Milan Roundup


25 April 2014

Interpretation is a valuable thing.

Milan's Salone del Mobile is a case in point. It is the industry's most important annual event, leading to a proliferation of product launches, installations and exhibitions, and this is reflected in the associated media. Post-Milan there are reports on products, reviews of shows, photo galleries and films that attempt to capture something of the atmosphere and excitement of the week.

Coverage by the media of these events is rich and varied, and, at one point or another, most of the projects presented in Milan get their time in the spotlight. Yet what is often lacking in such coverage is an attempt to summarise what all of these reports might mean. Milan would be nothing without its constituent parts, but that fact should not prompt a focus on those parts alone – there should also be effort to understand the event in a broader sense. What were the festival's prevailing themes? How did its launches interrelate? What is needed is interpretation.

What follows below is an attempt to provide such an interpretation. Disegno's editorial staff have selected six themes or points of interest that we believe were prominent at this year's Salone. The list is subjective and we do not pretend that the areas we have highlighted present an exhaustive account of the festival – far from it. Instead they are presented to provoke reflection and debate; they are one interpretation of many.

Barber Osgerby's Mariposa sofa and Planophore shelves, both for Vitra

Despite recent years’ criticism of the prevalence of “PR products” at trade fairs – furniture and objects presented with the principal objective of generating media attention – there was still a sense of visual overload on many of the stands at the Fiera in Rho. 

Moroso’s stand was physically difficult to move around for all of its product displays and Kartell’s was visually overbearing, with everything covered in gold. Disegno overheard several discussions about how the downwards spiral of the economy is finally abating, with Cosmit’s director (and Kartell CEO) Claudio Luti claiming that “even if the Italian government is in a crisis, that doesn’t mean anything for the fair; the fair is a success and the recession has just led to more innovation.” "More" being the operative word it seems.

Vitra, normally quite conservative with new product and furniture launches, presented as many as 20 new pieces and re-editions, the most surprising being a collection of four designs by Barber Osgerby. The collection didn’t just represent a departure in Vitra’s approach – where development tends to take years for one product alone, Barber Osgerby’s TipTon chair being a good example of this – but also its aesthetic. Although Vitra holds the rights to produce designs by the Eames, George Nelson and Alexander Girard (and this year the aluminium Landi Chair from 1939 by Hans Coray joined the stable) its new furniture tends to break sharply with this mid-century feel. Yet the Barber Osgerby collection was relatively conservative in its look, recalling both Charlotte Perriand in the case of the Planophore bookcase and room divider, and 1950s Americana with its Zeb bar stools. Most surprising was the launch of the studio’s Mariposa sofa, which is strangely similar to Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec’s Alcove, for the same company.

Across town in the newly opened Piazza Gae Aulenti – an open-air shopping mall north of the city centre, in the heart of American-Argentinian architect César Pelli’s eyesore of a master plan of the Garibaldi area – new brand TOG was launched with more than 21 collection “families”. Each design will be customisable with the help of an app. "We have 15-20 custom options, in six months it will be 500, and 5000 next year," explained Starck.

With designs by Industrial Facility, Sebastian Bergne, Ambroise Maggiar, Jonathan Bui Quang Da, Dai Sugasawa, Nicola Rapetti and Philippe Starck, Tog was a vast, sprawling launch and in this sense seemed typical of the fair as a whole, where the principle of less is more was roundly ignored. Whether offering such a cornucopia of new design is a positive is questionable however. Dutch brand Moooi is traditionally one of the fair’s most prolific manufacturers, yet even its CEO Casper Vissers has previously acknowledged the dangers of overload: "If you make too many new designs, people think it's too much like fashion and can't take it in.”

Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec's Officina tables for Magis

Design's top table
It is a criticism often laid at the feet of architecture that it is dominated by a handful of big names; starchitects whose cachet and clout is sufficient to position them above all others, at least in terms of media and public attention. Yet if there are starchitects, there are star designers also.

For the past few years, Milan has been relatively successful at hiding this fact, with the festival encouraging lesser-known studios to come into the light. Last year saw Cypriot Michael Anastassiades rise to prominence thanks to his String Lights for Flos, while the year previously it was Scholten & Baijings turn to "arrive", presenting its Colour Wood Tables for Karimoku New Standard and Colour Porcelain for 1616 / Arita Japan.

This year felt different – those designers who were most visible were precisely those already acknowledged as stars: Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, Konstantin Grcic, Philippe Starck, Jasper Morrison and Hella Jongerius prominent among their ranks. Starck's involvement with Tog drew heavy media attention, while Morrison launched works for Maruni, Kettal and Vitra.

