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Encomium of the surface
by Max Borka | 5/29/2007

If the last edition of the Salone del Mobile in Milano proved anything, it might well be the fact that the luxury industry, after buying the major players of what always was in essence a family business, is now remoulding the design world to its corporate laws. A total transformation is the result, with the anonymous replacing the personal, and a celebration of the surface any search of depth. Anno 2007 design has become little more than decoration, be it full of glitter and glamour, while the only novelties are to be found in a new category that reflects the haute-couture in fashion: limited editons and one-offs, aiming at museums and collectors.

More than ever the countless hotels in Milan had been fully booked, and the massive growth of Asian visitors was more than apparent in the city centre that served as a platform for hundreds of side-events. One of the great novelties were the first Arabian veils, while Japanese exhibitors had invaded the Superstudio Più in the Zona Tortona. What was shown in this enormous industrial complex and the neighbouring warehouses, next to a giant and quite symbolic maquette of Tokyo, had little to do with the edgy and trashy atmosphere of recent years that had turned it into the spot one first travelled to after visiting the fair. Visitors of the 2007 edition were only confronted with very luxurious stands, or just another fair next to the fair.

When last year the actual fiera moved from the old fair complex in the city centre to a new location in faraway Rho, neighbouring Malpensa airport, and an astounding new 'Chrystal Palace' designed by Massimiliano Fuksas, it had been predicted that this separation of the fair and of the myriad of events in the city could be disastrous for both. This proved to be wrong. The Milano Design Week, which had already been the world's leading furniture and design event, this year displayed a power that seemed to lift the event to a totally new dimension, full of glitter and glamour and splendour and pomp, and ruled by a language in which the blow-up seemed to be the main style element. Decadence was the word that kept returning in the comments. One could not undo himself from the impression that Italy had decided to install its Roman Empire again.

The man responsible for all this is Marquis Luca Cordero Montezemolo, chairman of Fiat, president of Ferrari, the Italian business lobby Cofindustria and the Italian Federation of newspaper publishers FIEG, former president of Maserati, vice-president of football club Bologna, and despite of the fact that he is relatively unknown, to many the most powerful man of Italy. Together with some partners he had founded the Charme Group in 2002, as an investment channel for the luxury industry, and up till now most of these investment lead to a field that had remained relatively unexplored, the furniture industry. After buying part of Poltrona Frau, the more classic oriented world leader in leather upholstery, in furniture and cars, Charme acquired the company that more than any other stood as a symbol for experiment in furniture design, and that had turned the Studio Più into the place to be with its solo-presentations: Cappellini. Finally, in june 2005, the group also bought 80 % of Cassina, thereby also becoming the owner of Thonet Vienna, Gufram, and Alias. Because of these carefully calculated strategic moves, Charme did not only become into the world leader in high-end furniture in a nick of time, but also in most of its different categories, going from classic design (Poltrona Frau), over modern (Cassina) up to the avantgarde (Cappellini), and from the consumers to the project and contract market.

Other leading furniture companies have in the meantime become part of the portfolio of a luxury concern, such as B&B and the leading Dutch brand Moooi, ran by Bulgari, and it is an open question how long it will take before the few remaining top brands, such as Edra and Molteni, will follow. Up till recently, the world of design furniture was a typical family business, with a large majority of small and middle sized companies, but the globalisation of the market, and the rapid shift of its epicentre to Moscou, Asia and Arabia makes competition so hard that often only fresh capital can provide a chance to go with the flow.

Luca Montezemolo kept his promise that the companies acquired by Charme would continue to exist, each with its own identity, thus also garantueeing diversity. But that didn't keep him from thoroughly restructuring the companies internally, one of the most visible effects being the fact that old agents, who in the past often were considered to be family friends before anything else, were fired in great numbers on the eve of the fair, only to be replaced by the typical marketeer, while during the fair number of other elements made it all too clear that the corporate mentality of the luxury industry has definitely replaced the convivial and often passionate family atmosphere. It could also be read from the general trend in the sea of objects that were on offer, the greatest novelty being the introduction of the haute-couture collection in fashion, expressed in one-offs and limited series. This trend reached its absolute peak in the 'Personal editions' exhibition of Marcel Wanders in de Spazio ex Ansaldo, with no less than 300 one-offs and limited series of the Dutch star designer united in a gigantic and museumlike display, ful of pomp and circumstance. Its glitter and glamour was only surpassed by Swarowskt's 'Chrystal Palace' in the Via Savona, for which 19 leading designers and architects each designed a unique chandeleer of monumental proportion, and the equally gigantic Pinocchio in black, white and golden mosaics, designed by Jaime Hayon for Bisazza, on show at the Superstudio Più; together with some extremely oversized dishes and cans by the Belgian duo Job Smeets and Nynke Tynaegel from Studio Job. The minimum prize of the Dreamsaver of that other Belgian, Arne Quinze, which was at the centre of the Swarowski exhibition: 1 million Euro. The craving for glitter and glamour, in combination with a stylish black and white, and expressed in shiny metals and mirroring surfaces, also set the tone in a great number of the more regular collections, the overall effect being that of a celebration of the surface and the superficial, without any sense of depth. It is far from hazard that the most popular designer of the moment is Patricia Urquiola, while the most conspicuous presentation at the Superstudio Più was that of Paola Lenti, Both do not so much excel in new typologies or techniques, but in their treatment of the surface, and use of textiles. Design has become decoration, or fashion translated into furniture.