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Milan, before the ash arrived – Part 1
von Thomas Wagner | 4/20/2010

It was sunny in Milan, although a little cool. Everything seemed to be proceeding as usual, until the ash from Iceland blew in. Invisible, unnoticed. The Scandinavian were the first to talk about the cloud mushrooming out of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano and already fast spreading out across all of Europe. On Friday, it was to bring air traffic almost to a complete stop. When on late Thursday evening the queue in front of the La Pelota hall grew longer and longer (the Established & Sons traditional party there tends to be the one people most seek admission to), the general nervousness was drowned in music and vodka. To no avail. Many people were stuck in town.

A slender strip or "Learning from the Ayoreo"

If only, I thought on Friday, when we were searching for a way to get home without flying, all those stranded persons at least had a copy of the slender strip of "Chairless" with them, which Alejandro Aravena dreamed up for Vitra, then even if they had to wait they would at least be able to sit comfortably. When thinking about how to build the simplest of chairs Aravena came across the seat strip among the Ayoreo Indians in Paraguay. And even in the refined industrial version it is still simple and astonishingly comfortable. I tried it: You step into it and while sitting pull it over your back and knees - hey presto! If you sit on the floor you instinctively place your arms round your legs to support your back. And now Chairless does it for you, meaning you sit leisurely and do not tire so quickly. What is more you have your hands free to ear, drink, read, write or phone - even in overcrowded trains when all the seats are taken.

In terms of its radicalness, Chairless is a prime example of how you can achieve a lot with a little. A small, cheap strip instead of an elaborately made chair, now that says something not only about the needs of today's urban nomads, but also sheds a sharp light on the relationship of technical/material inputs and the result, the efficiency of which everyone in Milan's trade fair halls could test for themselves. "This piece of fabric," Aravena notes, "is the final border before the noun ‘seat' becomes the verb ‘sit'." The design of a state of being becomes an activity. Sometimes it helps (and not only when Icelandic volcanoes are spewing out ash) simply to consider the mobile techniques of peoples whom we Eurocentrics have always wrongly looked down on. However ingenious, affordable and indispensable the small strip may be, it will hardly become more than a critical call to us all to wake up and reconsider things, or a useful accessory for the nomads.

Consolidation? Consolidation!

Following the financial crisis, which left its mark on the major manufacturers, too, the consolidation phase has begun not just on the economic but also on the design front. So much the Salone del Mobile 2010 revealed. The preference for things decorative does not yet seem to have come to a halt. On the contrary: As regards the ethno-Pop of recent years, elements of different cultures are still being happily remixed and sampled. And yet the designs created by the leading lights all show that this year they have opted for a new form of seriousness and solidity. "Form follows fun" is no longer an option.

Just as Skitsch, the purported opposite of the German word kitsch, can swiftly relapse into kitsch when Marcel Wanders actually calls a simple sofa "One Nighter" and makes it out of large glitzy blocks, so, too, all the borrowings from other cultures can burn out. This can be seen in exemplary fashion in the work of the brothers Fernando and Humberto Campana. Their contemporary "Gloriette" for a hotel garden, which they created as a show element for champagne-makers "Veuve Clicquot", will go down as nothing more than an embarrassing footnote in design history. However ironically they may intend the air temple from Apui with its metallic twists in "Clicquot Yellow" on top, in which the champagne is supposed to taste best, it reveals just how arbitrary and corruptible an approach such as that taken by the Campanas is.

At edra you can likewise see how prone such a semantically and ethically recharged monoculture is to the whims of the zeitgeist. A design that positions itself on the right side, i.e., the one that is ostensibly critical, on occasion hits the mark but will not in the long term get anywhere. It takes its cue, albeit ex negativo, from what exists and feeds in true vampire manner off the exotic. While "Cabana", a container that is completely hidden behind long strings of raffia, still seems halfway original, the "Cotto" table essentially reveals the cynical side to design with a good conscience. Cotto's frame and legs are made of stainless steel, the top of aluminum, into which eight individually shaped panels of coarse-grain terracotta have been set - into which (thankfully on the underside) "Made in Italy" and "fatto a mano" (handmade) has been stamped. However much edra may emphasize the linkage of product and place of origin and cite the Etruscans, Brunelleschi and Medici to find a historical justification for the materials, the table alludes formally speaking to exploited, dried and cracked earth and therefore simply seems well-intended and nothing more than that.

