The Milan Quodlibet – part one
von Thomas Wagner | Apr 29, 2009

The sun is already very warm although it is mid-April and brings a marvelous azure to the sky over Milan. Outside the iron gate to the Oratorio della Passione - a small chapel that is part of the basilica of Sant'Ambrogio - I believe I spot Konstantin Grcic in fur hat and camouflage jacket, holding an object made of timber and provisionally screwed together in his hands. Its function is not readily apparent. Are the designers gearing up for cold weather or has Grcic actually morphed into a design guerrillero and retreated into the tundra of the East? Far from it. Clad in summery garb, evidently in a good mood and chatting away, Konstantin Grcic is actually to be found standing outside the entrance to the room, which is decorated with fragments of old frescos and in which DAMn magazine is holding an exhibition of chair prototypes entitled "Prophets & Penitents" - each devised by a renowned designer, including François Azambourg, Maarten Baas, Arik Levy and Patricia Urquiola. And the militarily clad man from the cold is merely the cover of its latest issue, on which Grcic poses.

During the few design-overfilled days, the Oratorio in Milan is the only place where the raw is presented and not the cooked, and it is none other than Ambrosius, patron saint of the city, who watches over the special aura of the raw. For everywhere else things seem all too perfect and finished, slightly over-dressed, and thus no longer attest to the spirit that initially animated them. That said, we should definitely remember Konstantin Grcic's square timber prototype. For the finished product is on show at the Magis stand in the Rho trade-fair halls, where it managed to confuse one person or another. But more of that later.

Fairground of design

Otherwise, there were as few prophets to be seen as there were confessing penitents. Meaning that this year, for all the signs of a crisis, as always nowhere does contemporary design celebrate itself as excessively as in and around the Salone del Mobile. Nowhere else does the ill-disciplined spirit of design hover so nervously and feverishly for a week over an entire city. Nowhere else are trade-fair stands and showrooms more opulent and refined, garages, old industrial halls, stores and penthouses more lavishly designed. And nowhere the parties more effervescent than in the Lombard capital. And thus in 2009 Milan again lived up to its name - the vanity and innovations fair, where not only all those play who have long since been famous, but also those who want to become stars. Designers, manufacturers, aficionados and members of the general public - they all flocked to the fair to celebrate themselves and a great spring fair of design.

Authors, hybrids and singularities

The Salone del Mobile is held in the Rho trade-fair halls (this year it includes the world's largest lighting fair, the ‘Euroluce'), the Zona Tortona with Superstudio Più and any number of showrooms and satellites, La Triennale and Palazzo Reale with its exhibitions, not to mention hundreds of rooms scattered across town. And invariably diversity pure and any amount of excess prevails. Milan is one single quodlibet. Just as such a piece of music combines different melodies that originally had nothing to do with one another, but are now played simultaneously, in Milan any number of conceivable things meet. Some objects seem to be art, others a mixture of the trivial and highly refined structures, and together the upshot is an overarching venue that is characterized as much by polyphony as it is by cacophony.

Design presented itself in Milan fully as such a quodlibet. And thus people were again able to look in amazement at how much innovative energy and imagination the industry devotes to what is, at the end of the day, relatively circumscribed terrain, given that what gets designs are chairs, chairs, chairs and tables and sofas. The tendency when attempting to create something special to simply combine, almost at random, shapes, materials and cultures, definitely does not mean simply letting the random hold sway. Rather, what is clear is that design remains the name of that realm of production whose duty it is to find out what can be made in cultural, aesthetic, social and industrial terms, and remains universal in the process. In other words, design seeks to puts its finger on the pulse of today.

Diversity comes with a high price tag. Essentially, what you see everywhere is individual objects or products, i.e., singularities. For this reason it would be wrong to speak of a trend or even a uniform style, let alone a current or trend. What gets newly developed obeys the laws of affinities or is aligned to a manufacturer's line; furthermore, there is simply no place for the uniform in a system of diversity with its thousands of bags and folds. What is to be observed within the vibrant and at times almost irritating admixture are at best similarities in terms of strategy or a certain continuity in handling topics such as sustainability, intercultural exchange, typologies or patterns.

