A host of rising stars from around the glove are pushing the limits of furniture design. Here, meet five talents redesigning the world.
When Matteo Cibic was a teenager and obsessed with becoming the pope, his parents, rather than sending him to the Vatican, arranged a summer internship with his Uncle Aldo—the famed Milanese product designer, acolyte of Ettore Sottsass, and cofounder of the irreverent Memphis design movement. It was a life-changing experience. Cibic, now 35, went on to study art and design, and is building a career driven by playful zoomorphic and anthropomorphic forms—think ceramic figurines of donkeys wearing suits or a menagerie of imaginary-creature vessels with odd, outsize noses. “I like the objects in my house to keep me company,” he says. “I try to give them a soul and a personality.”
Cibic’s larger aim, however, is to bring warmth and emotion back to interiors. In a recent collection of rugs for Moret, he sought to re-create, using geometric patterns, metal insets, and metallic thread, a time during his Venice childhood when he was fascinated by the way light bouncing off the canals reflected onto the ceilings of the city’s palazzi. His new collection for the Indian brand Scarlet Splendour, which will debut this spring, opulently merges Eastern and Western influences. “Over the past 30 years, everyone got into Nordic minimalism, and I don’t see why our homes have to be that cold,” Cibic says. “I prefer the idea that when you enter a space you have a sense of wonder, a wow effect.”
It’s an odd but telling fact that when Keti Toloraia and Nata Janberidze, the 37-year-olds behind the Tbilisi studio Rooms, did the interiors for Georgia’s first Design Hotels location, in 2012, the owner asked if he could appropriate the name of their company for his new property. Such was the power of their international reputation, which has only grown since then. As the only Georgian design firm to consistently exhibit abroad, and repped by powerhouse galleries like the Future Perfect, in New York, and Rossana Orlandi, in Milan, Rooms has single-handedly put its country on the design map.
The pair’s elevated aesthetic has always been in sync with European design trends, but lately they’ve also begun incorporating references to their homeland, making their work even more compelling to outsiders. They’ve created benches and consoles inspired by Soviet brutalist bus stops and researched the centuries-old primitive wood furniture native to a mountainous Georgian region called Svaneti to create chunky, rough-hewn tables and chairs. “We decided we wanted to pay tribute to our heritage, because when you’re growing up it’s not something you value,” Toloraia says. That series will form the basis for a third Rooms Hotel, opening this summer, in the ski resort of Bakuriani; they’re also working on a Le Méridien in Batumi, on the Black Sea. At this rate, they will have redesigned the whole country before long. “It’s a great time to be here,” Toloraia says.
SANG HOON KIM
To see the Korean designer Sang Hoon Kim’s previous body of work next to his newest one—which recently landed him on the roster of the New York design gallerist Cristina Grajales—you’d scarcely believe they were made by the same person. His early pieces have all the pedantic perfectionism of a young architect trying to use high-tech building tools to make furniture, whereas the messy, spongy chairs and sofas that just vaulted him onto the international scene look like what might happen if someone handed Jackson Pollock a spray-foam machine and a pitcher of martinis. “I was tired of my previous work,” Kim says. “It was no different from the design language and methods other architects use. The Foam Series is much more free and intuitive.”
That said, Kim, 39, did spend three years studying his newly chosen material before he understood it well enough to improvise. For three generations, his family has owned and operated a factory that makes flexible foam, typically used for things like bedding and artificial skins. When his relatives asked him in 2015 to design a new series of mattresses, Kim worked nights and weekends tweaking the factory’s formulas and processes until he arrived at his colorful furnishings—some blobby, some drippy, and some that resemble papier-mâché. The result can seem haphazard, but the process is anything but. “Foam is basically made from chemical reactions, which I can manipulate to control its properties,” Kim says. “So I can make some spots on my chairs soft like cushions, and others hard, to support the structure.”
At this year’s Salone del Mobile fair, in Milan, Els Woldhek and Georgi Manassiev of Odd Matter will present their second collection as part of the official launch of a new arm of Nilufar gallery devoted to cutting-edge contemporary work, focused on the exploration of fake or flashy surface treatments. Called Guise, the project’s first iteration last year consisted of sculpted-foam benches, coffee tables, and consoles coated in either slick iridescent car lacquer or a hand-painted faux marble pattern called scagliola; this one will expand on the concept with other exaggerated finishes. “It’s human nature to embellish and hide the true reality of things,” says Woldhek, 34, mentioning examples like fake leather. “So many of the materials around us are not what they appear to be.”
Those kinds of discoveries have inspired nearly all of the projects by the Rotterdam-based design duo. In 2016, for example, after visiting rural France and seeing old buildings covered in stucco mixed with horsehair, they created Mass, a furniture series made by crushing cork and binding it with colored plaster. This year, they’ll be exploring the bouncy rubber granules commonly used in playground surfaces. “When you start playing with these everyday materials, and you make mistakes or use them in a way that nobody else does,” says Manassiev, 33, “that’s when things really get weird and interesting.”
DUCCIO MARIA GAMBI
Since 2012, the Italian furniture designer Duccio Maria Gambi, 37, has worked obsessively, and almost exclusively, with a single material: concrete. In his workshop, which he recently moved from Paris to Florence, he’s molded it with fabric to soften it, cast it in cubes to make it look sleek, combined it with resin and bricks, and swirled it to resemble marble. Even one of his most notable departures—his 2017 Zuperfici vases, made from rough chunks of natural stone partially faced with smooth, unnatural planes of colored laminate—was ultimately a precursor to a similar experiment he plans to undertake with, you guessed it, concrete.
Gambi attributes his fascination with the material to the fact that it can be used for architecture, interior design, and furniture; and thanks to his latest project, Gambi has now used it in all three categories. He designed the Tokyo flagship for the Marni scion Carolina Castiglioni’s new fashion brand, Plan C, which opens this winter. The space has concrete floors, walls, and counters, but dyed in warm colors and paired with pastel Formica and vintage furniture. “The first time I worked with concrete,” Gambi says, “I felt that I had a lot of things I wanted to ask it.”