A Perspective on Milan 2017


12 April 2017

Another Salone has come and gone, and now the design world can begin to settle down to the serious business of unpicking it. What do all of those launches, installations, performances, exhibitions, talks and roundtables actually mean?

In part, any attempt to answer this question is a fool’s errand. The Salone is now too vast – and too diverse in its remit and ambitions – for anyone to see everything, let alone to try and condense their experiences down into a clear analysis.

Moreover, the temptation to identify overarching trends from the week is similarly fraught, easily slipping into generalisations that ignore counterexamples in a vainglorious effort to cram a colossal dataset into a handful of four or five easily digestible themes. The dreaded “hot take” looms in the background.

As such, Disegno has decided to bow out of the effort. What follows are a series of reflections from the week, which do not pretend to be anything more than observations from a handful of the launches, exhibitions and installations on display in Milan.

The areas we have highlighted do not present an exhaustive account of the festival – far from it – and they should not be read as suggesting that the projects discussed were the pick of the fair. Instead they represent a selection that is intended to provoke reflection and debate, and to provide a partial barometer of elements of the week. They are a subjective effort to make something definite from the plethora of Salone.

1" by Jasper Morrison for Emeco.

The Salone

In comparison to previous years, the Salone fair itself felt somewhat muted. Much of the work on display was accomplished, albeit staid – there was little to provoke debate or garner sustained attention, with many brands focusing on reworking or extending existing collections, rather than showing new work (a strategy that is not in itself a bad thing). It was not a year in which commercialism felt particularly lustrous.

It seemed fitting, then, that one of the fair’s best launches was a collection that relished in its own earthiness and which made hay in the extreme utilitarianism of its remit. Jasper Morrison’s 1” for Emeco was peak Morrison: a collection of simple chairs, stools and tables executed in a 1” extruded aluminium tube, finished with seats and backs in plywood, wood polypropylene (the pick of the bunch), and upholstery.

The chair is technically complex (the tubing bends in more than one plain), but appears effortless: as if a time0proven café chair had been plucked from its environs and placed in the fair as a rebuttal to the absurd bombast and pomp that surrounds many furniture launches. “The 1” chair, though far from spectacular, is intended to be an updated Emeco solution to a wide variety of situations where something strong and less ashy is required,” explained Morrison in his press notes and, in painstakingly avoiding gimmickry and spectacle, Morrison created something wonderful.

The Haller E line by USM.

Also pleasing was USM’s launch of its Haller E line, an update to its modular Haller system that entered production in 1969. The Haller E incorporates lighting into the structure of the Haller line, but the chief point of interest is the engineering involved in electrifying the system, prompting revisions to the brand’s chrome ball joints and tubes to accommodate electronics. The system is cable free, so as to maintain the modularity of the original Haller line, and can in principle be extended beyond lighting. It provides the basic skeleton upon which USM will now move forward.

Like 1 Inch, the Haller E is not spectacular. However, it is compelling to see a company invest time and resources into engineering a platform that ought to enable it to remain relevant in a time in which storage systems are being rendered passé by rapid digitalisation. In 2015, USM celebrated the 50th anniversary of the design of the Haller line; it is pleasing to see a brand put in the legwork that will now be tasked with extending that lifespan further.

Filo by Andrea Anastasio for Foscarini.


More plentiful in launches of original products was this year's Euroluce, with a particularly eclectic series of novelties on offer from Foscarini. Here, some designs were exercises in playing with seemingly disembodied light on white textured surfaces, something that has long dominated post-LED lighting design: the wall-mounted oval luminaire Superficie by Calvi e Brambilla has an embedded strand of spine-like light sources running vertically along the fixture, rendering it a luminescent X-ray of sorts when on, and an inert fossil when off. Similarly, Eugenio Gargioni's soaring Plena light is a vaguely jellyfish-like white ovaloid which diffuses the light cast by a hidden light sources suspended under it. 

A more eccentric offering comes from the Campana brothers' first project for Foscarini, a fully bendable silicone floor lamp by the name of Magia available in white and coral. Even more unusual is Filo, a baroque collection of table lamps by Andrea Anastasio which aims to augment three elements integral to a traditional luminaire: the wiring, ornamental detailing, and the light source. The result is a simple metal stand that supports extension-wire-long cording that may be wound around the stand but also spooled out according to fancy; maximalist glass beads providing a nod to the Murano-born brand's beginnings; and a funnel lamp shade dangling off the end of the eccentric wiring. It's an emphatic return to the constituent elements of a traditional decorative light that stands in stark contrast to the games with disembodied light present elsewhere in the stand.

