Milan Design Week 2019

Milan Design Week 2019: Day 1


9 April 2019

Throughout the 2019 Milan Design Week, Disegno will be publishing daily roundups of the installations, launches and exhibitions that it has seen the day before. This year’s Salone roundups begin with a trio of installations that all engage with the possibilities afforded by material experimentation.

ExCinere by Formafantasma for Dzek

Five years ago, the design curator Brent Dzekciorius launched his architectural surfaces company Dzek with Marmoreal, a form of large aggregate terrazzo designed by Max Lamb. Since then, Dzekciorius has been working with the Amsterdam-based practice Formafantasma on a follow-up material. It has been a long process of research and development, but the results – which launch this Salone – are intriguing.

ExCinere is a collection of glazed tiles produced using volcanic ash sourced from Mount Etna in Sicily – a continuation, of a sort, of Formafantasma’s De Natura Fossilium (2014) collection for Gallery Libby Sellars. By varying the concentration and particle size of the ash, Dzek’s tiles move across a range of five glaze tones that stretch from an amber honey, up to a burnt sugar brown. Installed in a former chocolate factory in Milan’s Via Venini, the tiles have been exhibited in a series of formats – wall panels, columns, and a circular bench among others – that show off the delicacy of the glaze and the pattern play that can emerge from mixing the different tones.

A subtler, more delicate collection than the bright colours of the nougat-like Marmoreal, ExCinere seems to have sidestepped the risk of second-album syndrome, beginning the process of broadening Dzek’s offering. As much as anything, the collection is sober testament to the fact that material development and research is frequently time-consuming and challenging. While Dzekciorius had initially hoped to launch new materials on a schedule approximating a biennial basis, the ExCinere collection went through multiple formulations during its five-year gestation period. It began as an exploration of glass, before modulating to brick, before eventually taking its current format as glazed tiles; while the choice of volcanic material also briefly switched to Scottish basalt before returning to the original idea of using ash from Etna. The quality of the final result shows that such pains are sometimes worth taking.

Via Venini, 85

Conifera by Arthur Mamou-Mani for Cos

Last year saw Cos’s annual Salone installation take the form of light artist Phillip K. Smith III’s Open Sky, a monolithic open-air concrete rotunda containing an inner curve of mirrors that reflected the surroundings of the 16th-century courtyard of Palazzo Isimbardi. Smith’s installation was beautiful – it would be difficult for scattered reflections of a 16th-century palazzo not to be beautiful – and geared towards providing a sense of respite amongst the general flurry of Salone.

This year, the Cos commission has fallen to architect Arthur Mamou-Mani, who has responded with an installation that lacks the serene gracefulness of its predecessor, but which offers a more critically engaged and intellectually stimulating experience.

Mamou-Mani’s Conifera is a canopy formed from a series of 3D-printed bioplastic modules. The form of these modules was developed using parametric design to shave down their form to minimise material use (the final result is rather like a lattice basket), with each module then printed in PLA, a compostable plastic formed from renewable resources. Some modules have had ash wood pulp added to the mixture to create a brown tone, while others have been left translucent, or else coloured with a white pigment. The experience of walking under the dappled shade it offers is compelling and strange – a little like walking under a canopy of plastic crates in a market. Mamou-Mani’s pavilion is beautiful – particularly the way in which the structure eases its way around a set of Japanese maples in the palazzo’s gardens – but the architect is clearly more interested in using the commission as an opportunity to reflect upon building practice in general than in engendering any particular aesthetic response.

Mamou-Mani is a champion for parametric design, believing the technique affords opportunities to reduce material usage, as well as representing a chance to elevate materials such as bioplastic to credible structural candidates. Moreover, in a year in which news of the impact of climate change continues to worsen, and awareness of plastic pollution deepens, it is worthwhile acknowledging the platform that Cos and Mamou-Mani have provided to reflect upon bioplastic (although in this vein, it will be interesting to see what becomes of the temporary Conifera once Salone is at an end). Particularly pleasing is the method of construction that Mamou-Mani has chosen for his structure. Each module is lashed into place using cable ties – an act of perfectly serviceable architectural improvisation that is in itself thought provoking. Happily, Mamou-Mani managed to source cable ties produced using bioplastic.

Palazzo Isimbardi, Corso Monforte, 35

A Space for Being by Google Design Studio

If yesterday’s two other installations focused on material exploration in the traditional sense, Google Design Studio’s A Space for Being represented a rather more technological (or, if you’re feeling more critical, dystopian) interpretation of the theme: data of a person’s physiological responses as a design material.

A Space for Being is a collaboration with Muuto, Reddymade Architecture and the International Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins University, and is intended as an exploration of neuroaesthetics – the study of how the mind and body respond to aesthetic experiences. The installation takes the form of three rooms, each of which has been dressed with different furniture, objects and books; soundtracked with different music; and which has a bespoke scent piped in. The first room is cosy and lounge-like; the second more playful (the term “rumpus room” seems apposite); while the third is a little chillier in aesthetic – something along the lines of a well-appointed waiting room in a Swiss clinic.

Visitors are provided with a wristband that captures data surrounding their physiological response to each room (skin temperature, heart rate and so forth) and are then asked to spend five minutes in each space, interacting with it in whatever way they choose. At the end of the experience, their data is downloaded, formed into an infographic that shows you which room you were most “at ease” in, and then immediately deleted as a matter of procedure (a point that members of the team behind the installation were at pains to stress).

The experience is fascinating, not least for the opportunity to discuss your results with Google’s team at the end of the installation, all of whom speak enthusiastically about future opportunities for technology to use physiological data to adapt environments to suit the needs of their inhabitants. If that sounds rather terrifying as a prospect, rest assured that Disegno agrees, but A Space for Being is nevertheless compelling for its provision of a space to discuss exactly what it is about design being driven by real-time capture of physiological data that unnerves. It should be noted that a number of the more obvious answers – such as the sense of intrusion, or fears over what could be done with the data were it gathered – are already widely-accepted realities within our current technologies and consumer landscape.

Leaving A Space for Being, Disegno was told that it had been most “at ease” in the room it had actually felt rather melancholy in. When this was raised with the Google team, it was pointed out that “at ease” is a purposefully broad umbrella term, and one which is not necessarily incommensurable with a sense of introversion or introspection. While aspects of the technologies at play within A Space for Being are highly troubling and raise uncomfortable questions, then, the installation itself has been put together with enough care such that reflection on these points seems the entire point of the enterprise.

Spazio Maiocchi, Via Achille Maiocchi, 7