Market brings international design to Triad

by Amy Kingsley

Two times a year the design world’s magnetic north shifts, steering the compass needle south to High Point, North Carolina, better known in bespoke circles as “The Furniture Capital of the World.” Or – and this is more likely – as “Not Las Vegas, Nevada.”

The last week in March is one of those semi-annual occasions. Downtown High Point’s hive-like showroom spaces buzz with vendors and buyers from far and wide peddling furniture from the lowest end on up.

And it does go up. The International Home Furnishings Center has seven floors, each large enough to contain all the dinette sets, teak bureaus and convertible sofas needed to furnish an entire upscale development. Showplace looks even larger, although it’s hard to judge the depth of the undulating, glassy building from across Commerce Avenue.

It is nearly impossible for the untrained eye to make much sense out of the tumult that is Furniture Market. Well, at least my untrained eye. But I wade into it anyway, by way of an escalator situated at the entrance to a bustling turquoise-trimmed eatery.

In the Interhall, the high-end exhibitors spread their modern wares over pale carpet. Asian and Latin influences reappear over and over again, proof perhaps that globalization has meant more to the furniture industry than just reduced overhead.

Such is the sentiment expressed by furniture designer Raymond Waites at a design symposium held Wednesday evening. Waites has nothing but positive things to say about the factories in China where his opulent pieces are produced.

“I feel like I’m really helping some of these countries we do business with by bringing ideas from there back here that people love and by giving them jobs back,” Waites says.

He appears on this panel alongside B. Smith, a self-described style maven with her own series on daytime cable, preservationist Bill Stubbs and modern design icon Valdimir Kagan.

Kagan possesses a patrician demeanor and, as it turns out, the only working slideshow. He takes the audience through the stages of his career, from the earliest club chairs he designed in 1949 to his latest sofa collection.

On this panel, and in the eyes of some of his early skeptics, Kagan is a design outlier. Waites toys with Southern decadence and whimsical color schemes and Stubbs describes himself as an avowed traditionalist.

B. Smith, a former restaurateur, fashion designer and television personality, directs curious designers to inspect her collection in the Clayton Marcus showroom on the seventh floor. During her presentation, she plays an excerpt from her show “B. Smith with Style” and tosses of nuggets like, “It’s all about lifestyle.”

After the other three designers deliver short sermons about the increasing accessibility of stylish furniture, Kagan, true to professional form, plays the aristocratic spoiler.

“My major bitch is this,” Kagan says. “Everybody is looking to buy furniture for cheaper.”

The German-born, Columbia University-educated designer proceeds to enumerate his three cars: A 1922 Model T, 1972 Land Rover and 1997 Explorer.

“People spend money on cars like it’s going out of style,” he says. “But no one wants to spend that kind of money on furniture.”

Kagan says he sees in developing nations not only opportunities for production and inspiration, but also burgeoning market options. To capitalize on this, the US must think more like an exporting country, he says.

“Globalization is not just about bringing things in,” he says, “it’s about moving things out. But to do that we have to have more of an export mentality.”

The panel runs long, and after 75 minutes the discussion ends. The participants rise from their orange wing chairs Kagan designed and venture outside, where the sweet sounds of Eddie Money remind everyone all over that it is Market time again.

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