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Versatility on display at Cologne

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'Things are quieter this year,' said the Germans at this year's Cologne Furniture Fair, recoiling as usual at the merest whiff of economic recession. There were fewer visitors (around 123,000 compared with over 145,000 last year) which presumably meant fewer deals. But all things are relative. The amount of business done in one day at Cologne would still be the envy of the rival Milan show, let alone anything in the uk.

And if things were also 'quieter' in terms of product launches that wasn't entirely bad news. Nothing epochal in the innovation line, but mere gimmicks and showpieces weren't much in evidence either. Instead there was a preponderance of mature products: refined, practical, available. The buying public, wiser from the last recession, is now less inclined to see furniture as a disposable fashion item.

Multi-functionality was the order of the day in all forms of seating. Many of the new sofas could be sat on straight or sideways, reclining or lying down, singly or in multiples. The trend has been developing for some time, but the designs are now technically elegant. For example, Ligne Roset, Rolf Benz and Brunati all had sofas capable of rapid transformation into recliners, divans or ottomans by virtue of height-adjustable and rotatable backs, and depth-adjustable seats.

Though technically in step, stylistically one can't say whether things inclined towards minimalism or elaboration. Fredericia showed the Mobi armchair/ recliner by Vico Magistretti - organic and surprisingly bulky. Walter Knoll's Living Platform sofa/recliner/bed by Eoos was classically elegant and Cubist, and cor's Onda seat/bed, shaped like a wave and with swivelling backrest, was all ergonomic and minimal.

A more unexpected response to the requirement for versatile seating was the proliferation of love-seats and ottomans. Not a few ought to have been shown with a warning sign - 'Caution: Kitsch Ahead!' But Konstantin Grcic's Scene range, for Montis of the Netherlands, carried it off very neatly with stretch upholstery and slender, curved backrests, including one model with a vis-a-vis configuration.

But if seating dominated the show, the most interesting developments were in the use of combinations of materials. Frosted glass and aluminium gave an entire new dimension to many storage systems, especially the wall- to-wall variety. You could detect the influence of Japanese shoji screens in systems from the German companies Behr and Potter, where translucent sliding doors (clear or coloured) and finely detailed aluminium frames added interest without intrusiveness.

But the most exciting design in glass/aluminium came from Wellis of Switzerland. Its glass storage-cabinet range by Kurt Erni - already known to have won this year's Hanover Fair if Design Award - appeared to 'float', thanks to the slenderest of frames. The cylindrical and 'trochoid' models featured tripodal supports for tops and bases, but on all units the fine aluminium edge profiles incorporated shelf supports, hinges and drawer runners.

The Cologne Furniture Fair ran from 18-24 January 1999. Sixty three per cent of the 1644 exhibitors were non-German, coming from 46 countries. Of the 123,000 visitors 30 per cent were non-German trade visitors. This total includes 45,000 on the last two days when the fair was open to the general public.

More pictures, page 64

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