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Milan report 2015

Milan

22 April 2015

THE GHOST AT THE FEAST

Milan’s annual Salone del Mobile might reasonably be likened to a feast. There is a surfeit of people, projects and entertainment; a general glut of new design for the industry to gorge itself on and enough social encounters to last a year.

Yet feasts often have ghosts, a phenomena to which Milan is no exception. In 2011, the Salone del Mobile was dominated by #milanuncut, a debate that focused on the injustices of design’s antiquated royalty system. This year, the ghost was Beyond the New, a manifesto for industrial design written by designer Hella Jongerius and academic Louise Schouwenberg. Distributed at two venues in the city (and more widely online) Beyond the New calls, in short, for an end to the feast; a cessation of the ceaseless production of new objects for newness’s (or brute economics’) sake. The full manifesto may be read here. It seemed that wherever Disegno’s editorial team went, there was comment on, or reference to it.

The Beyond the New graphic by Jongeriuslab (Linn Palm Hansen)

The message delivered by Jongerius and Schouwenberg was not necessarily new (which is perhaps fitting) – it advocated the kind of historically aware, culturally engaged and highly researched species of industrial design that has long been discussed by many practitioners and academics – but the context in which it was presented, as well as the clarity with which the message was delivered, was. Jongerius and Schouwenberg did not write their manifesto for theorists. Beyond the New was officially aimed at designers and students of design, but its most pertinent audience seemed to be an industry that continues to pursue growth at all costs. 

In short, Beyond the New was a manifesto for the Salone; a manifesto for a trade fair that spreads over 20 sprawling exhibition halls, each stuffed to the gills with brands pushing myriad new products for 2015. The basic questions set out by Beyond the New were simple. How many of these products are relevant and necessary? How many will be phased out by the new raft of launches at the 2016 edition of iSaloni? For Disegno, Beyond the New became a lens through which everything could be viewed in Milan this year. Shouldn’t we ask for more from our design industry than the brute proliferation of the new?

SOMETHING OLD

It’s telling that while a manifesto lambasting the new circulated the city, there were an unusually large number of exhibitions preoccupied with the past at this year’s fair. Molteni&C celebrated 80 years with a retrospective designed by Jasper Morrison at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna, giving a rare glimpse into the company’s archive of never-put-into-production prototypes by the likes of designers Yasuhiko Itoh and Gio Ponti from the 1950s. Meanwhile, American producer Knoll asked Dutch architects OMA to design and curate a show on Harry Bertoia for its showroom, celebrating 100 years since his birth. The exhibition focused on Bertoia's sculptures and artwork, rather than the famous Bertoia chair that Knoll introduced in 1952 (of which a plastic version was launched at the fair to mixed reviews).

Jean Prouvé’s prefab La Maison des Jours Meilleurs house, on display at the Triennale

At the Palazzo Mezzanotte, the Museo del Design opened with an exhibition of design pieces dating from 1880-1980 and at the Triennale the exhibition Arts & Foods, curated by Italian art historian and critic Germano Celant and with exhibition design by Studio Italo Rota, provided ample inspiration through a display containing, among other things, Jean Prouvé’s prefab La Maison des Jours Meilleurs house from 1956 and an exquisite storage unit by Italian sculptor Pietro Consagra from 1956, next to thousands of other objects ranging from cutlery to paintings. Signage was minimal and as a result the exhibition frequently baffling, but the sheer richness of the display meant that the show rewarded those with the patience to decipher it.

Within more contemporary design, the same reflection on the past existed. Take, for example, Max Lamb’s exhibition Exercises in Seating in the new 5vie design district, just off the Duomo square. Set in a disused garage, Lamb positioned ten years worth of experimental seating production in a large circle, creating a dialogue between his varied chairs in material ranging from pewter to wool felt and marmoreal (a collection Lamb presented in Milan last year for Dzek. Very little of Lamb’s work is for industry and he is often personally involved in the manufacture of his pieces. This brought personality to the display, highlighting the value of play and experimentation in any design process, whether industrial or not.

