once an impulse shopper, constantly picking up cheap new purchases that lasted a few weeks or months before breaking or becoming worn out. After her sister gave her a Le Creuset pot for her birthday, she became interested in buying items that would last a lifetime. Her website, curates the best-of-the-best, recommending items that will solve your problems — in everything from pepper mills to luggage — once and for all.

5. Individuality
Trends rely on the idea that we want our homes to look a bit like everyone else’s. But the homes that are usually the most interesting are those that are a true expression of an individual’s taste. “Why should you be dictated to by the style tribe?” asks David Trubridge. “Why should they tell you what you should have in your home? You should have what you want and what you like, and not be ashamed of that.”

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