The Milan Quodlibet – part two
von Thomas Wagner | May 5, 2009

A chair is a chair is a chair. Intrinsic to it is a special kind of tension; and usually it is also a statement on a particular stance, on the mood set went spent in company and communication. By comparison, a sofa offers a far greater range of possibilities for camouflage, and for taking the limelight. Let us consciously not decide what the fact that not only Freud's couch was shrouded in an Oriental carpet as today just about all sofa designs that seek to be avant-garde opt for printed or embroidered patterns and motifs says about the emotional life of designers, manufacturers and clients. And instead focus on what seems very clear: These joyful patterns serve to soak up, to mute the fear of things foreign. And because a sofa today is seldom narrow, and because they are used to lounge rather than sit upright, the semi-reclining, semi-sitting posture that one has to assume on these corpulent levels of upholstery reveals something of the ambiguity of current poses of living. While such a relaxing posture was once aristocratic in demeanor, its late bourgeois variant has both a representative and an intimate function. If you lounge rather than sit, then you seek proximity to the worlds of sleep and sexuality and demonstrate that you do not work but watch the world from a leisurely position.

Blue denim or the jeans sofa

Rock, Pop, Casual, Vintage, Graphic, Art - the names of the luminaires designed by Diesel and produced by Foscarini shy no clichés when scrambling to seem up to date. And that is certainly not everything. In the case of the furniture that the fashion label is bringing out with Moroso's support, everything is "overdyed" - and blue denim is definitely one of the preferred colors.

Over and above the evergreen question as what presentation was best and which party was the place to be (in both cases, the clear favorite was Established & Sons), one question dominated debates in Milan: What does cooperation between a fashion label such as Diesel and Moroso and Foscarini achieve and what does the fact that popular fashion brands are increasingly moving into the field of furniture and illuminaires mean for the future?

The phenomenon of fashion brands producing furniture collections and interior design is hardly new: Be it Fendi, Missoni, Kenzo, Versace or Armani - none of them are in Milan for the first time. And so now it is Diesel who wants to play a part in the Home Collections market. But what is surprising is that Diesel's founder Renzo Rosso did not take to the stage alone but relied on the expertise of renowned manufacturers such as Moroso and Foscarini. And thus not only was success already brought on board with the names, but also two licensees: "Successful Living from Diesel with Moroso" and "Successful Living from Diesel with Foscarini" is what the two, subtly inter-referencing collections call themselves.

As regards the luminaires, the focus is less on design and more on styling. Some allude to miners lamps and working lamps, others are fold-up and take-away versions; some are good old industrial lamps upgraded using glass and polished chrome, others are printed, use fabric reminiscent of camping tents - or boast the sort of rivets we otherwise tend to spy on Diesel belts. All of it is well made, but it all seems awfully artificial. Nothing here seems truly and purely simple. Instead, everything seems to foster the Mannerism of the useful currently to be seen not just here.

What becomes evident is that the collaboration between fashion and furniture is as exciting as it is risky. While the collection of sofa, armchair, chair, stool, lounge chair, sideboard and various tables made by Moroso all clearly originate from the same source, they remain all too conventional (if we ignore the couch tables, which have x-ray images imprinted on them). All too obvious the fact that it is the secondary and the copied that holds sway here. Even for a young person's room, Vitra's Lounge Chair from the Eames Plywood Group or Prouvé's "Antony" (designed originally for a student hostel) are clearly better choices than some fashionably styled remake. And Vitra's Home Collection seems far fresher thanks to the principle of collage on which it is based.

Not least because we can expect that the collection will not be on sale at a bargain price and the distribution chain will be different, Diesel has missed the opportunity to baptize something like an Ikea line containing discerning design with a look of its own. And that, of course, is something you cannot achieve in passing and without famous designers to assist you.

Global worlds of couch cushions

Patterns and intercultural exchange have always played a larger role when designing a sofa or couch then when creating a chair. For the simple reason that the focus is on structuring larger surfaces and volumes. In terms of a cultural remix, what we see repeated or repleated are not just visual stimuli, tactile effects, patterns and textures, for fashions and attitudes of former times tend to get reactivated, too. Anyone viewing the mounds of cushions and softly-upholstered islands of tranquility today, the often huge sofas and divans that invite you to set up camp and recline, will invariably feel that (covertly and in part camouflaged by a hybrid collection of global patterns) what we are witnessing is the return of the tacky sofa cushion life of the 1950s and 1960s. What was once condemned for its crocheted borders, is now celebrating its gay revival, disguised as an intercultural pattern - at times gladly shot through with a touch of the Aztec, with pixels or Dutch flower designs. Of course, all of this is not clad in the old look, but given a new chic face. And there is no overlooking the fact that here a well-heeled middle class with a green, global and multicultural mindset drinks a toast to itself.

Diversity, if grasped as a remix, implies precisely that noting disappears once and for all, but that individual forms, patterns and stances recur to the extent that they promise an answer to a current need. And that would clearly seem today to be the need for embedding in a global culture, draped in local patterns taken out of their original context. Depending on whether one adopts an affirmative or a critical stance, one could see the present remixes as a gain in openness toward other cultures or as camouflage for a neocolonialist outlook.

