None of us profess to know the future, but some take an educated guess. In a world where merely staying abreast of consumer tastes is not enough, trend forecasters offer guidance with product development and purchasing – but of what value? On the eve of their presentation to a Heimtextil audience, Paul Farley chats to the experts at leading design house FranklinTill – Kate Franklin and Caroline Till – to explore the relevance and worth of trend forecasting to the home furnishings industry …

From manic patterns written by computer algorithm to plants genetically altered to yield new textiles, the contents of this year’s Heimtextil Trend Book are some of the most challenging to date.

The publication – a projection of future trends, created by a team of international designers and forecasters – accompanies the Trend Show, a key feature of the home textile exhibition taking place in Frankfurt this month. It encourages the home furnishing industry to look at the wider world – not simply product design, but areas such as science, fashion and nature – for product inspiration and guidance.

Shepherding the project this year is FranklinTill, a London-based design house comprising Kate Franklin and Caroline Till, established in 2010. As the editor/curator of this year’s edition of the Heimtextil Trend Book, it is FranklinTill’s turn to set the themes and communicate them to the fair’s visitors.

“Kate and I both originally trained as textile designers – Kate in weave and myself in printed textiles – so we both had experience in designing textile and textile products for the commercial and high-end markets before we moved into trend forecasting,” says Caroline Till. “Our particular area of expertise is textile colour and material, so, in a way, Heimtextil is the ideal client for us. We’ve worked with the show for the last four years, but being in charge of the Trend Book this year was a fantastic opportunity for us.”

Kate Franklin adds: “We felt very confident that we could deliver something that excites the audience as much as in previous years.”

The book itself is a story of extremes, as its themes explore notions of both progress and revival. Looking to the future on the one hand is Generate Collision!, a trend exploring how emerging materials and technologies are enabling “replicable yet unique results” – for example, Absolut Vodka’s Unique campaign, in which each bottle is painted by computer-generated algorithm. The availability of a potential 94 quintillion variants means a completely unique product can be engineered each time, with a minimum of effort.

“I think that anyone in the trade who believes that trends are not a part of their world is in denial”

Then there’s Engineer Nature!, which presents examples of natural materials, synthesised and bio-engineered to provide sustainable fabrics – another example of science playing a part in the design process, featuring work such as Suzanne Lee’s BioCulture project, which sees garments grown from bacteria and yeast.

At the other extreme, the book studies the revival of traditions and authenticity. Exalt Purity! celebrates natural minimalism through unadorned raw materials, comprising everything from animal hides to stone, while Rejuvenate Craft! offers a look “embedded with cultural values and stories”, and includes examples employing traditional cabinet-making, crochet, folk art and weave.

“We wanted to ensure that FranklinTill’s methodology, which is very much rooted in shifts in behaviour and attitude – sociocultural impact, in other words – was reflected in this edition of the Trend Book,” says Caroline.

At times, it can seem that the world of the designer is very far removed from the final consumer purchase – it can be difficult to reconcile the notion of trend forecasting at one end of the supply chain with finished product at the other. How does FranklinTill go about making its forecasts – including the Heimtextil presentation in question – relevant to players at every level in the trade?

“We hope that the exhibition will reach people on many different levels,” says Kate. “Whether they are a buyer purely looking for new, potentially on-trend fabrics, a designer discovering a new material development, or a retailer, I think that the way we like to ‘unpack’ our trends means that hopefully there is something in there for everybody to take away.”

“The diversity of the audience makes it a really challenging project,” continues Caroline. “The exhibitor is interested in seeing their fabric displayed in an inspiring way, and the buyer in getting merchandising tips and display inspiration. Since the book has gone out, we’ve had a lot of manufacturers getting in touch, asking whether we think they’re going along the right lines with a particular trend – we can really see it shaping the products that’ll be displayed at the fair.”

So, trends matter to everyone in some way? “I think that anyone in the trade who believes that trends are not a part of their world is in denial,” asserts Caroline. “With the competitive nature of every market right now, no-one can afford to just stand still. I think you’ve got to be continually aware of what has the potential to impact your market area or manufacturing systems, and of everything that is affecting your customers’ lives. The most savvy companies will keep ahead.”

“As a retailer or a designer, it’s actually more about knowing how to apply the right trends to your product,” adds Kate, “because not every trend is right for every company – and I guess that’s where we come in as consultants, working with brands to take them to the next stage of development using trend information. It’s about being able to keep aware of everything that’s going on, but also being able to identify those trends that are going to resonate most with your target consumer group, and how you apply that to what you are creating.”

With trend advice becoming increasingly plentiful these days, the quality of FranklinTill’s work, together with its sociological focus, helps set it apart from the crowd, says Caroline.

“I think that the concept of ‘trends’ has got a bit of a bad name because there’s such a proliferation of information on the web and in publications these days – people think that anyone can do it,” she says.

