With most design weeks and biennials cancelled or adapted into online-only events over the past 18 months, the future of the in-person fair has been called into question. Yet lesser-known or younger designers and brands have struggled to gain a foothold in the industry in this impersonal virtual format. Shows like imm cologne, where the focus will be on themed topical content, talent scouting and high quality at a smaller scale, may just represent the way forward for the in-person design events of the future.

Only time will tell what the real lessons of the past 18 months have been. But amongst all the loss inflicted on the world by Covid-19, the forceful suspension of normal life has also offered a moment of repose and reflection, with consequences that will reverberate for decades to come.

If the pandemic has given the design industry space to reset, rethink and question whether it wants to return to business as usual, nowhere is the two-sided coin of change more evident than in the international events calendar. Over the past 18 months, almost every major design event has been cancelled.

Image courtesy of imm cologne

Image courtesy of imm cologne

The question now is, what happens next? With brands launching online and Zoom calls replacing in-person meetings, do we still need design fairs? The answer is yes and no. The sheer abundance of events pre-pandemic created a competitive drive that drove fairs that had once had a clear focus towards more experimental, experiential, consumer and Instagram-facing projects with very mixed results.

“Frankly speaking I do not miss the super crowded fairs that lost their focus on furniture or lighting design two years ago,” admits designer Sebastian Herkner. And yet, the last 18 months has also made it abundantly clear that the internet cannot replace physical events—that the tactility and tangibility of design can only be fully experienced and appreciated in person.

Image courtesy of imm cologne

Image courtesy of imm cologne

The team behind imm cologne—the annual interiors fair in Germany and one of the biggest trade shows for the design industry—is determined to prove that there is a future for physical, offline design fairs, albeit at a smaller scale.

While many shows pivoted to watered-down, digital-only offerings in 2021, imm cologne was cancelled altogether, despite having already developed a hybrid offline/online model. Gerald Böse, CEO of Koelnmesse, the showground that owns imm cologne, described the decision as “painful” but explained that the digital format didn’t make any sense without an offline counterpart. For 2022, there is no hybrid—instead, imm is pitching to be the moment that the design industry reconnects and restarts. Under the theme “exchange”, the focus is on promoting the value of face-to-face interaction.

Image courtesy of imm cologne

Image courtesy of imm cologne

“There are many reasons for saying ‘ok, I’m not going to travel five times a year around the globe to be in a place for 24 hours’,” says Claire Steinbrück, director of imm cologne. “But I think we have a responsibility when we speak about life restarting to think not only about the future of living but also about the future of working. How do we want to work together? Trade fairs can be really relevant in this context.”

imm’s creative director Dick Spierenburg has helped put together a programme of installations and thematic exhibition areas that seek to tackle significant themes in the wider world. Inevitably, one of these will be the rise of multi-functional spaces within the home—a trend that has been massively accelerated by the pandemic and the shift to home working for mostly middle-class white-collar workers, the same audience that tends to be the biggest consumer of interior design products. The pressures on the home environment to support work, family and leisure have never been more intense, demanding new ways of thinking from designers.

Image courtesy of imm cologne

“In the past, the trade fair was about opening our halls for brands who came with beautiful stands and booths to present their annual collections,” says Steinbrück. “Now, we also like to focus on relevant topics. We have the Pure Talents contest [for young designers]. For 2022, we have Connect, a new themed event where we question the future of living and look at mobility, healthcare and things like that. We really want to be a pioneer in terms of content—we need people not only to exchange ideas about products and do business but also to talk about the really important topics our society is facing.”

While many fairs have experimented with virtual platforms over the past year or so, the experience simply can’t match the depth of an in-person encounter says Spierenburg. “At a show, you have discussions, you talk about what you see, and you take memories home to others, and that is something that really doesn’t work in the virtual world.”

Pure Talents Contest 2021 | Erik Mantz-Hansen. Guerilla Kitchen (Photo: Erik Mantz-Hansen)

Pure Talents Contest 2021 | Tatu Laakso, Olivia chair Photo: Tatu Laakso)

If there was any doubt that design fairs still have an important role to play in the industry despite the rise of digital product launches, Zoom meetings and “collaborative environments” like Microsoft Teams, a quick glance at the roster of young talent that has found support over the years through programmes like imm’s Pure Talent awards should settle it. While the past 18 months has been surprisingly good for many interiors brands, who have benefitted from the refocus on and revaluing of the domestic environment and the need for furniture that supports homeworking and flexibility, young designers have struggled to find a footing and get the attention they need to launch their careers.

Pure Talents Contest 2021 | Dirk Vosding. Elina reading light. (Photo: Dirk Vosding)

Pure Talents Contest 2021 | Luiza Guidi. Maya, light sculptures. (Photo: Luiza Guidi)

Sebastian Herkner is a good example of the power that fairs have in helping launch new talent. His work featured a number of times in young talent showcases at imm cologne and Milan’s Salone del Mobile and meetings at fairs have led to some of Herkner’s most important relationships with manufacturers like Dedon and Capellini. In 2016 he came full circle with a commission to create imm’s Das Haus installation—an annual showcase of one designer’s vision for the future of interiors. Fairs are the best place for young designers to meet the press and the industry he says: “This is the best context to start a business. Salone del Mobile is a much bigger show but imm has a clear focus on quality furniture design.”

“imm cologne is special,” agrees Spierenburg. “If we can't travel to just any show anymore, then it's important to have some character shows, where you know what to expect but also know that there will be something that goes beyond your expectations. I think Cologne is one of those shows.”

LEFT: imm cologne director Claire Steinbrück. (Photo: Roland Breitschuh; Koelnmesse). RIGHT: imm cologne director Dick Spierenburg (Photo: Roland Breitschuh; Koelnmesse).

LEFT: Gerald Böse, President and Chief Executive Officer. RIGHT: Sebastian Herkner. (Foto: Commerz Real)

imm cologne will run from January 17-23, 2022, imm-cologne.com