Max Lamb’s exhibition Exercises in Seating in the new 5vie design district

Meanwhile, SCP celebrated its first 30 years in business with an exhibition designed by Michael Marriott titled The Arrangement of Furniture in a Room. The space looked like a bric-a-brac shop, with each of the pieces on display propped up on second-hand furniture sourced from London's car boot sales and flea markets. It was an ingenious aesthetic, causing some visitors to turn back when coming through the door, thinking they had come to the wrong place. Marriott’s design was a fitting and ironic celebration of a brand that has supported newcomers since its 1985 start, when founder Sheridan Coakley first put the works of Jasper Morrison into production, then a recent graduate from the Royal College of Art.

To look to the past, to evaluate what has come before and to be given the possibility of juxtaposing history so closely to a commercial fair dedicated to the new, was a strength at this years’ Salone. How can you produce something truly new, without knowledge of the past (even if, in Lamb’s case, it was knowledge of your own past)?

SHIT AND ASH

Three exhibitions took the idea of reuse in surprising directions. The provocatively titled Shit Show at Pomo Galerie in association with Pin-Up magazine displayed the work of architect Luca Cipelletti in collaboration with the Museo della Merda in Castelbosco. Cow manure had been processed into a odourless and sustainable building material that covered the gallery-walls. Somewhat more outlandish was the Eat Shit exhibition staged by Design Academy Eindhoven’s new Food Non Food BA course. It showed a small collection of works in progress by second year students that focused around faeces. It was fitting that a course that aims to put food and eating into context (be it industrial, political, ecological, economic), should deal with a topic that might be seen as “anti-food”. If you’re looking at food and the rituals of eating within your practice, then you should also consider its consequences (in all senses). You can’t have food without shit.

Shit Show by Luca Cipelletti in collaboration with the Museo della Merda at Pomo Galerie

Looking at this end result of consumption was also the subject matter of Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma’s book Bottom Ash Observatory, presented at Galleria Rosanna Orlandi. Like her previous book PIG 05049 (now in its fourth imprint, having sold more than 11,000 copies) it takes the reader on a journey of possibilities whereby a bucket filled with 25kg of bottom ash – the residue of 100kg of incinerated household and industrial waste – in fact contains valuable metals such as zinc, aluminium and silver. It could have been a dry proposition, but through microscopic lens photography by Mathijs Labadie this seemingly worthless material was turned into beautiful landscapes. If mined correctly, bottom ash could have significant value.

These ideas around sustainability jar against much of the rest of the fair, where sustainable production methods and the use of ecologically sound materials aren’t as widely adopted as they could or should be. But the very existence of these agents provocateurs were a welcome respite during a week in which, at the same time, Tokyo-based design studio Nendo managed to present more than 200 new products, all conceived in the last year, for an exhibition titled Nendo Works 2014-2015 at Museo della Permanente.

An installation view of Nendo Works 2014-2015 at Museo della Permanente

THE SPECTACLE 

In 1967 Guy Debord published The Society of the Spectacle, in which he critiqued modern consumer society and the life it produces as “mere representation”, rather than life authentically lived. The text came to mind during a week when fragmented conversations and a never-ending schedule of events, impossible to physically manage, led to a feeling of overload and anticlimax.

This year there was a resounding (and somewhat indulgent) emphasis upon Debord’s representative experience. Although not always presenting new products, many brands demonstrated a desire to create new ways of experiencing existing products.

Movements, an eight-piece, interactive swing set designed by Phillippe Malouin for Caeserstone, placed a distinct emphasis on how visitors interacted with the exhibit. Set inside the historic Palazzo Serbelloni, a neoclassical palace in central Milan. The swings, although accomplished in both design and form, provided visitors with a fun, novel, but ultimately fleeting experience. As a result the swings featured on Instagram feeds throughout the week. 

