Design is the art of the 21st century. To realize this there is no need for endless discussion as to how art and design differ before finally coming to the conclusion that design is not art. Even if designers do like to stylize themselves as artists and art, even when decorative or serial in appearance, by no means immediately mutates into design. One thing, though, is for sure: in terms of dissemination and impact the design system as democratic mass art is increasingly replacing the art system. And indeed, those who design the industrial process right through to the product itself not only decide how aesthetic attitudes and standards take shape, change and are reflected upon in our everyday lives. In the design and the consumption of things, perception and taste only form the surface, so to speak. The heart of the matter is the question of how to shape usage and attitude by means of aesthetic consumer goods.
Surprisingly, this year in Milan, the way that design has replaced art as the leading aesthetic medium was visible not only in the objects available; The locations where designers presented their products also played a role.
Old halls, familiar objects
In Milan's new "design district", "Ventura Lambrate", an industrial estate where old and new company sites, workshops and new buildings alternate with giant wastelands and the charm of abandoned industrial buildings drenched in sweat and oil mixes with the glamour and chic of the cutting-edge, it is primarily small labels, academies, galleries and craftsmen that present their ware. This is in line with the logic of gentrification, i.e., of upgrading rundown areas such as we have seen in New York and Berlin, in SoHo, Brooklyn Heights, on Auguststrasse and Prenzlauer Berg. Admittedly, with the difference that it is now no longer only artists and their galleries that are settling here and upgrading the place, but increasingly designers. At the end of the day, even temporary users follow the principle that where once art held sway, now, it is design's turn. And whereas, in the 1960s and 1970s, artists civilized districts such as SoHo, and Tribeca, and in the 1980s it was once again young artists who moved temporarily into empty factory halls, for example the old wine warehouses of Bercy - where, today, the "Palais Omnisports" stands - in order to realize the kind of installations and frescoes there for which their studios were too small - now, sites such as these are being used by designers, design galleries and academies in Milan, just as much as in Rotterdam and London.
In the case of Ventura Lambrate it is first and foremost academies that are returning to former production sites and are taking advantage of their special atmosphere. This has its charms, but is also dangerous, because the reason: such locations are interesting in themselves means that the relationship between atmosphere and exhibited object, i.e., between the frame and the picture, can be quickly reversed. The location becomes the most important thing and what is on assumes a subsidiary role. In addition, it appears somewhat dubious when academies such as the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London, the Eindhoven Design Academy and the Milan Scuola Politecnica di Design (SPD) start exhibiting the results of ordinary project seminars as if what they are displaying already amounted to innovative products. Examining these pieces of work that if anything belong in the protective environment of education but not in display windows, one feels repeatedly tempted to exclaim: just let the students work in peace! But no, here too, design follows art, with tours of the academies having become dubious talent shows over the past ten years. This was of little benefit to art but, by contrast, made the art market a tidy profit.
Fatboys in Zona Tortona
Nowadays, Zona Tortona with the super studio Pui reveals itself to be commercialized but not in a particularly good way. Here, too much is now just down at heel and the few powerful manufacturers displaying here are increasingly going to the dogs. This does not mean that everything that the Zona Tortona has to offer is necessarily bad, but you simply encounter too many decorative goods, too many copies and too much chichi, indeed, there is even a carousel with "Fatboys".
Somewhere among all the hustle and bustle you nevertheless come across outstanding design. Alongside Tom Dixon, who has further expanded his range, Flos demonstrates how to light, luminaires and architecture in a simple but effective manner. There are even ring-shaped luminaires fitted with LEDs which, when flush-mounted in the wall are effective as solitaires while capable of being shaped into a pattern that has a look at once minimalist and baroque, that looks as if it consists of loops loosely connected with one another in the wall.
Surprisingly, one of the highlights of the salone is to be found at the stand of the Swedish luminaire manufacturer Wästberg, the prototype of the "w101" luminaire by Mårten Claesson, Eero Koivisto and Ola Rune, architects who also work as designers. This table lamp uses LED technology and consists of biodegradable paper, in fact, of several layers of dyed DuraPulp, a raw material that is a combination of paper pulp and polylactide and, together with the cable, is pressed into shape, folded and fitted with minimalist technology. It is almost impossible to imagine an item more ecological, simpler and, at the same time, so formally impressive.
Firmly holding the reins
Alongside BD barcelona, Thonet, Knoll, e15, Vitra and Wogg, manufacturers such as Magis, Moroso and Established & Sons once again lead the field in terms of design. The English company in particular, with its combination of tradition, innovative manufacturing techniques and fresh ideas, presents any number of prototypes, all worth closer inspection. Random samples must suffice at this point.
With "New Order", Stefan Diez is presenting a modular storage system made of powder-coated aluminum in the spirit of Charles Eames, which, even if it has not been thought through in complete detail, would appear uncommonly straightforward and worthy of being advanced, and not just because of its practical functions and refreshing colorfulness.