The Bouroullecs and Grcic presented particularly compelling case studies. The Bouroullecs showed works for Magis, Kvadrat and Glas Italia, yet it was the launch of their Uncino collection for Mattiazzi that was most comment-worthy. For the past several years Mattiazzi has used the Salone as an opportunity to launch a new chair from a fresh collaborator, and it seemed that this year the honour had fallen to the relative unknown Leon Ransmeier – a bold and exciting choice. With this in mind, the company’s decision to also launch a chair with the Bouroullecs – who have collaborated with Mattiazzi previously – was striking. The presence at the fair of the Uncino chair, an elegant wood and metal task chair on a swivel base, overshadowed (at least in column inches) Ransmeier’s Chiaro.

Grcic meanwhile was omnipresent, with works presented for Artek, Magis, Flötotto, Plank and Laufen Bathrooms. It was a feeling of ubiquity compounded by the fact that Grcic is currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Vitra Design Museum, the subject of Galerie Kreo’s current exhibition and, recently announced, the winner of the furniture category in the Design Museum’s Designs of the Year show.

There is, of course, nothing surprising about the successes of such designers; their work is consistently strong and worthy of the praise and attention that it receives. Yet it is nonetheless worthwhile noting the rarefied position that they hold in the industry. Design is little different from architecture in this respect – it has a top table that is every bit as striking and pronounced. If Milan in recent years has succeeded at obscuring this fact, this year the mask slipped.

Hella Jongerius' reimagining of Alvar Aalto's Armchair 401 for Artek

Hella Jongerius
While Dutch designer Hella Jongerius is undoubtedly a member of design’s top table, she has kept a lower profile than many of her peers. This year however she came to the fore, seemingly stepping out of the shadows to become one of the most powerful names in contemporary design. Since 2012 Jongerius has been the art director for colours and surfaces of the Vitra collection; she does continuous work for Dutch airline KLM; and she was recently tasked with overseeing the redesign of the North Delegate’s Lounge at the UN headquarters in New York, a space that re-opened at the end of last year. 

In time for this year’s Salone it was revealed that Jongerius has also taken on the art direction of Artek, following Vitra’s acquisition of the brand last autumn. In her first collaboration with Artek, she interpreted Alvar Aalto’s Armchairs 400 and 401, as well as Stool 60, in new upholstery fabrics and wood finishes. Considering the fast turn-around of this project, time will tell where this art direction will take the brand and Jongerius’ own design. 

Rug manufacturer Danskina, owned by Maharam and Kvadrat, also appointed Jongerius as art director last year and at this year’s furniture fair the first collection under Jongerius’ direction was unveiled, showcasing her unquestionable talent and sensitivity towards colour and material.

It is interesting to see one designer rise to such a powerful position with so many of the industry’s leading and taste-setting brands simultaneously; brands that most designers would, at some point of their career, aspire to work with. If this year’s displays in Milan can be seen as the foundations for what is to come, then we will have to wait some years to see the real results of these appointments.

Cos and Nendo's collaborative installation

Design and Fashion
Salone del Mobile or Milan furniture fair – the clue is in the name. Historically, Milan has been devoted to industrial and furniture design and this remains the most important element of proceedings. Yet this year’s Salone was striking as a case study of the degree to which the industry now engages with other areas of design, central among which is fashion.

Marc Newson showed glasses for Safilo, Nendo produced an installation for clothing brand Cos and boat shoes for Tod’s, while design brand Discipline branched into fashion accessories with Pauline Deltour’s Superbag. It makes for a compelling range of collaborations and, looking further back, other examples can easily be found: Sam Hecht has designed a shirt for Margaret Howell, Tom Dixon a capsule collection for Adidas, Konstantin Grcic a cape for Brioni, and, more recently, architect Richard Beckett a jumper for Pringle.

Fashion’s interest in design seems to be at a highpoint and there are obvious reasons for this. Association with designers acts as a kind of validation for many fashion houses, dragging them away from notions of trend and style, and towards the sort of thoroughgoing design credentials that are highly sought after. If fashion is too often seen as flighty and superficial, connections to other areas of design provide an opportunity to remind consumers of the craft that goes into garment creation.

In support of this it should be noted that the reverse form of collaboration – the creation of furniture by a fashion designer – is comparatively rare. Even examples of such collaborations that readily spring to mind – Raf Simons' work with Kvadrat or Paul Smith’s upholstery of Hans Wegner chairs for Carl Hansen – are predominantly textile based. While fashion houses are keen to work with industrial designers, design companies, at present, do not seem as willing to turn to fashion designers.