The Movements swing set by Phillippe Malouin for Caeserstone reflected the spectacle of Milan

Similarly, Housewarming, a collaboration between online home rental company Airbnb and design research centre Fabrica, explored varying concepts of welcoming guests into a home through the works of 19 Fabrica students. Hosted within the grandeur of Palazzo Crespi, a residence built between 1795 and 1805 (which is also home to two paintings by renowned Italian painter Canaletto), it was the location itself that proved the main draw of the exhibition with the design projects on display proving charming, but too lightweight to make any lasting impact.

Jaime Hayon’s Urban Perspectives was an installation for Mini’s Citysurfer, an electric scooter concept designed to represent a potential future for urban mobility. The imagined cityscape Hayon designed was delirious, charming and memorable – Carrera marble roads, copper peapod lights, monkeyish crash helmets – but finding any serious commentary on the design of future transport infrastructure within its unrelenting whimsy would have been a fool’s errand.

Jaime Hayon's Urban Perspectives installation for Mini

What links all of these projects is the attached heavyweight commercial branding. Airbnb, BMW and Caesearstone are all internationally recognised brands and perhaps that is the point. For a brand, creating a memorable and exciting experience that is discussed throughout and beyond Salone is the point; the designs themselves are secondary and increasingly bordering on peripheral. Yet if the message becomes too empty – without emphasising anything other than entertainment – these brands stand to lose as much as they attempt to gain. Airbnb, BMW and Caesearstone all have genuinely interesting innovations and ideas behind them; they should be careful not to make light of what they stand for.

BEST IN SHOW

It is however impossible to consider a fair like the Salone del Mobile in Milan without talking about the new, and it would be naive to attempt to understand the furniture industry without attending the fair grounds in Rho. So what did a visit to the Studio Fuksas-designed fair bring? At best, clarity; at worst, confusion.

The way that the stands are designed and how the products are displayed are crucial for a visitor’s experience of the fair. And this year it was the stands that raised the furniture and lighting from mere product to something more akin to art that seemed to work best. This was best demonstrated by the Ron Gilad-designed stand for Flos. Conceived as a white cube – complete with a gallery-type A4 print-out of the works on display – the exhibition cleverly created a sense of preciousness around the objects on display, all the while communicating each light clearly and effectively. 

A render of the Flos stand at Euroluce designed by Ron Gilad and adopting a white-cube aesthetic

For brands such as Arper, Magis and Emeco, where clarity of communication seemed to have been a watchword (Emeco in particular should be applauded for its highly effective presentation of just one product – Jasper Morrison’s Alfi chair), others seemed to fall into the trap that Jongerius and Schouwenberg warned about: choosing to present a cornucopia of the new with little care for overall legibility.

Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec’s Belleville chair collection became lost in the shuffle of Vitra’s Ikea-warehouse-like stand, while OMA and Petra Blaisse’s stand for Knoll, which was surrounded and demarcated by a shimmering cocooning curtain in black PVC, was striking and immersive, yet overwhelmed the products within. Although it would be a daunting (not to say nightmarish) experience to walk through a trade fair the size of Roh without different expressions from each brand, the idea of structure and rigorous display (rather than homely room-sets) is of benefit to both the brands and the design displayed within.

Martino Gamper's bent wood St Mark chair for Moroso

Within this banquet of the new it was (strangely) the timeless and somewhat old that made the strongest impressions. Konstantin Grcic’s Clerici bench for Mattiazzi, executed in red-stained ash, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec’s Officina chair and stool in wrought iron for Magis, Martino Gamper’s Thonet-like bent wood St Mark chair for Moroso, and David Chipperfields’s solid oak benches and table for E15 were all pieces stripped of aesthetic flourishes, but with a solidity and sense of simplicity that suggest they will age with grace. It was an iSaloni where robust construction and thought for a product’s afterlife stood out among the gimmicky and throw-away.

