Maison & Objet’s Asian show attracts developers looking for bespoke solutions
Fair expanded to Singapore three years ago
Call them design entrepreneurs: they’re a new wave of designers who aren’t content with being one cog in a machine. “It’s so easy to work with these people,” says Frédéric Bougeard, who oversees the international development of Paris-based design fair Maison & Objet. “We’re able to skip from design to business development, no problem. We’re in a real revolution now.”
That revolution extends to Maison & Objet (M&O) itself. Started in 1995, the fair expanded to Singapore three years ago, but it didn’t want its new Asian edition simply to be an extension of the original Paris show. “We need to make sure it works as a standalone platform so it’s not fighting with the mothership,” says Regina Chan, M&O’s Asia-Pacific director.
That is apparent in M&O’s two upcoming editions, which take place in Paris this month and in Singapore in March. The Paris show is huge, with more than 70,000 attendees and 2,900 exhibitors, while the Singapore fair is comparatively modest, attracting 10,000 visitors and 322 exhibitors.
Chan says the Asian fair is smaller for a reason. The Paris show attracts distributors looking for finished products to sell to interior designers and retail customers. By contrast, the Asian market is dominated by real-estate developers and other big clients looking for designers who can deliver bespoke solutions. “They want ideas, they want solutions,” says Chan. “They’re looking for long-term relationships.”
Bougeard says they are looking for “hidden gems, because they can already find big brands”. Clients in Asia see custom design as a way to distinguish themselves in a crowded market. Why settle for a product from an Italian furniture brand when you can have something created just for you? “Even the big hotel chains now are not doing copycat hotels,” says Bougeard. “Twenty years ago, Hyatt may have been doing the same design for each hotel, but that is no longer true.”
For M&O Asia, that means presenting buyers with concepts as much as off-the-shelf products. “Distributors want a big show but designers, they want a focused show,” says Bougeard. That marks a move away from M&O’s Paris model, but that model was itself an innovation when the show first launched in 1995. Before then, design fairs were similar to any trade fair. “Maison & Objet was the first show to speak about lifestyle,” says Bougeard.
Each edition of M&O features special installations, awards and conferences. This year’s M&O Asia includes a keynote speech by Shanghai-based designers Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu, who will also be speaking at this month’s M&O Paris – along with local interior design star André Fu, known for luxurious projects such as the Upper House hotel in Admiralty.
“André is the perfect representative,” says Bougeard. “He has amazing projects and now he’s a product designer too, with his new living collection. Asians are really ahead now. For people here it’s obvious, but in Europe the image of Asia is still mass-market, low-end production. Maybe the future of our industry will be more in Asia and America than in Europe.”
Even designers who are just starting out are doing so outside the traditional framework, by choosing to go it alone rather than work for big brands. One of the designers featured in the Rising Talent showcase at last year’s M&O Americas, which is held in Miami, was Max Gunawan, an Indonesian-American architect who has recently turned his attention to product design. Last year, Gunawan launched Lumio, a versatile folding book lamp that was funded by crowd contributions on Kickstarter.
Along with boosting sales, being featured at M&O offered him “validation”, says Gunawan, especially since the fair has helped kick off the careers of designers such as Japanese interior and product designer Oki Sato.
Sato is known for designs with a subtle twist, something he calls an “aha moment”. That approach inspired Gunawan when he decided to branch out from architecture and design a lamp. Encased in wood, Lumio at first appears to be a book, but open its cover and its pages begin to glow, thanks to a semi-transparent material known as Tyvek. The lamp can be opened like an accordion and used in a variety of ways. Its internal battery is charged by USB, so it can be used outdoors, too. “You have the power to sculpt your own light,” says Gunawan.
Gunawan says he crowdfunded the project because it gave him the flexibility to work for himself. Though he is based in San Francisco, he often travels to Hong Kong so he can supervise production in Shenzhen and Dongguan.
Bougeard sees Gunawan as an example of the kind of designer M&O is keen to promote. “He’s in his early 30s and he’s already got an iconic product,” he says. “He’s the new generation – a designer and entrepreneur.”
Maison & Objet Paris takes place from January 22 to 26 and in Singapore from March 8 to 11. For information, visit www.maison-objet.com