Blush by Formafantasma for Flos.

At Euroluce's last iteration two years ago, Flos's marketing seemed more than slightly off when they featured a two-screen video at their stand with a lamp getting "dressed" with various attachable elements alongside a woman being dressed in garments mimicking the lamp's attachments. It was an extraordinarily crass masterclass in objectification – this year, the brand had thankfully changed strategy. A journey from an outdoor environment (showing the brand's latest offerings in outdoor lighting) to an austere indoor maze, Flos's stand give over the spotlight entirely to new work by designers Michael Anastassiades, the Bouroullecs, Formafantasma, Konstantin Grcic, Nendo, and Phillipe Starck. Highlights here included the Blush Lamp by Formafantasma, a suspended wall light that makes use of an LED strip illuminating a piece of dichroic glass – a type of glass that is perceived as having two different colours depending on lighting conditions – to cast a subtle colour spectrum onto its surroundings. Noctambule by Konstantin Grcic, a family of node-like lanterns that either daisy chain into ceiling lights and floor lamps, or hold their own as stand-alone objects, also impressed.

Breathe by SO-IL for Mini Living.

Heavy Branding

Breathe, an installation developed by the New York based architects SO-IL for Mini Living in Tortona, was a curio. Commercial installations typically aim to be accessible, but Breathe bucked the trend. Built in a 50sqm empty plot between existing buildings, it was a prototype living space – a tower formed from porous fabrics that were built up around a modular metal frame to create loosely delineated living spaces that blur the division between exterior and interior. Queues to explore the structure were lengthy, with only a few visitors permitted to climb the tower at a time. Moreover, the structure was hard to digest at a glance, with little information provided as to how buildings of this ilk might play a role in future urban living. In many ways, Breathe felt an ill fit for the role of populist darling that installations from mega brands typically play.

Credit to Mini Living and SO-IL, then, for pursuing this approach. Whether the installation found answers to the issues it approached – sustainability; a disconnect between architecture and the environment – is debatable, but both the architects and commissioners deserve praise for tackling these topics in the first place. Instead of the spectacle it could easily have become, Breathe proved a surprisingly content-rich experience.

Stone Age Folk by Jaime Hayon for Caesarstone.

Stone Age Folk by Jaime Hayon for Caesarstone, by comparison, was sheer eye candy: a skeletal metal pavilion whose walls were studded with stone marquetry and candy coloured glass arranged so as to form monolithic versions of Hayon’s toonish drawings. The effect was beautiful – Hayon’s design language is never anything other than immersive – although the installation offered little beyond this. This was an exercise in a designer playing with a material, an increasingly familiar gambit from design-conscious materials brands keen to display the versatility of their products. Stone Age Folk offered little that hadn’t been seen before, but so infectious is Hayon’s brand of play that this felt somewhat inconsequential. The installation may not linger long in the memory, but it was undoubtedly a delightful space in which to pass an afternoon.

An installation shot from Fenoména, an interactive exhibition featuring work by design collective the Ladies' Room. IMAGE Sirio Vanelli.

After a banner 2015 and 2016 in which the main garage space at Spazio Sanremo was given over to Max Lamb and Raw Edges respectively, it was disappointing to see the 5Vie district award its headline space this year to Cartier. As with Tortona and Lambrate before it, 5Vie is giving out early warning signs that it is be under threat of commercialisation.

Nonetheless, Spazio Sanremo’s smaller rooms were still worth visiting. Ariane Prin’s Rust collection mixes copper dust with jesmonite, such that the vessels she creates from her material oxidise over time. Meanwhile, Fenoména by the Ladies’ Room (Sara Ricciardi, Ilaria Bianchi, Agustina Bottoni and Astrid Luglio) explored the role of sensation, with installations examining olfactory, tactile and auditive stimuli. Visitors were invited to inspect rotating, tickling feathers; dangling paper filters infused with scent; and a corridor of brass wind chimes. It was a playful, delightful experience – one that demanded whole-hearted engagement with the work on display – and a welcome tonic from the seriousness on display elsewhere in the fair.

Sonic Pendulum by Yuri Suzuki.

