01. A mammoth called curiosity
It’s Monday and almost the way it always is. Hardly have you exited the airplane than you start to get itchy feet. Gotta get moving. And what great weather for it! Not a cloud in the sky, pure sunshine so let’s get outside. The thing is that just before the Milan furniture fest starts, expectations blow curiosity up to the size of a mammoth which, in order to be kept alive, needs any number of stimuli. And where will the mammoth named curiosity find the food to ensure that the marvelous deception does not immediately collapse into dust? The trade-fair halls don’t open until Tuesday – in most of the showrooms people are still busy sawing, hammering, painting – so where does our mammoth take us?
To the Zona Tortona, where else? To where for so many years the Milan fun always started. Sure, we were warned, for some time now the area round Via Tortona and Superstudio Più looked as though it were frazzling at the edges. Manufacturers headed for other locations or, like Cassina, Cappellini, Poltrona Frau and now Tom Dixon, too, returned to the womb of the fair. Where once many new items of furniture and sparkling installations beckoned, you increasingly encountered media nonsenses and overly forced artistic ambitions. This year, the former glory was completely gone, bar a nice little encounter at the e15 showroom and a few “highlights” round the corner at Lasvit. Instead of surprising design there was much so superficial as to compete stridently for attention. You could at least get your hands on a bright-red massive piece designed by Giulio Cappellini or a bed that was precisely not in a gold-plated iron cage. But then there was Ebay, where the sales channel culminates in virtual nothingness. Ebay and Salone? Yes, you heard right. In an “ebay Dome”, actually a very mundane arrangement of five thematic islands with the usual promise of limitless shopping, the Internet platform announced it would soon be launching a special section, “ebay Design”, for new products by selected manufacturers. Although it was not clear who is taking part or in what countries the pages will be live. Which only goes to show what’s happened to Superstudio: it’s a market place. Of a more virtual kind. C’est la vie, as the French would say.
02. A conversation about aluminum
I almost forgot to say that our mammoth called curiosity, before running out of steam in the Zona Tortona, had already tanked up on US fodder. Although initially, in the Agape showroom in Via Statuto we first faced the fraught question, namely whether two somewhat small, beautifully round bathtubs in a bedroom were more Catholic (with moral and theologically reservations about sharing a bath) or Protestant (Puritanical and opposed to all sensuality). Then an exciting discussion ensued with Gregg Buchbinder, CEO of Emeco, on aluminum chairs and how to make them. Emeco, you’ll remember, is the company that makes a chair which is light but so stable that the US Navy actually uses it in submarines. And now a new stool called “Su” by Nendo has been launched, which boasts a wooden or aluminum frame on top of which resides a well-shaped seat made of satin, gleaming aluminum, or oak that has aged sweetly, or concrete, or even recycled plastic. And the discussion was not only about the very new, but also about whether aluminum feels cold or not, and all the things you can make with aluminum if you know your stuff. A polished rocking chair by Philippe Starck and a Navy chair in brushed metal offered good examples of why design is a process and how details can be evolved from the potential of developing the material in such a way that the chair not only looks good at the end, but is stable and durable.
Photo © Adeline Seidel/ Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
03. Cocktails in the hairdresser’s salon
Rarely has life outside the hairdresser’s been so full of fun. Specifically at night. Which by no means, as someone nastily suggested, was because it was closed and the hairdresser you could chat with was gone. No, a lot of great things all coincided. First, in the brightly lit display windows Steffen Kehrle used an amusing video in which countless nice people step onto or over it (the stool) to present “Mono”, his new step-stool. Second, the stool, which is available in many colors, was at hand for you to try out – a blessing for tired feet. And third Richard Lampert was a marvelous host. Fourth, there were lots of upbeat people there, fifth it was suddenly summer and you could sit outside until late at night, and sixth, the hairdresser’s salon was right next to Bar Basso. Where, as is well known, not only serves great Bloody Maries and Margaritas, but also other cocktails such as Negronis and Fragolinos. Should the mood in ever kitchen in which such a stool soon stands be as joyful and relaxed, then this will be proof that design does indeed change the world. Or was it the cocktails?
04. Evolution, not revolution
So let’s give chronology full rein, as would be expected of a contemporary piece of prose, and get on to the really important things. How was the fair? What was on hand to be discovered and what novelties were not only a surprise but also persuasive? The days when the fair offered a whole cornucopia of novelties, of which only few actually made it into production, seem in fact to be passé. Nonetheless the industry has not become more modest, but simply more cautious. Evolution not revolution is the motto. Product families now take the place of one-offs, typologies are reiterated and completed instead of being cracked open, updates and re-editions replace innovations, which simply do not fall like manna from heaven. Sometimes you could be forgiven thinking that the furniture trade is emulating the auto industry. A model goes on offer, be it an Audi A4 or a Plank “Miura”, a Mercedes C class or an Arper “Zinta” – in more or less versions, as a table, stool, chair, with wooden or metal feet, as a sofa or a bench, and in many colors and with all manner of different covers. This is called individualization, not that there’s a niche which is not seized by these permutations of all combinations. All in all, we could speak of a triad of evolution, individualization and innovation that currently defines the activities at least of the manufacturers of comprehensive collections.