Luca Nichetto's Scandinative Workspace installation for Kinnarps

Immersive Environments
The sound of trade fairs tends to be the muffled chatter of people, the whirring of espresso machines and the gentle thudding of moving furniture. This year it was different. Many of the displays at the Fiera had their own soundtrack, often of something soothing such as birdsong (at Cassina), rain showers and thunder storms (at Dedon) and the sound of children playing in the slightly questionably named Cap Town display – inspired by shanty towns – at Cappellini. Although writing about these soundtracks sounds cheesy, they had an interestingly calming effect, most probably encouraging you to linger a little longer and look at little deeper.

The soundtracks of fashion shows are long-established tone-setters for a season’s collection and perhaps this theme will be expanded on in furniture displays in coming years. Another theme borrowed from fashion shows is an increasing focus on temporary installations. Although a fashion show famously lasts only for 15 minutes, the set designs for them have become vast and complex (as observed in Disegno No.6). This year it seems that design brands were also in on the game.

In past years Established&Sons created impressive displays at La Pelota on Via Palermo in Brera, which were jaw-dropping in their scale and use of material. This year the venue was used by a Swedish trade initiative, where office furniture manufacturer Kinnarps created its pièce de résistance – a  beautiful, multi-storey construction designed by Luca Nichetto titled Scandinative Workspace. It displayed Kinnarps furniture in something akin to pop-up architecture, with walls and multiple floors cleverly laid-out to create visual interest. Nichetto, who completed a showroom for Italian design brands in Beijing last autumn, following a house-size installation at IMM Cologne in January 2013, is honing his architectural skills to great effect. At Hay, Stefan Diez’s New Order stackable bookshelves ingeniously showed their function to the point of absurdity, with the shelves stacked to run the entire height of the two-story space that the brand showed in. 

Immersive environments played a key role at this year’s Milan. They were sites to display new collections in, as in the case of Dedon, where the Tord Boontje-like paper-cut-out environment of which tied the collection together, or Dzek's Marmoreal installation by Max Lamb, where the material installation was also the end product. But installations are also an opportunity for designers to broaden their output beyond industrial manufacture, with installation design having become another source of income for design studios in recent years. A studio such as Raw-Edges has previously developed installations for Kvadrat, and in Milan this year it worked extensively with Ceasarstone to create Islands, an installation exploring the brand’s engineered quartz at Palazzo Clerici. Nendo is another case in point. Last year, it created Stonegarden for Ceasarstone and it also gets regular commissions by brands such as Bisazza and Lexus. Its display for COS – using the fashion brand’s shirts suspended from cube-structures – took up a vast space in Brera, showing that the installation, rather than any product, was an end in itself. While the reimbursement for furniture and product design comes slowly as a result of the royalties system, installations provide a more immediate source of revenue.

Questions around sustainability, and the lifespan and novelty of these installations beyond Milan, should probably be addressed. Brands like Prada and Chanel store all of their show designs and archive them for future use. Whether similar initiatives are being taken by furniture brands is uncertain.

Claesson Koivisto Rune's Bloom wallpaper for Engblad & Co.

It has been commented on elsewhere that this year’s Salone marked a return to prominence for the ideals of the 1980s Memphis group. Yet such a viewpoint feels an uneasy assessment of the situation; a shorthand that doesn't quite fit.

What was present in Milan was an emphasis on surface. Wallpaper and rug collections were presented in abundance, while highly patterned surface materials were presented by Dzek and Terrazzo Project. Decoration was abundant and so it is easy to see why Memphis was referenced – vibrant colour and patterning were certainly hallmarks of the movement. Furthermore, new presentations by two of Memphis' founding members, Nathalie Du Pasquier and George Sowden were always bound to encourage discussion of the group.

Yet it is a mistake to view Memphis as synonymous with patterning or colour. The Memphis collective was essentially postmodernist in its outlook; as much defined by an opposition to the perceived sterility of modernism and a devotion to freedom of expression, as it was to any distinctive aesthetic character of its own. Colour and patterning were one facet of the movement, but so too were contrary forms and functions; Masanori Umeda Tawaraya boxing ring/conversation pit was as much a defining creation of the movement as were Du Pasquier’s elaborately patterned textiles. Memphis ran deeper than surface.

What seems to be happening in the industry is not therefore a direct return to Memphis, a movement that is inextricably linked to the time in which it developed. Instead, the current investigation of surface and decoration seems to be leading somewhere new. Studios such as Claesson Koivisto Rune, Doshi Levien and Raw Edges – all of which launched wallpaper or rug collections – would not identify as postmodernist. What has prompted their exploration of surface remains to be seen.