No doubt prompted by debates on sustainability and eco-production, what catches the eye at the moment, for example, is that chair-makers now use less plastic and are increasingly opting for wood or recyclable materials. And many a maker is using crafts methods, adapting them to industrial output levels, meaning that the structure and finish of the products is sounder - and they even have a longer aesthetic lease of life. The manufacturers are likewise visibly endeavoring not to present one innovation after the next for the mere sake of effect and at any price, especially as no one knows whether the items will go into production. This means: Consolidation is the order of the day and for the time being people are avoiding expensive extravagances. For example, at the Vitra stand, which is almost completely in white, the only - coloured - innovation on show in the joyful concert of the Home Collection is a chair designed by the Bouroullec brothers that was first launched a few months ago, suitable for indoor and outdoor use, and named "Vegetal" - and the company emphasizes that it can supply everything on display.

Monza or sitting in the sharp bends

Today, most designers essentially create their own little universes without thereby immediately morphing into artists. Each of them pursues his or her very own project, and whatever the zeitgeist whispers in his/her ear and whatever the results are, they will be unique. Put differently: For all the intervention by marketing and branding departments today the auteur principle definitely prevails in the world of furniture. And that includes surprises.

For instance, after the company's great success with plastic cantilever-based chair Myto, Plank is now showing a new chair by Konstantin Grcic, one that at first glance shows no signs of being a Grcic design because it makes no visible attempt to combine shape and technology or to celebrate design as a course of action.
Apart from the backrest made of dyed-through polypropylene which runs on into arm supports, the chair is completely made of ash wood whose natural hues in particular - the frame is also available in black and wenge - form a charming contrast to the attached backrest which comes in several glowing colors. As is always the case with Grcic, here, it is the details which are so clever; the name too is carefully chosen and full of references. The reason why the chair is called "Monza" is no doubt because the backrest curves away from the upper end of the front legs, moving from a horizontal to a vertical position and thus forming the kind of "sharp bend" that is even today to be found on the famous racetrack in the park at Monza's Villa Reale. Admittedly, the oval with its two steep bends that exists next to a driving track has not been used for racing since 1961 for safety reasons, but it has lost nothing of its fascination.

Of course, Grcic's "Monza" does not only consist of a "sharp bend" on a frame. The seat, a flat area between the legs with a dynamic flourish, is a response to the arched shape of the outside edges of the backrest, a particularly good one, as can be seen standing next to the chair and looking at it from the side. The seat thus provides the whole with its own elegance. The chair is not only comfortable it also flatters the eye, which is due to the fact that its design takes its orientation from making it recognizable as a form of perception.

Houdini or unleashed space

"CH04 Houdini", a chair Stefan Diez developed for e15, derives its effects from stretched and twisted elements. Unlike "Monza", "Houdini", which comes in two versions, one with and one without armrests, is made entirely of wood. For this construction, Diez employs a method similar to that used for building model airplanes - thin layers of plywood are bent around a cut solid wooden ring set on four legs. The plywood is only held in shape by gluing it to the wooden core. But what makes Houdini unusual is not only its construction. Its unusualness starts right with its legs. These consist of round rods visibly beveled on one side. Because of this, not only is a light-refracting edge created, which makes the leg appear lighter, correspondences with the overall shape also occur.

For the version without armrests, Diez has placed a plywood ring around the circular seat. This ring is pulled down like the brim of a hat at the front and flapped up at the back. The actual backrest is then attached to the outside of this "brim" although it seems to float without in fact touching it. This makes for dynamism and lends the shape a prismatic or cubist quality.

The version with armrests does not repeat the above pattern but varies it. The backrest, which has been brought right up to the front edge, wraps itself like a broad shawl collar around the seat, which falls away to the back in a gentle wave. In this version too, the backrest is set on a narrow arch of plywood that tapers towards the seat. Both versions of the resulting chair appear equally simple and extravagant and are the stuff of contemporary classics.

Ironic variations

For his chair "Standard Unique" for Established & Sons, Dutch designer Maarten Baas uses a completely different variation principle. Referencing the classic Dutch wooden chair with its runged backrest and plaited straw seat of the use on we are familiar with from paintings by van Gogh, he has designed a range of chairs characterized by a number of different slightly "bent" bars and rungs in their backrests. This chair is a good example of an approach to simplicity and tradition that can be at once ironical and clever. Also for Established & Sons, Sam Hecht presents a combination of table, bench and chair which he also calls exactly thus: "Table, Bench, Chair", an item that could equally well have been imaginable in the Thonet range. Inspired by the seats on a Tokyo subway line, Hecht joins or divides the base and the upper section of a bentwood chair by means of a continuous solid wooden slab that serves not only as a seat but also as a bench or table.

