Portable air purifiers from Japan. Shower stalls made of recycled glass bottles. Vibrant red stools that double as exercise machines.
Many of the goods on display at this week's International Contemporary Furniture Fair in Manhattan had a decidedly user-friendly, eco-conscious bent, suggesting that, after a decade of inflicting life-sized horse-shaped lamps and wall hooks resembling nipples on a helpless public, the design world is less interested in shocking and more disposed to solving problems than it has been in recent years.
Take the new Stitch Coffee Table that Uhuru Design (www.uhurudesign.com) unveiled as part of the exhibit devoted to works from Brooklyn.
A nearly bisected slab of sustainably harvested, locally milled walnut atop a recycled-metal frame, Stitch isn't just a striking piece of furniture, but is also a model of zero-waste production.
More symbolically, the X-shaped, reconstituted-plastic "stitches" that knit together the almost cleaved wood surface could be regarded as a metaphor for the mending of an industry that had come off before the recession hit as excessive, self-indulgent and, well, broken.
Of course, there were numerous examples of the zany at the show, from a lamp resembling a log that had been gnawed at the centre by a beaver to an Eames chair made of mud. (The latter, by San Diego designer Jennifer Anderson, wasn't a commercial product, but part of an ongoing experiment with various building materials.)
And the women behind Sweden's Front Design, creators of that famous equine light fixture for Moooi, were among the featured speakers.
But it was the items and installations that revived the mid-20th-century ethos of Better Living Through Design that heralded a possible changing of the global design guard.
The sideline Japan By Design exhibition, an oasis of serenity in the otherwise frenetic fair, was full of such consumer-focused wares as cutting-edge toilets and ultrastylish vacuum cleaners.
A particular highlight was Yuki Yoshida's Misty Garden humidifier, created last year for Mikuni and available for purchase through www.japantrendshop.com.
Mimicking a pretty windowsill flower box, Misty Garden consists of thin, woven-polyester "blooms" that release moisture into a room after water is poured into the tray.
"That's great," one show-goer observed as she peered at the design. "Much better than those stupid pots of water we scatter around our apartments."
Just as crowd-pleasing were the emerging design centres that mounted plucky installations alongside powerhouses such as Italy, Germany and Spain. El Salvador, for instance, showcased the work of six design teams whose collective oeuvre signalled the development of a real and impressive scene in the Central American nation.
"It's coming up," said Salvadoran designer David Raful, who creates chic black seating out of recycled pneumatic rubber. "People are realizing they need designers."
And the designers, from San Salvador to Stockholm, are by and large responding, creating wares that say less about them and do more for the consumer and society at large.
Even a few of the powerhouses, such as Italy, felt the need to show some soul this year. Besides showcasing the usual suspects - Kartell, Flou, Missoni Home - through the mammoth I Saloni exhibit, the country also threw a spotlight on Apulia, the remote southern region that isn't known for its design cred, but is apparently a hotbed of creative talent.
Among the giveaways that were handed out at the Apulian booth, for instance, was a saddle bag made by the region's prisoners.
Such examples of community-building and newfound modesty aside, the spectre of money and excess couldn't be entirely excised from the show, even in the middle of an economic downturn.
One of the more unique takes on the subject was provided by Johnny Swing, a Vermont designer who creates furniture upholstered with thousands of coins and throw cushions bearing dollar-bill patterns.
Swing's creations aren't inexpensive - his Nickel Couch, available through www.johnnyswing.com, costs $102,000 (U.S.) - but they do have their practical as well as aesthetic advantages.
Among other qualities, they are uncommonly beautiful and surprisingly comfortable.
And unlike other investments, this kind of currency won't disappear with the next downswing in the market.
- As in past years, the Great White North was well represented at the 2009 ICFF. Among the standout products was Vancouver designer Omer Arbel's 28 lighting series for Bocci (www.bocci.ca). Reflecting his usual preoccupation with "the process of making," the transparent bulbous fixtures both explore and invert the techniques of glassblowing.
- Led by creative director Matt Carr, Toronto-based Umbra (www.umbra.com) unveiled a number of smart new designs from its boutique U+ line, including the seductively draped Vanello tabletop wine rack made of powder-coated metal.
- Known for its way with unorthodox materials, Vancouver-based Molo (www.molodesign.com) was all over Manhattan this week. At the show, its uniquely sinuous cardboard screens were used to construct the high-traffic speakers forum this year. On the Upper East Side, meanwhile, its famous felt rocks were among the items in a prominent exhibition, Fashioning Felt, at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum (www.cooperhewitt.org). The show runs until Sept. 7.
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