If one wants to talk of consolidation then we need to ignore all the fun furniture and tasteless objects as well as all those that come dripping with too much semantics or syntactic content. A few current examples: Karim Rashid (who else?) has designed a "Hot Dog Chair" and an equivalent sofa for domodinamica, but the overall results look pretty butchered. Philipp Starck contributes another embarrassment, this time for Kartell (which this year has opted completely for black and Plexiglas): "Magic Hole", with which "you can go fast to the ultimate dimension of your next nap in the garden". Cappellini presents a "Tulip Armchair" by Marcel Wanders, who mimetically copies the bloom of a tulip. With her "Cornell Box" for Tecta Alison Smithson insults the artist's surreal box of tricks and turns it into a box for trinkets. And in the case of "Nemo", an armchair shaped like a mask and created by Fabio Novembre for Driade, one can simply speak of a loss of taste. In a nutshell: There is still a widespread trend to catch the attention at any price. That said: overall there is a surprising number of pieces that have been soundly and superbly designed. Not just because Piero Lissoni (for Cassina) and Damian Williamson (for Zanotta) have come up with sofas that are as simple as they are classical, and Agapecasa has with its "Mangiarotti Collection" breathed new life into the precision and elegance of that Old Master. But first and foremost because both younger and older designers have joined up with sound manufacturers to patiently develop unique product idioms that give rise not only to "interesting" one-offs.

Not just for the new salons

For example, Stefan Diez has taken what he started doing last year for e15 in the form of the "Houdini" chair, and firstly expanded it into a veritable product family and secondly added a highly charming touch to the entire ensemble. Diez has successfully dreamed up a very special melange, with the "Bess" sofa (available in two depths), a small armchair and the "Bessy" stool, rounded out with his "Eugene" lounge chair and "Jean", a bar stool. He masterfully takes up elements of historicism and the 1950s, but controls the ingredients carefully with a no-frills, dynamic sense of clarity and refined detailing, such that at the end of the day he offers a unique and elegantly Modernist feel.

In addition to a table, Konstantin Grcic has now also added a version with "shortened" armrests to his "Monza" chair, which he presented last year. In a playful way, the new chair is reminiscent of Josef Hofmann's "Fledermaus" created way back in 1909 and Hans J. Wegner's 701 armchair launched in 1970. Only at first glance does it resemble the "early" Grcic "B Chair" with a folding seat which he developed for b.d. barcelona. Grcic is very ingenious in the way he creates the basis for this horizontally stackable chair, namely by means of two stilted parts that connect to form an asymmetric St. Andrew's cross at the height of the cross member. The arched backrest makes the chair even more dynamic (in direct comparison, Tom Dixon's "Slab Chair" suddenly looks astonishingly clumsy). Especially when the chair is viewed in profile it is striking how consistently and accurately Grcic works, even when his designs look technoid, for he still lets the form follow the logic of the use and he reveals the basic structure. Yet, the result looks natural and develops its very own elegance.

In contrast to the "B Chair", the aluminum chair "Venice", which Grcic designed for Magis and which, five years later, has long become legendary, is surprisingly conventional. However, that first impression is misleading for Grcic cleverly combines different typologies. Even his armrests are made of aluminum; due to their curved form they remind us of the cloth armrests of colonial furniture, and the backrest of colorful cloth or leather makes Venice look a bit like a director's chair. The conclusion: It is not a chair one likes immediately, but it is one that has really got something to it and which probably gets the better the longer we are exposed to it.

