Winner's Circle
Top-tier design from Modern+Design+Function?Chicago Furniture Now competition

Marketing, media, and general mass production have both encouraged and facilitated an appreciation of home objects and furniture that are more than merely functional. By offering classic, designer-made products at affordable prices, design objects from stores like IKEA and Target have become the artful centerpieces in people's homes. The recent expansion of Design Within Reach (DWR) from a catalog-only modern furniture company to a retail phenomenon with multiple studios in design-hungry urban centers across the country, shows that the interest in modern design extends far beyond the isolated social circles of the Bauhaus era. The public's appetite for modern furniture and design has been whetted. So as purveyors of the state of affairs in arts and culture, TENbyTEN decided to take a litmus test of Chicago's current design community by co-hosting with DWR a juried competition called Modern+Design+Function-Chicago Furniture Now (MDF) this past Fall. The rules were simple: The designs had to be new, functional, and feasible to produce by the December 9 exhibition, no mass-produced pieces could be entered, and Chicago-based designers and nature-friendly products were given special preference. Of the 160 submissions flooding in from all directions of the globe, 25 were chosen for a one-night exhibition at DWR's Kingsbury Street studio and are featured on TENbyTEN's website, From those 25, the following four designers were handpicked by the jurors as Best in Show.


Daniel Michalik
Cortiça, 2004, cork, 26 x 72 x 20 inches


"Overlooked and underdeveloped" would be an apt description of the way Daniel Michalik sees the everyday use of cork. "I'm trying to explore the potential of the material itself," Michalik says. "I want to make it do things it's never done before." Michalik honed in on overlooked materials as a Rhode Island School of Design graduate student of furniture design. From his class studies sprouted Michalik's interest in cork, a material most people consider nothing more than a bottle stopper or a bulletin board, but one in which Michalik sees enormous design potential.

His 100-percent-cork chaise lounge entitled Cortiça (Portuguese for "cork") is made of three curvy layers of cork and leans at a 45-degree angle in a soft S-curve. Cork, the designer explains, is the heart of the Portuguese economy, contributing 85 percent of the world's supply. Michalik lists the material's many attributes: it's buoyant, waterproof, and doesn't rot. He also says that cork tree orchards actually thrive from a regular harvest. However, Cortiça's defining quality is its capacity to bend in two directions; unlike plywood, cork allows the chair to rock back and forth and side to side, forming the three-dimensional bowl shape of Cortiça's seat.

"I'm actually having a dialogue with the material," Michalik says, explaining that he chose a design that necessitated the use of his chosen material; he says that Cortiça could only be made of cork. "You impose a little bit of your will, you listen [to the material's response], and follow accordingly."


Cuda, 2004, steel, 18 x 23 x 26 inches


This year, one more sleek design has rolled out of the Motor City, except this one has only a passing relation to stick shifts and power transmissions.

"Most of the time when I look at modern furniture it's simple but it lacks a character and quality that muscle cars epitomize," David Tsai says, explaining that "Cuda," the title of his competition entry, refers to the "Barracuda" car, a legendary product of Detroit's automotive industry. Tsai conceived of the brash red, steel Cuda as a side table. Inspired by a Neil Denari architectural design, Cuda forms a single continuous plane, curling over itself like a fold of ribbon and flaring out in the form of four legs. It requires neither assembling nor hardware.

"I had always wanted to do a project based on the idea of place," Tsai says over the phone from Houston, where he teaches industrial design at the University of Houston. Because he was studying in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, at Cranbrook Academy of Art's graduate 3D Design program, Detroit was a natural place to turn for inspiration. He emphasizes that he comes from a conceptually driven orientation, committed to the clarity and spirit of the idea rather than bound to any object types. Beyond that, he focuses on understanding an object in the context of its surroundings, showing his feathers as a trained architect as well as a product designer.

His next critical step will be physically producing designs like Cuda under the auspices of his own studio. "My whole thing is about the designer taking responsibility," Tsai concludes. "If [they] feel like [they] have this great idea, they should be responsible enough to bring it to fruition."


Progeny, 2004, domestic walnut with aluminum hooks and fasteners, 72 x 24 x 24 inches


Stephanie Munson and Bruce Tharp's award-winning design, Progeny, started out as a set of rubber bands and green straws snagged from the local Starbucks. The minimalist, 3D criss-cross later metamorphosed over dinner at a Chinese restaurant into a form composed of chopsticks secured by their paper wrapping. Finished and refined, their concept came to fruition in the current form of Progeny, a coat rack made of Michigan-bred walnut with recycled aluminum casts and hooks that resembles two intersecting easels. Resting in the corner of their apartment, the structure is designed to be equally accessible to adults and children; growing out of the core structure like a set of developing antlers, the lower hooks hang within a child's reach. "A coat rack for a parent and a child is about creating connections, respecting needs," says Tharp as he strokes his shorthaired gray cat, which curls up and squirms like a feisty koala in his arms. "It's a form of independence and dependence."

Sitting adjacent to one another in the living room of their warmly lit apartment overlooking Wicker Park's Milwaukee Avenue, the couple delves into their mutual interest in studying relationships via design. Progeny is the first project under their burgeoning company, apostrophe s. "Basically we're interested in the relationship between people and stuff, or more specifically, the connections between people and other people, people and God," Tharp begins. "How can the product assist in that? That's the most noble use of our stuff."


Jason Rosenblatt
The Modern Smoke Detector, 2004, plastic, 6 x 6 x 1 inches


Except for a few superficial changes, the smoke detector resting on the floor of Jason Rosenblatt's apartment looks like a traditional smoke detector. But that's not the beauty of this design. When it's properly installed, recessed so that it's level with a wall's surface, the device blends into a modern, minimalist environment without becoming a distraction. "It's more like a piece of a landscape, a little hill and valley," says Rosenblatt, describing the face of his design, which comes to a point in the shape of an anthill. Only three ventilation cuts and a red test button interrupt the subtle curve of the detector's crisp, white plastic cover.

Rosenblatt conceived of the idea when his brother, a contractor based in San Francisco, was looking for a sleek smoke detector to install in an art gallery. As a practicing architect, Rosenblatt understood that such vital details are among the last considerations in a project. However, having received an undergraduate degree in product design from Illinois Institute of Technology's Institute of Design, he empathized with the frustration of having to settle for unattractive products that disrupt an otherwise smooth composition. The resulting design rested in Rosenblatt's hard drive for two years until now. He describes the process of building the smoke detector like a science experiment. Remnants of the process are still spread across his drafting table-a grab bag of smoke detector parts from Home Depot. He bends down toward the ground and lifts the magnetically secured face off his safety device. The guts of the detector resemble a mouse trap: a square plate jury-rigged with a green circuit board, wires, a push button, an ionization chamber, aluminum, and a 12-volt battery.

Modestly, he expresses his hope to mass produce the detector and revamp other unattractive interior architectural parts as well. "Certainly this little guy has gotten my confidence up," he smiles.