Konstantin Grcic does not like the kind of soft seats you sink down in, but with "Crash" puts an example to the test. To this end he conceals a metal frame with belt tensioning beneath a cover whose seat area, which falls into folds, positively shows off its softness.
By contrast, for his "Jumper", Bertjan Pot, one of the most accomplished Dutch designers of the younger generation, relies on what is known as "Knit&Wear" technology, which enables pullovers to be knitted in one piece rather than in individual sections. The result is an idiosyncratically shaped armchair which - with its armrests - is covered in a "jumper" with six "arms" that is made to fit by washing. Sometimes plain, sometimes striped, Pot's armchair is extremely original and, even if it does take some getting used to, this technology could soon find imitators.
It might seem rather surprising that Scholten & Baijings' wardrobe "Amsterdam Armoire" - based on an example from the 17th century and displayed last year at the Milan show "Truly Dutch" - should now turn up at Established & Sons. However, in recent years the design team of Carole Baijings and Stefan Scholten has come to the fore not only with wonderful glass and woven work, in which models and (cast) shapes are more than preliminary stages and traditional craftsmanship is transported to the present technical revival, but at the same time has created its very own style. Currently in Holland, tradition, craftsmanship and advanced design are being amalgamated more consistently than anywhere else - with excellent results. As such, as part of "Total Table Design" in Ventura Lambrate visitors can also admire crockery and glasses by Scholten & Baijings that are packed full of historical references while representing something completely new. Here it is possible to see that table decoration does not always have to appear old-fashioned or follow the same old patterns.
Galerie Particles is presenting another kind of careful Asia-inspired design by an unmistakable designer: Aldo Bakker. His limited "Urushi series" is half design, half craftsmanship, not only because it uses the traditional Japanese lacquer technique (Urushi), but also because Bakker believes in the slowness of conscious perception and in the attentive use of objects sees a counterweight to the sensory overload and the dictates of fashion. His stools and tables are complemented by a range consisting of a bowl, soy dispenser, water jug and candlestick holder made of copper, on show in the Spazio Rossana Orlandi at Thomas Eyck who for years now has been selling unusual glasses, bowls, jugs, blankets and much more by both Bakker and Scholten & Baijings. So it is not just in terms of art that the boundaries are becoming transparent.
At Moroso - alongside Philipp Bestenheider's recycled armchairs, which do not actually look at all "green" and Tokujin Yoshioka's impressive "Memory" - two designs are particularly striking. Doshi Levien have folded and shaped graph paper into an armchair that playfully suspends all the usual rules for this type of chair: a frame and on top of it a surface tilting back slightly that has been drawn up at the rear and on one side. The armchair derives its special character from the woolen fabric with which it is covered and into whose grid-like pattern - the lines of the paper - small Swarowski crystals have been woven. In other words, a typical Doshi Levien design, in which an exactly calculated shape is complemented, subverted, thwarted by unusual patterns and where different cultures come together. I personally would have liked the armchair even more if the designers had forgone the glittering stones and with them, a kind of glamorous decadence.
With "Silver Lake", Patricia Urquiola successfully returns to a design that makes a consciously constructional impression. A metal ring that has been beveled and welded several times - in a shade of brown reminiscent of anti-rust paint - surrounds block-like upholstery that appears to have been pushed into the metal frame, lending the whole a certain robustness which, at the same time, there can be no denying, boasts a certain elegance.
Creating a balance
So at the moment, where furniture is concerned, many things are going around in productive circles. And if the centrifugal force of the present is casting a number of things aside, there is a counteracting force impelling new things into the center. Accordingly, in metaphorical terms, the star of Magis' program this time is Thomas Heatherwick, even if, in this case, it is particularly annoying that we can only admire his rocking or balancing object, but not try it out. "Spun" is the name of the extravagant item in question, that looks as if it has jumped up from a computer-assisted potter's wheel and is more like a sculpture than a seat. But whether the object reminds you of an unsuccessful racing car wheel rim, an outsize toy spinning top or one of Tony Cragg's sculptures, Heatherwick, who also designed the British pavilion at this year's expo in Shanghai, melds everything into an object that only rotates around itself, as furniture design in general so often does. And without a secure base. Anyone who sits on this kind of revolving chair must keep getting his balance again, something that only works for a moment. Everything revolves around sitting, but as an activity not as a state, almost in the same way as in "Chairless", although what we have here is the high-tech version. And so, if we avoid getting dizzy, in fact, at the end of the day, it is business as usual at the Salone del Mobile. Despite the ash cloud. And, in the end, we even get lucky. We leave Milan on Friday lunchtime around 12:30 p.m. In the car of a designer friend of ours. It is cool but sunny. There is no sign of any dark clouds.