05. Duna, Aava and
a stripy shell
There are countless examples of how this works: Vitra, for instance, releases the Eames’ Aluminum Chair in a slightly more narrow version and with a horizontal seat, rather than one that tilts backwards – intended to be more comfortable at table. And Hopsack upholstery is available, too, as things are as good as impossible without the color range, in almost 30 different shades. Alexander Girard has conjured up something for the living room in the spirit of the Sixties. Alongside fabric patterns as substitute images, colorful cushions, patterned carpets and tablets, his “Hexagonal Table”, his “Splayed Leg Table” and his “Colour Wheel Ottoman” have all been retrieved from the archive, all of them dating from 1967. Pop Art colors and patterns go perfectly with the omnipresent whirl of colors. The fact that Jasper Morrison’s “Rotary Tray” existed in a very similar guise back in 2002 as part of his “ATM Advanced Table Module” fits the picture. If you feel the individualization of the standardized has gone too far as you don’t want to have to choose from among so many colors will find solace in the fact that one Swiss institution has thankfully come back: Hans Coray’s “Landi” aluminum chair dating from 1938. Available only in one version, and color is not on the agenda. But, no, it has been supplemented – by a new table to fit called “Davy”, designed by Michel Charlot. Strange it is: In the affluent society there is an increasing number of singles while among furniture there are ever more families.
At Arper, it’s Duna, Saari and Aava that are available in new versions; at Artek with her “Colour Edition” Hella Jongerius is reinterpreting Alvar Aalto classics, and as regards re-editions, Yrjö Kukkapuro’s “Karuselli Lounge Chair” dating from 1964 is now out again. Even Carl Hansen & Son is along for the ride. Although they call Hans J. Wegner the “master of minimalism”, his “Wing Chair” and “Shell Chair” and a few others besides have been fashionably made over by Maharam and Paul Smith with their obligatory stripes. Only the floral patterns are missing. Incidentally, if you don’t give a damn about the difference between design and kitsch, and still have a pubescent wish to feel up omnipresent classics such as an Eames Chair, then the Plastic Chair was on display in one of the halls at Ventura Lambrate as an airy, welded shell made of metal washers or iron parts. And at Spazio Rosanna Orlandi anti-Modernist Biedermeier, that so loves to seem anarchic, actually went for a “Victorian Collection” of the Alu Chair complete with embroidered floral patterns.
There are many other examples that could be added to the list of serious system expansions, re-editions and updates, from versions of Jaime Hayon’s Lounger at BD Barcelona to Le Corbusier’s “LC5” at Cassina and much more besides. “Same same, but different” is what Raymond Loewy once termed the principle. Which is not to say that there weren’t surprises here and there awaiting discovery.
Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
06. In the maple grove
Japanese ornamental maple is, especially if its leaves have turned red, a truly appealing wood. Perhaps many such plants combined, and not just those with red leaves, to leave you thinking at the Moroso booth that you were standing in a thicket and or all the furniture were unable to see any clear lines any longer? Who know, but none of the new designs seemed really convincing. Patricia Urquiola’s sofas are getting ever more opulent – “(love me) Tender” seems neither light nor elegant, Tord Boontjes’ “22nd Floor” remains a black box and a misconception, and Ross Lovegrove’s “Diatom” made of pressed aluminum once again embraces technology and biology, but not particularly successfully. While Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby with their “Planophore” shelves created for Vitra, for whom they also made the bland “Mariposa” sofa, do not square up to historical role models, despite or because they are swivel-me-please verticals. Okay, it could function as a room divider for decorative objects rather than books.
07. Surprise archery
So what’s positive? On the world stage of furniture design they all play main roles, the four designers who this year, each in his or her way, have developed solutions and products that have simply not been seen in this vein before. If one were to assign the four stereotyped roles, then Konstantin Grcic would be the cool artist engineer, Hella Jongerius the successful, at heart romantically inclined fabric artist, Jaime Hayon has donned the role of the nervous, febrile Spanish nobleman, and the Bouroullecs play two artist brothers, the one melancholy, the other the hands-on guy.
So, ladies first, meaning Hella Jongerius. Her “East River Chair”, originally destined for the UN HQ in New York, is a pleasant contemporary, and not just as regards proportions and seating feel. No one else so skilfully and elegantly, so refreshingly and so cheekily combines fabric, leather and wood in different colors, down to the leather handle on the backrest.