More dramatic innovation seemed to come from the biannual Euroluce lighting show, which was most interesting as a gauge on the progression of an industry marked by rapid technological development. Following the gradual phasing out of the incandescent light bulb (as discussed in Disegno No.5), more flexible LED technology has opened up an increased range of forms in lighting design that free lamps from the strictures of bulb-based systems.

Bocci's 16 lighting collection playing with modularity

Two such possibilities were readily apparent at Euroluce. Bocci toyed with modularity with its 16 collection, a system built around an armature that the brand displayed at the fair in the form of a sprawling tree, the lights dangling down like glowing fruits. Elsewhere, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec exploited modularity in more rational fashion with their Luce Verticale for Flos, a vertical chain of LED modules suspended on cables and encased in blown glass, inspired by their chandelier for Versailles.

If Bocci and the Bouroullecs worked with modularity, Jasper Morrison (again for Flos) examined flatness in his Superloon, a ring of LEDs that distribute light from the edge of a flat composite disc of translucent white material. This disc is then mounted onto a gyroscopic axis that allows the light to be directed. The effect was to create a thin, glowing disc – freed from the bulkiness of the lightbulb – that was simultaneously theatrical and ethereal; a product deeply informed by the technological advances in the lighting industry, while drawing on the design language of the famous Fortuny light. Similar plays with flatness were exhibited by Stockholm-based designer Mars in Salone Satellite and Tham & Videgård’s Eagle pendant for Ateljé Lyktan (displayed in Brera in the city-centre, rather than at Euroluce), a flat base LED unit set in an aluminium frame. 

Inga Sempé’s Cappuccina collection for Luceplan played with old lamp archetypes

Yet traditional lighting forms were not totally redundant. French designer Inga Sempé’s Cappuccina collection for Luceplan, although based upon a LED module, evoked a familiar form with its circular base and globular light source atop which a lampshade is balanced and tipped to adjust the direction of light. While the lamp was technically advanced, it was nevertheless tactile and nostalgic; a traditional lamp that invites users to perform something as manual and lo-fi as knocking its shade askew in order to control its function.

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

While Flos set the standard for stand design at the fair, it also provided the most dispiriting moment of the week, choosing to undermine its entire enterprise by screening a promotional film so sexist and objectifying as to beggar belief.

The film was created to promote Philippe Starck’s Ether series of customisable lamps and featured a split screen. On one side a butler assembles Starck’s lamp, fitting different shades and polishing the metal; on the other, the butler performs the same actions while dressing a naked woman in different garments. She stares passively into camera throughout.

The film’s extreme perniciousness goes without saying. That a producer as established and respected as Flos should need reminding that women are not objects is staggering; its decision to use promotional material that blatantly says that women are objects in order to sell product both inexplicable and misogynistic.

Philippe Starck's Ether lamp for Flos inspired one of the fair's most controversial moments

The film was not just depressing; it was a startling indictment of the ongoing issues surrounding women’s place in the design industry. There seemed to be widespread unease with the film among visitors to the stand, although several journalists stated that they felt it didn’t impact upon the strength of Flos’s offering. It is a viewpoint that seems spectacularly wrongheaded.

Jongerius and Schouwenberg’s manifesto argues that "Design is flourishing. But the field has not benefited” and this seems a pertinent viewpoint. The design industry has, over the years consistently turned out a selection of strong products. Its problem is not an inability to create a handful of innovative products each year, but rather the more deep-seated structural issues that affect areas of it: the unjust royalty system; the proliferation of the new; unsustainable production methods, to name just a few.

The industry needs to look beyond simple profit and to try and discover a system of working that is not only economically viable, but which is able to achieve the “layering of cultural and historical meanings and values” that Schouwenberg and Jongerius argue for. That a major producer would opt to use female nudity and objectification as a sales pitch suggests that this adoption of values beyond economic profit may be some way off yet.