“But I think then that the role of the trend forecaster, as an editor and filter of the available information, becomes even more important. If new directions in design aesthetics are emerging, we’ll ask why, from where is it coming, and who’s responsible for driving it? Why is it resonating with us now, why is it likely to resonate with the consumer, and what is that saying about us, broadly speaking – about our behaviour, attitudes and emerging desires?”

Kate elaborates: “When people come out with a sweeping statement such as ‘tiny florals will be big for next season’ we ask ‘why?’ Whether we’re putting together a colour palette or material trends, we always want to be able to demonstrate the filtering process, to show how we reached our conclusion.”

To answer these questions, FranklinTill must look further afield than the trend’s immediate influences. As the themes within the Trend Book indicate, there’s much more scope at work here than one might expect from a trend forecast, and the exploration of new territories can lead to some unexpected results.

“We’re not necessarily looking simply within the creative industries for inspiration,” says Kate. “We’re talking to scientists, visionaries, academics …”

“Just as in science, we’re looking at the peripheries, what is happening on the edge and emerging innovations, and then hoping to map, predict or anticipate, observing patterns and correlations”

“Much of the innovation is happening at the convergence of collaboration between scientists and designers,” interjects Caroline. “It’s an area that we’ve done quite a lot of work in, which has informed the Engineer Nature! theme. I think it’s going to be a little difficult for the Heimtextil audience to relate to this trend – it’s definitely a further future-reaching trend.

“I think at the moment we’re only seeing its aesthetic manifestations in the commercial market, but we really feel it’s important for even the most commercial of textile manufacturers to understand where the future of the materials is headed.

“I find the implications of this collaboration between science and design most exciting, particularly in relation to the sustainable agenda – that perhaps the problems that we are facing with material and land scarcity, growing population, etc, cannot be solved by organic means, so maybe synthetic innovation is going to be the solution for a sustainable future.”

This is part of the reason FranklinTill steers away from delivering seasonal trend forecasts. “We look at the bigger picture – trends with more longevity – rather than flash-in-the-pan seasonal trends,” says Kate. “I think it helps people make better products, that are better value for the customer. Rather than a product that someone has for a season and is more than happy to dispose of the next, let’s make a product that resonates more with your customer and that will ultimately last a bit longer.”

Caroline adds: “If you’re talking about a very micro aesthetic trend, for example ‘blue is important this season’, then ultimately it is a market-driven thing, continually driving newness. Obviously, while newness might sell more products, what we’re interested in is being able to make sure that products are truly targeted to resonate with how people are feeling.”

Generate Collision! is the Trend Book’s other progressive trend, and a fascinating study of the relationship between science and design, this time from an algorithmic rather than a biological angle. Throughout, Caroline and Kate present examples of how innovations in the technological age can deliver highly individual, personalised products, as well as the cookie-cutter solutions the modern consumer has grown used to – and perhaps tired of.

“For me, this is the most fascinating trend,” says Kate. “I really quite like the idea that designs, which generally have to be predictable, can be put in the hands of a computer program or a machine, which will generate random results. It’s ‘mass imperfection’. I just think being able to generate mass-produced, yet customised, products is really interesting for consumers.

“The Absolute Vodka Unique project is a fantastic example of how a manufacturing line has been able to create – I can’t remember how many millions of bottles it was – but each one has an individual pattern on it because they created a computer program which generated random results through the application of paint onto a bottle.

“In the past, everything about computer production has had to be precise, exact and repetitive – Generate Collision! is all about the unpredictable. The product is not going to be 100% perfect, but it’s about creating mass individuality.”

In fact, the pair’s exhibition at Heimtextil, the Trend Show, will feature a physical example of how computer technology might be used to overcome the lack of individuality in today’s mass-produced product, in the form of an installation by Paul Farragut. Here, visitors will be invited to create their own individually-printed bags.

“By programming variables into a very simple app on the iPad, Paul has created a printer which will generate a unique print onto a bag for the visitor to then take away,” explains Kate. “He’s using a simple idea – if not a simple program! – to demonstrate how mass individuality can be created, based on some very simple parameters.”

These examples help demonstrate that there’s much more to trend forecasting than meets the eye – and FranklinTill makes a compelling case for the practice being on the radar of every profit-conscious business.

“It’s a combination of reportage and projection,” concludes Caroline. “One fallacy people have is that, when they think of the term ‘trend forecasting’, they picture someone sitting there with a crystal ball. In reality, it’s all just research, and more research, and there is a firm theoretical grounding to the practice. Just as in science, we’re looking at the peripheries, what is happening on the edge and emerging innovations, and then hoping to map, predict or anticipate, observing patterns and correlations. 

“If there are similarities, perhaps a few case study examples, you might then think ‘ok, there’s something here’, and you can then begin to predict when it might start to trickle down into mainstream saturation.”

Visitors to this year's Heimtextil might have seen the Trend Show, a collaboration of work gathered by design representatives from Brazil, France, the US, Japan, the Netherlands, and, of course, the UK, in Forum 1. The Trend Book itself can be ordered through the Heimtextil website. Read more interviews like this in Furniture News magazine each month.