It’s hardly surprising that Konstantin Grcic is one of the protagonists. The fact he still always manages to create simple, clear and convincing furniture designs is a real mystery. With his “Artek Chair”, which has now been officially launched under the name of “Rival”, he doffs his cap to Alvar Aalto, without genuflecting before him or being sycophantic. Which shows you what a real update looks like that does not entail a classic plus cosmetic facelift: It exudes a certain mindset, but is not in obeisance to it.
At Magis Grcic presented two quite different approaches in Milan, both of which result in decidedly contemporary solutions. With “Kyudo” he has presented a sprung cantilever chair, and not only (as always with Grcic) is it thought through down to the smallest detail, but also is made of a very special material: beech veneer reinforced with layers of carbon. The chair unites elements of high-grade sports devices with comfortable sitting, relies on a Modernist idiom, and also offers a glance into the future. The very way the carbon-reinforced basic structure is molded to blend with the seat and backrest seems truly unique. Tubular-steel cantilever chairs represent Modernism, but simply did not feature carbon, but using the properties of the material Grcic places the chair firmly in today. Nothing about “Kyudo” is nostalgic, each piece is suffused with an awareness of design history. Incidentally, the Japanese word “Kyudo” means something like the “path of the bow” and references the art of archery. And Konstantin Grcic has hit the bull’s eye with the taut lightness of “Kyudo”.
The “Spike” shelf and the “Tuffy” swivel chair are both equally original additions to this Magis collection “The Wild Bunch”. And once again Grcic shows how to do it. The office chair with the wooden seat, the sprung T-shaped backrest and the spindle thread height adjustment bring to mind basic traits of 1970s offices. Yet “Tuffy” seems youthful and fresh, or rather new. And Spike’s wall mounts resemble clamps into which you can position boards of different thicknesses, be they wood, glass, plastic or marble, or whatever else you want. Playful, simple, easy to use, that’s what good design’s about.
Photo © Thomas Wagner/Martina Metzner, Stylepark
08. From Hephaistos’ smithy
Completely different in terms of style and feel, but not less coherent, is Jaime Hayon’s “Piña”, likewise brought out by Magis. A pineapple-patterned metal-mesh shell, four slightly conical feet, two thick, rounded cushions, and bingo, you’ve got yourself a “Low Chair” for indoor or outdoor use with which Hayon likewise rounds out and expands an existing collection. Irrespective of what he makes, Hayon remains a playful aristocrat who manages to include Baroque and Classicist elements in the otherwise so often sober bourgeois court of today.
Which brings us to the brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec. Again for Magis, they’ve landed a truly unusual coup. “Officina” is the name of their table series that is a marriage of office and kitchen, as is the name itself. Anyone familiar with the usual French bistro tables with a wrought-iron frame and iron garden furniture will rub their eyes in amazement. Be it large of small, round or rectangular, wood, glass or plastic, the Bouroullecs have created a wrought-iron frame for all types of table that clearly has a whiff of power, mechanics and industrial culture about it, and yet is decidedly refined and constructivist. As if Hephaistos, the Greek god of fire and the art of forging, had himself put down the hammer. Be it bent and one over the other, be it multiply intertwined like thick rope, the flat iron strips of the frames are so ingeniously simple and yet seem such a matter of course that you wonder why no one thought of them earlier.
Yet, with their “Uncino” swivel chair the bros show that things can be even more refined and they can make combinations of wood and iron look like a cinch – the Bouroullecs developed it for wood specialist Mattiazzi. The shaft, seat and backrest are made of solid wood shaped like a sculpture molding the body, connected at ingeniously shaped points using dark, bent iron rods. How settled and yet zesty chairs can be, resembling a drawing stood in the room. And here, as with Grcic’s Kyudo, the maxim is that if purported updates of a customary typology are well enough made then then they aren’t updates.
09. The intolerable lightness
The ambience and champagne were excellent, at Hermès in the Palazzo Serbelloni on Corso Venezia. Small wonder, as the French maker of luxury goods boosted profits last year by 8.9 percent – thanks to the great demand for high-end leather wares and textiles, sales came to EUR 3.76 billion and profits to EUR 1.22 billion, with EATI reaching EUR 790 million, 6.8 percent more than in 2012. And you could see with your own eyes the type of furniture you need to drive such figures – they were in the chambers with the opulent paintings on the ceilings. Of course, as this was Hermès, leather was the protagonist, along with precious woods and fine fabrics. Michele De Lucchi offered two luminaires, “Pantographe” and “Harnais”, that would look especially striking in a country manor or in stables next to the saddles. That’s old style luxury, exclusive, expensive, perfectly crafted and conservative down to the iron frame – circumspectly renewed, be it as a limited re-edition like the small wrought-iron and leather seating group Jean-Michel Frank made in the early 20th century. Anyone turning up their noses and with pretended woe uttering the word ‘decadent’ behind their hand, should look at all the gleaming gold and truly over-the-top alternatives. You needn’t like it and it doesn’t really fit the present day, but it’s always perfectly crafted. Artist Yann Kersalé has whisked up a bit of a yachting mood in thick leather with his portable luminaire “La Lanterne d’Hermès”. Yet the piece, which can be subdivided into four segments seems to be the right accessory for the better-off 19th-century authors among you who like to write en plein air – as the lordly folding table presented next to it proves. All you’ll otherwise need are a sun hat and a linen suit. That of all things Milan Kundera’s “The Intolerable Lightness of Being” and Céline’s “Travels to the End of the Night” are displayed on the fine table somewhat upsets the breezy impression of the sunny side of life.