History rendered more precise

There is also a new seat by Jasper Morrison. In the form of "Trattoria", he has designed a table with chair for Magis that really can be seen as a handy redesign of the classic from trattorias. However its hybrid mix of wood and transparent plastic is not entirely convincing. The situation is completely different with "BAC" a chair consisting of solid ash and plywood, produced to complement Morrison's existing table range of the same name for Cappellini, although the chair can of course be used in other situations. Here Morrison succeeds in combining the elegance and lightness of chairs by Hans J. Wegner - whose 1949 Y-Chair CH 24 Morrison is doubtless referencing - with the economy and precision of his own minimalism.

One Chair is (not) enough

Like an ecological answer to Konstantin Grcic's "Chair One", with its focus on technology, at the Artek stand the following sentence appears in giant letters: "One chair is enough." But if you think that that this is no more than a call to modesty, demanding a one-chair policy as an attitude, then you have not understood Shigeru Ban's project, a project whereby tables, chairs or benches can be put together from simple modules of recycled and recyclable material. These be bought in units of ten items.

As well-meaning and well-made as this is - one chair is never enough if only for reasons of communication. And even Konstantin Grcic fortunately did not stop designing chairs after "Chair One". As well as the above-mentioned "Monza" he has now, for Magis, come up with a very special standing/sitting machine and has in fact designed a complete workstation focusing on mobility: the "360° Family".

360º or action for George

The ensemble definitely caused a stir. Some did not like the look of the small castor-based assistant, and must people were more irritated by both the L-shaped seat on which you can sit side-saddle or forwards, or against which you can lean, not to mention the foot-rest ring (complete with marked seetings) destined to provide a secure posture to people sitting uprgith on it at work, and which recurs on a somewhat larger scale as the end of the base of the height-adjustable table. Admittedly, especially in white the ensemble brings to mind a combination of architect's office with a drawing machine and a dentist's surgery without the treatment couch. Yet that is to forget that the 360º office definitely has its charms - and, as can be clearly seen, has a famous predecessor, namely George Nelson's 1964 "Action Office" - at least as regards the high, saddl-elike seat, which back then went by the name of "Perch".

Grcic's idea is in all respects more hard-edged, and that applies to both the seat and the table; and it also strongly takes into account that working conditions today are different. While George Nelson, collaborating with Robert Probst, developed a concept that prioritized streamlining workflow, 360º supports flexible work with its settings, as it can be swiveled in the horizontal plane and adjusted vertically. Now, there is no reason why one must like this, but if one thing is certain then that in terms of functionality it is smart and in terms of shape highly original. And it cannot eb construed as a disadvantage that its functionality (being able to swivel 360° when working) is highlighted by symbolic markings. Today, more than ever before, the office is a machine. And so why should it not look like one? The ideology of he flexible person who lives and works flexibly is something you get into the bargain. So all that remains to be said is: Keep in motion.

Monza by Konstantin Grcic for Plank
Tailored wood by Raw Edges, Yael Mer & Shay Alkalay
A-chair by Werner Aisslinger for l'abbate
Tom Dixon
Overdyed Lounge chair by Diesel Design Center for Moroso
the work sofa by studio Makkin & Bey, Prooff
Aki by Alfredo Häberli for Frederica
Jaime Hayon for Ceccotti
Camping Serie by Jesper K. Thomsen for Normann Copenhagen
360° Stool by Konstantin Grcic for Magis; All photos: © Stylepark
Trattoria by Jasper Morrison for Magis
10 Unit System by Shigeru Ban for Artek
Vegetal by Bouroullecs for Vitra
Houdini by Stefan Diez for e15
360° Stool Prototype by Konstantin Grcic, Exhibition Prophets & Penitents
Tuyomyo Bench by Frank O. Gehry for Emeco
She said by Nitzan Cohen for Mattiazzi
Alcantara Design Museum Volant Sofa by Patricia Urquila for Moroso
Lui 5 by Philippe Bestenheider for Fratelli Boffi
404H/1404H by Stefan Diez for Thonet
Prater Chair by Marco Dessi for Richard Lampert
Booktower by Samuel Chan for Linteloo
Parupu by Claesson Koivisto Rune for Sodra
43 by Konstantin Grcic, seen by Skitsch