Sonic Pendulum, a sound installation conceived by London-based sound designer Yuri Suzuki and sponsored by car giant Audi, used artificial intelligence to create a continuous soundscape. Comprising 30 pendulums hung in a series of frames that were positioned around a traditional Milanese courtyard, the hum that the installation omitted was generated according to the sounds and disturbances created by passing members of public. Unfortunately however, the installation was somewhat marred by Audi’s commercial demands. While a series of glistening new Audis positioned in-between the pendulums were off-putting, the ranting security guard barking at anyone that dared to stand too close to the pendulums – let alone step in the area that had been invisibly cordoned off to facilitate filming (50 per cent of the installation) – seemed to defeat the objective of the installation: a highly interactive exhibit that relies upon engagement from the public.

The #TVClerici television studio in Atelier Clerici, created by Design Academy Eindhoven.

But is it Design?

#TVClerici, this year’s offering from Design Academy Eindhoven, drew a mixed reaction from visitors to its space in Palazzo Clerici. Anecdotally, the exhibition’s organisers reported critics as questioning whether the work on display really qualified as design and in this respect the exhibition certainly provided grist to the critical mill. Olle Lundin, for instance, screened a video in which he recreated the body language of models from photoshoots in Vogue, while Object Interview was a filmed series (the space operated as a functioning TV studio and performance space throughout the week) in which objects created by Eindhoven graduates engaged in interviews with a television host. Was it really design?

In part, this debate reveals the slight aimlessness of obsessing over definitions. In what way would it change anyone’s perspective on the exhibition if it were discovered that what the Eindhoven students had displayed was not in fact design – would scandal erupt in the Salon; would Eindhoven be barred from exhibiting again? In a week in which Milan is hardly lacking in design content, it makes little difference if one exhibition on display as part of the Fuori Salone was not straightforwardly “design", particularly when the work on display was as strong and impressively researched as that of #TVClerici.

For the record, Disegno believes that #TVClerici displayed work and performances that were every bit as much examples of design as a Konstantin Grcic chair for Magis or a Michael Anastassiades light for Flos. What the show undoubtedly did expose, however, was the ludicrousness of searching for concrete definitions for design (the type that chew up and spit out counterexamples) at a time when young designers are simply not interested in following proscribed career paths and fitting into traditional disciplines. People’s time would be better spent evaluating the work on display on its own merits, rather than finegling over disciplinary boundaries.

Max Lamb's benches for Really.

Material Matters

Amidst the apparent abundance of material plenty in Milan, the latest venture from the Danish textile manufacturer Kvadrat – called Really, as if to highlight "getting real" about materials – aims to tackle the issue of textile waste by way of materials research. The result, presented at the ProjectB Gallery space on via Maroncelli, is a series experiments and objects by Christien Meindertsma and Max Lamb with Solid Textile Board, a material comprised of compressed cotton and wool pulp from industrial laundries, household waste, and Kvadrat’s selvedge waste. The material, which is "designed for circularity," according to the brand's mission statement, is somewhat reminiscent of wood polypropylene to the touch.

Miendertsma has worked with photographer Mathijs Labadie and filmmaker Roel van Tour to produce an installation breaking down the sourcing and production of Solid Textile Board, while Max Lamb has designed a series of benches and experimental material samples. Sit down on one of Lamb's benches, which are primarily exercises in layering and bending sheets of the new material, and you can also skim through a collection of books curated by the Really team: Zygmut Bauman's Wasted Lives, Duncan Baker-Brown's The Re-Use Atlas, and Jakob Rutqvist and Peter Lacy's Waste to Wealth: The Circular Economy Advantage can be found among them. This is a commercial brand working very hard to position itself as a pioneer of environmentally conscious production. 

Mystical Solace by De Allegri and Fogale.

Another approach to materials entirely can be found at Mystical Solace, an installation by London-based design practice De Allegri and Fogale in collaboration with the Casone Group, curated by Studio Vedèt. The Italian purveyors of high-end stone have provided the De Allegri and Fogale with Yellow Siena marble and the dark stone Noire Dorè, mysterious configurations of which make up the installation. It is a pleasantly disorientating space that mounts, by way of mirrored stairs and arches, a complex symbolism that feels familiar yet is difficult to place. Evoking sacred architecture as well as the trappings of ancient civic buildings, Mystical Solace is as effective in its play of architectural elements as it is in its choice of sumptuous materials. Dark, disorientating, and, well, mystical, the installation is a welcome retreat from the polite pastels and hygienic minimalism of so much else on show in Milan.