Photos © Barbara Wildung, Stylepark
10.The ballad of the rise and fall
Some stories tell themselves. Established & Sons, who were once a bit of the first among equals as regards innovation and a lust for experimentation are back, after a depressing performance last year. Not yet really on top of their game, but back. “New Products & New Finishes” is the name of the program presented in a large tent in the courtyard of Istituto Ciechi in the Via Vivaio, among others with Delphine & Reed Krakoff’s “Felt Series” and huge, foam-made upholstered furniture by Philippe Malouin. So where will the British high-end punk go next? It’ll be exciting to see, even if the times have changed.
11. There Is No Business Like ...
Punchlines are pretty much like carbon, the denser they get, the more likely there’s a gem or diamond in them. Which, as we know, rarely happens with punchlines, not even in the show business surrounding the Salone. Questions must nevertheless be asked, enigmas confronted. So judge our little selection for yourself:
Flos celebrated itself, had the little “o” in its name light up, and otherwise shot itself down. – Did Jasper Morrison place a pair of leather shoes in front of his “Hal” on the Vitra booth because, like Estragon in Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” he believes that tomorrow someone with smaller feet will drop by who they’ll fit?
Should someone, what a joke, fall of the bar stool after one cocktail too many, what would there be to save him? The handle-shaped footrest on the “Zeb Stool” by Barber Osgerby. Why does the front of the sideboard Doshi Levien has designed for BD Barcelona look like lacquered corrugated iron, but is made of something else? What does Jörg Schellmann hope to achieve by signing up with Moroso as a designer? Is it true that Jasper Morrison designed the “Orla” seating group on show at Cappelini or did things get mixed up and it was created by a Viennese called Jasek Moritzon? Who can tell me why pendant luminaires sometimes look like cake cutters and cake cutters like pendant luminaires?
12. Is it a comedy or a tragedy?
“Going Beyond Categories – Generating Exchanges – Defining New Shapes” reads the sign with which Officine Tamborrino, an Italian maker of steel furniture, points to its show entitled “Feeding Creativity”. But who fires the imagination? Who hunts the snark? Going beyond limits, interacting, creating new format, we’re in the Ventura Lambrate. It’s Wednesday, just before ten. The Queen and the Pope waves to us from a window, in triplicate. Curiosity, that mammoth, rises up again when he spies at Lensvelt how simple, clear and unpretentious design once was, In 1962, with Maarten van Severen. Next door, Lidewij Edelkort lets fetishism rip. And anyone who wants to place their loudspeakers in sleeves covered in sequins, they’ll find them here. Above Logotel’s “Timescapes” project we read: “Parallel Worlds. Multiple Connections. Different Designs.”. Piano music suddenly emanates from a large former factory hall with shed roofs. On a high plinth, a young man kneels before a marble piano and plays. On the wall behind him, on which he has hung numerous portraits someone has written: “I’ll never be perfect, but I’m unique.”
That’s evidently the motto many people here have taken on as theirs. Nothing’s perfect, but everyone feels unmistakably unique. There is any amount of things that have somehow been designed, but they are often trivial and kitschy, well-meaning, but poorly conceived, and always hell-bent on being original. Nevertheless, all the Ventura Lambrate halls and courtyards so suffused with wishes and hopes function somehow like the Salone’s vibrant lab. Here, the colleges present their wares, the beginners and advanced students, the diligent ones and the freaks. Here, people take the stage with what they’ve made; here, people eat, drink, and party, as here design isn’t yet big business, but a form of life. A game with art-cum-crafts-cum-technology, to be defined as an admixture of work, hope and trepidation. Because as diverse, colorful and ambitious as everyone presenting works here is, the game is cruel, the competition fierce and the chances few and far between of being discovered here of all places. Reasons to be sad? Does the design business promise too much and fulfill dreams too rarely? Anyone looking around in Ventura Lambrate soon realizes that there’s no place for sorrow here. Anyone who’s learning to work on the interface of art and economics has a tough learning curve. But why does no one mention the fact that here we’re seeing the gentrification of an area with assistance from creative minds? Either which way, disappointment can wait, it’ll come anyway. Cheerio, till next year!