Perhaps arriving in Milan before things kick off puts you in a better position to understand the spectacle that seizes the city during the Milan Furniture Fair. After stumbling out of the cab into a pile of sawdust, en route to the first preview, you simply can't shake the feeling that a huge stage set is being built between Stazione Centrale and Fiera Rho, all of it devised in line with some mutually agreed yet unspoken master plan. The saws, screwdriver, hammers and paintbrushes are in action right up to the very last minute. Run-down stores metamorphose into elegant showrooms; roomy garages become extravagant pop-up stores, just in the nick of time. In medieval palazzo doors are opened to reveal wings and courtyards that otherwise remain hidden, and at the more established locations (showrooms belonging to the major brands) curtained windows awaken curiosity in passers-by. You are fleetingly reminded of Hollywood Western village stage-sets, yet already find yourself caught up in a world of illusions, true beauty and exciting new things. You can barely catch your breath; it doesn't even cross your mind whether these orchestrations are just one of consumerism's tools of temptation or a look ahead presenting bearers of hope for the design world and paradisiacal products.
In search of paradise
At least the students of the Royal College of Art in London haven't given up on their belief in this paradise, taking this question as a point of departure for their work. "It is better to have your head in the clouds, and know where you are ... than to breathe the clearer atmosphere below them, and think that you are in paradise," as American philosopher Henry David Thoreau once put it back in the mid-19th century; providing a screen onto which to project all manner of experiments that tread a thin line between art and design. But first to Ventura Lambrate, where evil seems to be at play right in paradise's front yard, for the students have found a way to make fast money in Milan.
As far as personal statements expressing a belief in a better future go, Pia Wüstenberg with her three-part, stacking glass vessels, Camille Flammarion with her ceramic works and Kane Cali with his glass objects have certainly all done a good job. Just next door, the search for "Another Terra – Home away from home" continues. The project by the Turin-based "IN Residence" program takes a group of 16 designers and seeks out products that would provide perfect accompaniments on a journey to a "super earth", an earth-like planet beyond our own solar system. Luckily, the results on display are solid, conceptual and at times even extremely practical in their vision, such as a transportable greenhouse that looks something like a handbag designed by Studio Besau-Marguerre from Hamburg.
With its concepts, "The Machine" (a design group from the Belgian province of Limburg), remains very much down to earth and reflect upon the form a "new industrial revolution" could take. How are (new) machines changing our lives and influencing societies of the future? The answers are rather surprising at first, but they are well thought-out. Such as the "Spider Farm" by Frenchman Thomas Maincent, who plans to produce an industrially configured breadboard whereby spiders are used for the natural production of silk. Or "Haptic Intelligentsia" by Joog Han Lee, a kind of manual 3D printing machine, which allows the user to manually create computer-generated shapes using tactile feedback. With their "Botanica" project, Formafantasma explores the possibilities to replacing oil-based polymer with natural alternatives and thus developing a "post-industrial aesthetic".
Green sanctuaries in Rho
Now those who in light of the wealth of thoughts and experiments think that paradise has become place which can easily be defined are probably rather disappointed in one way or another. As was the case years ago in Zona Tortona, in the outlying Ventura Lambrate the major brands are already staking out their claims, with Ikea leading the way and dedicating a temporary furniture hall to their new PS design collection. And with trade fairs representing cherished places where brands dream of sales figures and margins, you can hardly be surprised to find green sanctuaries shimmering and shining in the middle of the colossal halls. With images of white beaches, blue lagoons and cloudless skies, Dedon has been filling our reservoir of dreams for years now, and succeeds over and over again in taking this blissfully relaxed longing just a little further. Listening to the sounds of the sea in shadowy bunks or lazing on colorful, woven loungers in the sand: This is how to satisfy such yearnings.
But it doesn't always have to be the greatest wishes that are fulfilled here; sometimes it is enough to make way for the smaller necessities. As Yael Mer & Shay Alkalay from Raw Edges demonstrate with the "Deskbox" designed for Arco. The flat rectangular block mounted on the wall appears functional and angular, but only when put to its intended use does it reveal itself as the guardian of its user's personal paperwork and even little secrets.
Where the music plays
Even the demand for chairs seems be holding up; the list of new editions is always a long one and the assortment definitely worth a look: Arper presents "Juno" by James Irvine and "Saya" by Lievore Altherr Monlina; at Plank "Doty" (Ludovica and Roberto Palomba) and "Blocco" (Naoto Fukasawa) set the tone; while "Palio" by Konstantin Grcic is practically a table-height armchair. With the "190" chair for Thonet, Lievore Altherr Molina proclaims a "Archetype of today" – and Jean Nouvel produces a straight-up performance with "Mia" from the eponymous collection for Emu. In the meantime, there is music playing at Interlübke. While the "Musicbox" appears in Milan complete with an analogue record player, the heart of the sound system beats for the digital music industry. This hi-fi system (by Werner Aisslinger) is as always elegant and his collaboration with manufacturer Linn promises a clear tone.
For success when hunting for new discoveries in the trade fair halls, you have to drop the systematic approach and just drift a little. In this way I stumble across the "Plot" seat at Brunner, which even upon first glance refuses to be labeled as belonging to any known category. The quality in this design by Osko+Deichmann certainly goes further than the user's consideration with their own sitting habits. Should we not then be pleased when products crop up whereby this facile pigeon-hole mentality – sofa, armchair, chaise longue – fails miserably? With a steady hand, Walter Kroll continues along the well-trodden path concentrating on a smaller number of more precise products – well, that's no big secret but with the "Atelier Chair" it once again allows for new insights into the poetic mindset of the man who designed "Eoos".
