Opinion: Have design fairs had their day?

In the wake of Covid, should the design industry rethink its reliance on extravagant, wasteful trade  fairs and look for a more sustainable alternative? Esra Lemmens looks at the options – and the opportunities. 

Over the last century, the design industry has grown and evolved around a calendar of international events – an annual merry-go-round of commercial trade shows, conferences and design weeks where furniture, finishes and lighting companies gather together with their customers, suppliers and the media to socialise and showcase their products. 

For many designers, the shake-up of the traditional trade show format is long overdue. It just doesn’t make sense in a world facing a climate crisis and swamped with human-produced waste to physically create products at one end of the world, then package them, insure them, ship them, install them and display them in another part of the world … and then bring them all the way back again. And what about the often extravagant and costly booths built to showcase the products for just a few days then discarded? At a time when sustainability is becoming a key factor in design, and some designers are recognising their responsibilities, it makes little sense to continue with business as usual if that’s contributing to the destruction of the planet.

In early 2020, the coronavirus arrived and lockdowns became the norm across the globe. The machine abruptly ground to a halt and most of the big-name fairs scheduled for 2020 were postponed — Salone del Mobile, London Design Fair, Shanghai Design, High Point Market, NeoCon … the list went on. 

Over a year later, much time has been spent reflecting on what the future will hold for design events and trade shows. Some made a successful move to a full or partial online presence; smaller shows have been able to adapt with regional or vertical specialities. Dubai Design Week, for example, and its attendant trade show Downtown Design, known for its glitzy (but wasteful) installations, are returning with a full-fledged, in-person exhibition in November and a commitment to a more responsible approach.

Hopefully, local inspiration will come from the National Pavilion UAE pavilion winning the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale for Best National Participation. Under the name Wetland, the pavilion won the award for its focus on the construction possibilities of recycled waste materials. 

So despite the upheavals, maybe Covid was the best thing that could happen to our industry. We’ve been challenged to rethink the way we do things, and that has opened up an enormous opportunity to design new systems and procedures. 

The rise of digital exhibition platforms

In the aftermath of the delays and postponement announcements of early 2020, virtual events began to emerge as businesses struggled with being cut off from nearly all traditional avenues for sales and promotion. While some grappled with the challenge of moving a concept that revolves around physical human interaction to a digital space, others jumped straight in. 

The model is probably the Virtual Design Festival, launched by the design and architecture magazine Dezeen (exhibitor page, right). It ran over the summer of 2020 with a rolling program of online talks, lectures, movies and product launches. The online visitors were happy, and by all accounts it was a commercial success too.

One notable difference was that the digital edition of Frieze was free to attend; a ticket to the physical event would usually set visitors back around $50. This is a major plus for the proliferation of virtual events in the past year — it has helped to level the playing field. Brands, designers, artists and fans who were previously excluded from attending or exhibiting due to the prohibitively large costs involved were suddenly able to access these shows from the comfort of their living room, and usually at no or low cost.

The first virtual edition of Frieze in May 2020 was also reported to be a financial success with the New York Times noting that sales from the fair were “solid”, compared with those of the previous year when the event had taken place on Randalls Island. 

Another early adopter was Offsite, the annual design event hosted during ICFF in New York by online magazine Sight Unseen. It held its first virtual edition in May 2020, which sought to recreate the best parts of a physical fair in a digital space. Highlights included audio clips of designers introducing themselves and explaining their work in their own words, and 3D-rendered virtual booth environments created by up-and-coming digital artists. The platform also partnered with online retailer 1stdibs.com to make a selection of the pieces immediately purchasable.

In an interview with Dezeen filmed just before Offsite’s virtual debut, Sight Unseen co-founders Jill Singer and Monica Khemsurov said that they would consider holding a physical event alongside a virtual one in the future. “Now we have this framework for an online show it would behoove us to use it again,” said Singer.

The obvious downside is the absence of in-person networking. That NYT article on Frieze New York also reported that the “online experience lacked an essential human element [and] the energy of collectors, dealers, curators and art advisers communing and kibitzing in one space”. 