Speaking of chairs: At the Wogg stand (a manufacturer long since acknowledged for its advanced designs, innovative technological solutions and excellent finishing), Jörg Boner presents a stackable chair made of ash plywood which, thanks to the CNC milling technology, has an ingenious shape. The seat, which is shaped like a leaf, is softly edged on the side of the front legs, while the backrest envelopes the body like a broad shawl collar. And in the form of "Wogg 51" by Atelier Oï, the company also fields a refined solitaire with wrap-around sliding doors and a mirrored cover plate.

Simple and classic, is that possible?

Classically Modernist, high design standards and no risk of a very short sell-by date - how can this be achieved? Antonio Citterio shows exactly how. In the form of "Suita" he not only proves that he is capable of designing sofas that are as solid as they are elegant, he also demonstrates how to generate manifold variants from one basic design. Vitra therefore speaks of a new chapter in the cooperation in a field the designer has decisively influenced, namely, as Vitra says, that of the "modern sofa family". The name "Suita" (which means as much as "series", "suite" or "ensemble") is derived from Swiss Rhaeto-Romanic and alludes to the Alpine cultural region which connects the German-speaking part of Switzerland with Northern Italy. A sofa with two or three seats in a "Classic" or "Casual" version, sometimes with few, sometimes with many cushions, with a lower backrest at times, with a higher one at others, either made of cloth or of leather, fresh or simply robust, as a solo unit or an ensemble, with or without a shelf board on the back, in the form of a club armchair, chaise longue or daybed - Suita perfectly fits Vitra's collages for private interiors. It's slim and compact, yet always solid, on its die-cast aluminium feet, and with its subtle appeal Suita virtually meets the brief for most when it comes to living-room furniture.

Jaime Hayon is especially courageous and has confidently dared create a contemporary variant of the famous Lounge Chair by Charles and Ray Eames. Classical, yes. And not only astonishingly fresh in its colors. But also original in the way the individual shells are combined. Here Hayon demonstrates that he is one of the best in the trade.

Luca Nichetto for Skitsch
Philippe Starck for Kartell
Patricia Urquiola for Kartell
The invisible by Tokujin Yoshioka for Kartell
Tulip Armchair by Marcel Wanders for Cappellini
Alodia by Todd Bracher for Cappellini
TWB Tailored Wood Bench by Yael Mer, Shay Alkalay for Cappellini
Walt Disney with Cappellini
Tre 3 by Angelo Mangiarotti for Agapecasa
Eros by Angelo Mangiarotti for Agapecasa
P71 by Angelo Mangiarotti for Agapecasa
Stefan Diez for e15
Stefan Diez for e15
Jaime Hayon for bd barcelona
Konstantin Grcic for Magis
Konstantin Grcic for Magis
Jörg Boner for Wogg
Tom Dixon
Tom Dixon
Tom Dixon
Maison Martin Margiela with Ceruti Baleri
Maison Martin Margiela with Ceruti Baleri
Panasonic by Martino Berghinz
Panasonic by Martino Berghinz
Restaurant Piquenique in Zona Tortona, all Photos: © Dimitrios Tsatsas, Stylepark
Restaurant Piquenique in Zona Tortona
Superstudio Piú - assembling of an oversized Arco by Flos
Chairless by Alejandro Aravena for Vitra
Interieur by Fernando and Humberto Campana for Veuve Clicquot
Table Cotto by Fernando and Humberto Campana for Edra
Cabana by Fernando and Humberto Campana for Edra
At Edra
Nemo by Fabio Novembre for Driade
At Skitsch
Inside light installation at Foscarini
At Cassina
At Cassina
Konstantin Grcic for Plank
Konstantin Grcic for bd barcelona
Konstantin Grcic with his chair for bd barcelona
Konstantin Grcic for bd barcelona
Booth of Vitra
Booth of Vitra
Royal Mosa in Superstudio
Foscarini with Diesel Sucessful living
Softwall by Molo Design
Softlight by Molo Design
Branca Chair by Sam Hecht for Mattiazzi