Modernism at half-mast

As a consequence, formally straightforward seating arrangements, whose material properties (often leather or a woven) emphasize how solid their overall impression is, have by no means disappeared, and there continue to be many of them. As regards the very latest among them, however, well there the flag of Modernism flies at half-mast. As has been evident for a few years now, ornament, pattern and embroidery are regaining lost ground, seeking to proclaim a new, young, global image of comfort, uniting in the patterns what remains so separate in reality, namely the first and third worlds. What this can look like was especially well demonstrated in Moroso's showroom, which melded into a party mix of cultures, right down to the trivial photos from Harare, African patterns, textures and rhythms. You don't need to be a prophet to predict that this kind of ethno-mix will soon come a cropper.

Images of a sofa

An approach less exposed to the danger of neocolonialism and ethno-kitch then the simple reliance on effects (one that evaporates swiftly) is taken by, among others, by the female designers at Sweden's "front" group, who have developed various sofas as the "Moment" line for Moroso - and the furniture makes use of the trompe l'oeil of painting. The principle behind it is simple: What from a distance seems to be a fold transpires on closer inspection to be an illusion, the sofa being in reality as smooth as canvas. And what looks like a bench made of thick timber proves to be by no means hard.

A different, more down-to-earth and typically British example is offered by Richard Woods and Sebastian Wrong at Established & Sons with their sofa and armchair combi, "Bricks & Mortar". They thus bring bricks back from the outer walls into the interior by printing an image of a wall made of bricks and mortar onto the cover fabrics which are then slipped over a rectangular form. And in the afore-mentioned Diesel series for and by Moroso there are coffee tables and side tables whose glass tops have "X-ray images" printed on them - "xraydio 1_razza" is festooned with an x-rayed stingray, "xraydio 2_disc" displays a DJ deck steeped in night blue, and "xraydio 3_natura morta" is a wall screen that morphs into a monitor displaying a still life.

The Mannerists' game

Mannerists have always been considered traitors. Even when they first took the stage, Europe was undergoing political and economic upheaval. Today the scent of luxury and glamour has ceased to waft so strongly, and it is becoming noticeably who the serous-minded are who call themselves designers at operate at the interface between art, economics and sociology, and who still seriously enjoy a capricious nod and a wink at the same time.

Edra has never made any bones about its approach, and in Milan it again set out to do justice to its reputation. "Shining" was the motto of the completely black trade fair stand, where Fernando and Humberto Campana displayed a veritable array of new products: the "Cipria" sofa, "Segreto" and "Scrigno" (both storage furniture) and their "Miraggio" mirror. And once again everything seemed to have been borrowed from an extravagant costume film.

"Segreto" is a becolumned, castor-based item with various mirrors consisting of a steel/aluminum frame covered with leather profiles in black, red, white and green. "Scrigno" is a kind of chest of drawers with wing doors covered completely with colored acrylic mirror fragments, such that the furniture and the room seem to completely shatter before our mind's eye. Hard to be crazier, you might think. But the "Cipria" sofa goes even further. Six-eight individual, marsh-mallow-like cushions, covered in eco-hide, (available as sheered or in a long-hair version) transform the sofa into an object that could be termed a mutation from Pop Art and Mannerism.

Sitting on a firm blanket

Decidedly unhairy but all the more refined the new "Quilt" seating by Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec for Established & Sons. Essentially, the sofa and armchair consist of nothing other than honeycomb, stiffly upholstered covers made of high-tech stretch, pulled over a steel frame, of which only the legs are visible. There are no comparable items of seating. "Quilt" is anything but Mannerist. Be it the sofa or the armchair, here materials and shape fuse such that the facets and the prismatic animation of the surface seem perfect. And overall it is as surprising as it is extravagant, despite not requiring tricks or make-up.

Be bees like flies

Once again, much came to light in Milan - the raw and the cooked, the simple and the mannerist, the serious and the crazy. Some of the items in the great pot of diversity dazzled but were bereft of substance, such as the Miraggio mirror by Fernando and Humberto Campana. Yet you could also discover any number of examples of how precise and mobile furniture design can be today.

The future is no doubt somewhere between sense and nonsense. And the path to it can probably only be found is designers and manufacturers heed sociologist Dirk Becker's suggestion that we "be bees, like flies!" The story goes: If you trap a few bees in a bottle and leave the bottleneck open but place the bottle flat on a table such that the bottom of the bottle is opposite a source of light, the bees systematically search the bottom for a way out - and die of hunger and exhaustion. If you trap flies in the same bottle, they buzz about in agitation and completely unsystematically - and by chance find the way out. The flies are uncoordinated in their actions and have no regulatory system that causes them to all behave the same way. "Be bees like flies!" is a paradoxical suggestions that addresses people who can be both, namely chaotic and systematic. Only if you search for solutions but also trust in chance will escape.

Paper Cloud by Tokujin Yoshioka for Moroso
Draped Sofa by Front for Moroso
Nebula by Diesel together with Moroso
Cipria by Humberto Campana, Fernando Campana for Edra
Cipria by Humberto Campana, Fernando Campana for Edra
Table B Wood by Konstantin Grcic for BD Barcelona Design
Table B Wood by Konstantin Grcic for BD Barcelona Design
Platone by Jeff Miller for Cerruti Baleri
Tom Dixon
Nuur by Simon Pengelly for arper
Table B Stone by Konstantin Grcic for BD Barcelona Design; All Photos: Stylepark
Fergana Collection by Patricia Urquiola for Moroso
Soft Wood Sofa by Front for Moroso
Facet by Bernhardt Design for Danerka
Nils Holger Moormann
Edinburgh by Dedon
Leatherworks by Humberto Campana, Fernando Campana for Edra
Nebula by Diesel togther with Moroso
Sant Ambrogio von Luigi Caccia Dominioni für Azucena
Mole by Sergio Rodrigues for Classicon