In-person, however, requires in-situ. Design fairs, funnily enough, do not always take place at particularly inviting (or design-forward) venues. After more than a year of cancelled events, I can’t say I’m exactly itching to return to the dark, endless halls and the identikit booths. We need to rethink the format of commercial fairs, where booths and their square footage and layouts tend to be more important than the content.

Many virtual fair platforms seek to mimic the physical spaces of IRL design fairs. So you get virtual 3D tours that replicate the layout and flow of a gallery or a design studio; online ‘booths’ appear to have walls, rooms, even corridors and virtual coffee stops. 

Familiarity may be a virtue, and fair visitors don’t have to change their approach too much in this kind of setup — get the catalogue, note the stands that interest you, plan a route, include the timed events … 

However, the virtual format is a great opportunity to give designers and curators an open brief: they can imagine any space they’d like and present ideas and products in novel ways that highlight their features. I don’t understand why they would constrain themselves to physical parameters, with all the restrictions that implies. In person, you’d talk about the underlying principles and the special attributes; you’d doodle on pads, flick over a few physical or web pages, use various kinds of VR. Simply replicating the physical space misses out on those explanatory extras.

Sustainability as a factor

Design fairs offer valuable economic, social, cultural and educational benefits, and potential growth in tourism for many international destinations (not least Dubai). But as society gains a greater understanding of these impacts, events are being challenged to become more accountable for their managerial decisions and to produce outcomes which are more sustainable on multiple criteria, leading to positive environmental benefits.

Petrus Palmér, founder of Stockholm furniture brand Hem, is in agreement. “We don’t need a design week, we don’t need a design fair,” he told Dezeen earlier this year, after having taken the decision to launch the brand’s collection online only. “We realised that we don’t really need to pin our launches to a physical fair.” 

For many former trade show regulars, travelling internationally to attend a fair is still impossible, while for others it will remain an uncomfortable prospect. The amount of time and money needed to attend a fair, not to mention the environmental impact, is no longer so easy to justify. Organisers will have to reexamine what value they can offer to exhibitors and attendees in a post-pandemic world. 

Smaller, more affordable, more local

For smaller fairs that are more easily adaptable, such as Belgium’s Collectible, the future looks more promising. Renamed this year as Collectible Reformatted, the event is scheduled to take place in May 2022 with a program that has been adapted to comply with social distancing measures. Taking the form of a four-day design trail across Brussels with reduced attendance and time-restricted entry, the event will also run online through a digital platform for those unable to attend in person.

Before the pandemic took hold, there was already a noticeable trend for smaller design fairs to be held in off-the-beaten-track destinations. These events typically eschew the traditional trade show format, replacing sterile, poorly lit convention centre booths for spectacular rooms in villas and apartments. Nomad, a travelling art and design event that takes place each year in Saint Moritz, Switzerland, went ahead this summer with a showcase in Chesa Planta – a 16th century alpine residence in the Engadine mountains. 

This is the future how I see it. Smaller, more sustainable, and weaving design into the fabric of a city by managing everything locally. Let every city have a specialisation, something they stand out for rather than every design week copying from one another, showcasing the same things or being repetitive. 

We need to shape-shift the current business models from over-consumption and over-production to sustainable methods that tie in with the circular economy.

Hybrid: the new normal

In any case, it seems likely that the hybrid model will persist and be further developed even after restrictions have been lifted. Events that combine in-person and virtual elements will be the norm. 

While collaborative and networking sessions may be hosted in a physical environment, these may not be the focal point of the event. Virtual sessions that allow the event to transcend geographical boundaries and time will make for a more inclusive experience, with technology allowing a degree of connectivity we can still only begin to imagine. 

What’s more, AR will blend the distinction between ‘physical’ and ‘virtual’, throwing the overall event narrative centre stage as an experience that can be felt in multiple ways.

For many former trade show regulars, travelling internationally to attend a fair is still impossible, while for others it will remain an uncomfortable prospect. The amount of time and money needed to attend a fair, not to mention the environmental impact, is no longer so easy to justify. Organisers will have to reexamine what value they can offer to exhibitors and attendees in a post-pandemic world. Whatever the future, it’s time to redress the balance.

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