New worlds in unknown locations
But now back to the still paradise-like fringe program which opens up new worlds. New label "La Chance" chose "Jekyll and Hyde" as the name of its first collection. The young Frenchmen Jean-Baptiste Souletie and Louise Breguet believe in a revival of the "unbridled luxury" and a renunciation of "cold, conceptual design". But have they ignited a new design doctrine here or are they simply propounding personal preferences? The company founders profess cosmopolitan experience and thus place value on an international background when selecting the designers they work with. Luca Nichetto, Jonah Takagi, Charles Kalpakian, Bashko Trybek work together with offices located in various countries throughout the world, such that international notes were integral to their work from the very beginning. The approach may not be the most innovative but it is obviously still extremely promising in economic terms. Designers from across the globe devising products for consumers across the globe and having those products manufactured in locations across the globe; or perhaps sooner in Europe after all? In any case furniture by "La Chance" has successfully gained a place in its self-proclaimed "Epicenter of the newest ideas". The "Most" project was conceived by Tom Dixon who with the "Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci" has created a wonderful new events venue for Milan. Steam locomotives, ships, airplanes and a submarine make for an impressive setting, and young designers, small labels and all sorts of other attempts at design find their place in the arcades of the interlaced inner courtyards, where they can ride the wave of publicity for a few days.
At first glance it appears really quite fascinating, the use of a state-of-the-art, automated punch to produce the basic structure of simple metal chairs following an invisible blueprint; but why has this punch been placed in the middle of a museum in front of a row of steam locomotives? Which analogy is this supposed to invoke? Is the fully-automated assembly intended to mark today as an end to the development of industrial processes, which began with the invention of the steam engine? Or it really nothing more than a desire to present the work in a "dramatic setting", as purported in the project description? Whether the technology museum has the potential to move beyond the initial hoo-ha and become an attraction within the Milanese spectacle in the long term will probably depend a great deal on future exhibition concepts. But they have certainly produced sufficient proof that there is still a plethora of interesting locations that remain to be discovered by the trade fair's visitors.
The bubble's burst
Spazio Rossanna Orlandi has been established as a more straight-faced venue hosting the big fish of the design world, both the fresh-faced and the time-honored, for many years now. In the front building, in the rear building, in the cellar, in the hallway and in the attic, set pieces from the global design industry have been placed throughout the building, while the design community enjoys a bowl of pasta in the courtyard. In Ventura Lambrate, Atelier Van Lieshout has brought out the big guns in the form of a blue canon, all in service of media attention of course; but the tanks in question are teeny and made of ceramic, ruling them out as a gesture of provocation. And with dreams of creating the perfect luminaire, Booo's bubble was burst in the truest sense of the word: Designers from Swedish design group Front developed a LED pendant lamp for the Dutch label with an ephemeral lampshade made of soap bubbles that is constantly recreated.
Rock, Pop and steam
Design is a guise, it is a product, it is an event, it is marketing. This sequence isn't set in stone, but it brings us back to the showrooms at the heart of the city. After all, this is the domain of the really successful ensembles where the major brands set the tone. This is where one learns about the furniture and indeed fashion industry, and it is only logical that with his staging of "Hallingdal 65" at Jil Sander, Kvadrat has found his place here.
Great shows were also put on by Flos held on occasion of the company's 50th anniversary in Palazzo della Permanente, and Moroso with "The way of the water dragon" by Chinese architect Zhang Ke for their 60th anniversary. While Edra proudly displayed a variety of the armchairs made over the past 25 years. Anyone has made a consistent and genuine effort to fill the market with good and sometimes even fantastic products for such a long time can certainly look back with a easy conscious on such milestone occasions.
At Kartell, where a playful treatment of popular culture has been the name of the game since Day One, they hope to attract attention this year with something different, something unexpected. Rock instead of Pop – old-style records were sent as invitations, a cover of Philippe Starck's "Mademoiselle" by Lenny Kravitz. That is how you draw the crowds to the showroom. Clearly a marketing success, everyone else enjoyed the well-known stuff at the trade fair stand entitled "Work in Project".
And when between the showrooms in the north, south, east and west of the city you have the feeling that you could no longer to see the wood for the trees, it could very well be the case that you have ended up in the Pelota hall. Located in the swanky district of Brera, the former sports hall may have long since relinquished its original function but it has definitely retained its original charm as venue. In the temporary birch grove, products are positioned on four glades. "Raw and Delicate" is the title that the 50 Austrian collaborators for their joint piece, a tasteful mélange taken from the areas of furniture, tableware, lighting and outdoor. Whereas pieces such as "Love me Bender", a scurrile machine that single-handedly bends wood using the steam from a kettle on a stove, serve for a few giggles, but also provide some food for thought on the interplay between industrial production and DIY.
And that's Milan during the Salone del Mobile: big show and amateur theater, time machine, fairground, springboard and a lab for experimentation. On this impressive roller-coaster you soon realize that design has long become a part of everyday life, although it remains difficult to find it at its very best, but when you do you'll find it overwhelmingly exciting.