“I’ve taken the idea of an intelligent piece of furniture to every major furniture manufacturer in the world. All of them say, ‘Tell us when we have to do it.’ They don’t say, ‘Gee, that’s exciting and could put us ahead of our competitors.’ They say, ‘Tell us when we have to do it and please don’t come back soon.’”
The prompt for Lynn’s anecdote was the piece of furniture that he had created for Nike: a microclimate chair made from carbon fibre that maps the weight and temperature of athletes, selectively heating or cooling thermoelectric elements to adjust the user's temperature in response to the readings it takes. It’s a chair conceived as an installation, a performance monitoring command centre for athletes, an intelligent piece of furniture par excellence. “I think people expect more from stuff than they did 20 years ago,” said Lynn.
Lynn’s chair was shown as part of The Nature of Motion, an exhibition of installations created around the idea of natural motion. Hosted at a former industrial space on Via Orobia, close to the city’s new Fondazione Prada, The Nature of Motion offered all you might expect from a brand-led exhibition. It was glitzy, highly produced and emphatically on-brand, the vast warehouse space carved up into tunnels and exhibition spaces demarcated by walls made from white Nike shoeboxes. It also featured contributions from an array of big-name talents: alongside Lynn, it featured new work from Max Lamb, Sebastian Wrong, Martino Gamper and Lindsey Adelman. The Nature of Motion was the biggest and, in all likelihood, most expensive installation of the Salone. So what does it say about a design week traditionally devoted to furniture when a sportswear brand is responsible for delivering one of its tentpole exhibitions?
In part, Nike's engagement with Milan is simply part of a wider phenomenon of brand participation in the Salone. Also exhibiting at this year’s festival were Mini, BMW, Microsoft and Lexus, while the gossip-column centrepiece of the 2015 show was a private dinner hosted by Apple. Non-traditional design brands are becoming interested in pushing their design credentials and in so doing produce installations on a scale with which they are familiar. Meanwhile, furniture brands lack the funding needed to compete with the economic might of the conglomerates. Yet what was compelling about The Nature of Motion was that it offered more than the standard branded fare on offer elsewhere in the city; The Nature of Motion provided a surprising amount of design content.
Wrong provided communal seating upholstered in a Flyknit reproduction of Umberto Boccioni’s 1913 futurist painting Dynamism of a Soccer Player, while Gamper used the same textile technology to create patterned skins for a drumkit. Elsewhere, Clara von Zweigbergk and Shane Schneck devised compellingly conceptual seating that played with balance and posture, presenting new typologies for sitting; and Max Lamb converted blocks of aluminium and marble into pseudo-hovercraft, floating them around the space on hidden cushions of air. Meanwhile, Dutch designer Bertjan Pot took the project as an opportunity for meditation on the Salone, the appeal of nets, and the design archive of MoMA in New York, creating a series of seats produced out of tyre inner tubes around which he had woven nets made from straps and laces. Stretched over the tyres’ holes, the weavings became upholstery: taut nets on which to sit.
“The first idea I had was to make a place to rest in Milan, especially at Nike which is a brand that normally makes you tired, whereas now all the furniture companies make you tired because you have to walk through the whole city to see their showrooms,” said Pot. “Then I found a picture of a chair by William H. Miller, which is in MoMA’s collection. I don’t think it ever made production, but it’s an inflatable tube with a net draped over it and then four legs. I thought it was so nice and I wanted to work with that.”
They’re refreshingly off-piste reference for what might easily have descended into a Nike love-in: a sea of installations offering little more than Flyknit, Lunarlon and swooshes. By contrast, many of the designers involved in The Nature of Motion seem to have been liberated by the experience, not least the New York-based lighting designer Lindsey Adelman. Much of Adelman’s lighting is made-to-order, executed in blown glass and semi-precious metals, whereas the chandelier she created for Nike is more industrial. A series of sockets and bare bulbs variously joined by metal rods and chains, the lights are set shivering and jiggling in imitation of the movement of plants by a concealed electric motor.
“Most of my work is catered towards a client and a space that I get very specific with a set space, whereas this isn’t about that, at all” said Adelman. “I chose materials that are a little bit more modest, whereas the work I usually do is rolled in gold and hand-blown glass. This project reminded me a lot of design school, where you’re cutting shapes out by hand, stitching them together and working through a concept that could be quite sophisticated, but using low-tech methods.”
What is surprising is that this atmosphere should have been inculcated on a project for a brand on the scale of Nike. The degree to which marketing speak may be at play is debatable, but certainly the same art school spirit that Adelman speaks about having been a hallmark of the project was also visible in Nike’s own contribution to the exhibition: a series of rooms devoted to experimental shoe soles. Nike’s design staff mounted shoe uppers on hair rollers, pedicure toe separators, artificial cat whiskers, kitchen mops and cobblestones, all experimenting with different types of cushioning for the foot in motion. According to Andy Caine, Nike’s vice president of footwear design, the DIY nature of the objects on display is not dissimilar to the brand’s conventional product development process.
“It is kind of what we normally do, although we’re usually working on things you have to prove and test,” said Caine. “Here it’s more experimental, which opens up the aperture to do things very, very differently. The design process we run is to start with a sharp point of what we’re trying to achieve and then really go wide and explore early. So we talk about failing fast: experiment and try things to prove they’re right or wrong, and you do that very quickly. Once you’ve got a solution you start to refine and iterate. In the high-tech industry they call it breadboarding. So we breadboard shoes.”
How should this be related to the wider Salone and what does it mean when the baton of aspiring to experimental design is picked up by a corporation? One interpretation would be to look at the nature of what is displayed in Milan and how that connects to design at large. The fair, at its heart, is a commercial showcase for furniture design, but it has been some time since furniture was in the vanguard of contemporary design discourse. The days in which thousands queued to see the Memphis launch in 1981 seem long gone.
As tech fairs such as Las Vegas’s Consumer Electronics Show and South By Southwest in Texas rise in importance within the design world, so too will Milan’s Salone face growing questions about its role in that world. What might Milan become and how will it reshape itself to maintain relevancy in a world ever more infatuated with smart technologies and work at the digital interface? It is scarcely surprising that it should be tech companies – or those which have the capital required to engage with technology – who seem better placed to manage the transition than others. It is the conglomerates who have the resources on offer (and increasingly the inclination) to give designers the space and scope to play.
On this point, Lynn should perhaps have the last word. “I don’t think the furniture industry has changed, whereas companies like Google and Nike are now interested in buildings and environments,” he says. “So there’s a new kind of pressure coming to that world which means the existing brands are going to have to move forward. Raise intelligent furniture with Nike and they immediately say, ‘Why haven’t we done this?’ That’s really a sign of the way things are going to have to go. You know, I’m here with Nike; I’m not here with a furniture company. That's telling, but things are going to change because they have to. I feel like I could go back to the furniture manufacturers now and say, ‘OK, now’s the time we have to do it.’”