The new is not per se the good. It is not only those who constantly jabber on about innovation and consider sustainability to be nothing more than a marketing gimmick who should take note of this simple sentence. It could also function well as a motto for the 51st Salone del Mobile with all its "fuori", i.e., the events and spectacular shows that take place alongside the Salone itself. Without doubt, the trade-fair halls in Rho saw a lot of new business done in 2012, and there was a lot of posing, viewing, celebrating and eating in the countless showrooms, galleries, and museums, on the streets, in the courtyards and even in industrial buildings; and once again there were colorful fireworks, which stand almost as an ideal type for what tends to be called the spectacle culture. Here an old VW van boasting hippie painting on its bodywork, there a new label, here a racing car and there ideas for the city of tomorrow – and above all an inquisitive throng wherever you looked. Yet even this dense manifestation of the creative culture that eats, lives and breathes the zeitgeist could not foster the illusion that novelty is an incontrovertible value in itself.
Particularly in Italy there are of course primarily economic reasons for this. If things go badly, and that is the case in most of Europe at the moment, either the demonstrators come out in protest, or people party. Both are tantamount to dancing on a volcano. Just in time to mark the opening of the Salone del Mobile, the Italian government announced that this year the domestic economy would dwindle more than expected: gross domestic product, or so the latest forecast suggests, will not as hitherto assumed decrease by 0.5 percent but rather drop 1.2 percent. Even if Mario Monti as Italian Prime Minister, also in charge of finances and the economy, seeks to counteract this and is thus prepared to accept a higher government deficit as the price, life is still a lot less than rosy in the crucial region around Milan. At the same time, the expectations are high with the sentiment that specifically the north must blaze the trail for Italy's rejuvenation. So there's no time for depression. And not only the Italians, but the furniture makers from other European countries feel the bite of clients' purchasing restraint and opt for a more downbeat approach as a consequence. All of this taken together does not necessarily spell a complete absence of novelties, but you can definitely sense a degree of caution. With the effect that the new is no longer an asset per se in a sector that loves to taste its fruits. And this has spawned the insight that not everything that is new or even appears spectacular often is developed at great expense must necessarily sell well. In the design business, a bird in your hand is definitely worth two in the bush.
Less is more
Not to worry, the Salone is nevertheless still an optimistic progress machine. And the careful consolidation to be sensed is pretty good for it anyway. In line with this, there are definitely fewer overly strident designs or mere gimmicks to be seen in the trade-fair booths, while experimentation for experimentation's sake has tended to emigrate to the Ventura Lambrate, where the more or less talented young designers cavort in order to champion making the world a better place. And it's also in line with this that Established & Sons, while still presenting the one gimmick or another (such as a table-and-chair set by Ingo Maurer), has reduced its forever opulent program of innovations, and instead boasted supplements such as the "Wrongwoods Bookcase". And Cassina, a company that has never tried to be on the cusp of the spectacular, has focused mainly on expanding its line of classics, this year for example by re-issuing Charlotte Perriand's "Nuage-Bibliotheque" and "Nuage-Bahut". Another fitting example here would e15, which served up a distinctly contemporary Ferdinand Kramer Collection that will prove hard to top in terms of restrained modernism – with a high-end purist daybed, different tables and a series of coffee tables, which, with a new lick of paint, all look as though they have just been designed rather than back in 1951. (See News & Stories of April 16)
The good – continuing what already exists
Another aspect of this cautious revaluation (which, yes, of course, could easily be over again tomorrow) was revealed by "Mister Vitra", alias Rolf Fehlbaum. He has now been made the corporation's President of the Advisory Council and, during a spontaneous tour of the trade-fair stand mainly outlined the advances made with existing products, the synergies and the new precision afforded to some of them. Vitra proudly presented a new version of Antonio Citterio's super-top-of-the-range "Grand Repos" in a club-chair look, in which his expertise in the kinetics of office chairs is united with the comfort of a recliner, Jean Prouvé's "Fauteuil de Salon" from the Prouvé-RAW collection, which with its shaped sheet metal, bent tubular steel, wooden and leather sections couples structural clarity and elegance in a unique way, and a special edition of 100 copies of Hella Jongerius' Polder sofas, which are now proudly upholstered in new fabrics by Maharam – indeed, the ornamentation and textures of the textiles certainly create new flights of fancy.
Moreover, the Vitra line is supplemented by three differently-sized "projections" from the wall made of plastic that can be arranged at will as small shelves. These "Corniches" by the Bouroullec brothers are neither shelves per se nor surfaces screwed to the wall. Ronan Bouroullec explains the purpose of the decorative helpers: "The same way that we hang our belongings on a rock jutting from a cliff before diving into the sea, we need small, informal storage in everyday life too." So the projections stick to the wall like slender protruding rocks or fungi on a tree trunk, where they can be grouped into ensembles as required.
For all the small things
It is not only at Vitra that the mixture of products across different price segments has proved its worth. No one constantly buys new sofas, but even if your budget is tight you can change things relating to the sofa. Meaning that not infrequently small, practical and decorative elements that can be used in addition to an existing piece of furniture are highly regarded. Nils Holger Moormann, for example, now offers small items alongside the fully-developed super-light "Pressed Chair". Using a single piece of sheet metal, Harry Thaler has created an ingenious design for small sheet steel boxes called "Moorless" which can, on a base plate, be arranged to form a table collage. "Paul & Paula", two low rectangular tables with a swivel top designed by Matthias Ferwagner and boasting Moormann's typical rope constructions, can be used on their own or as a duo to hold glasses, books or bric-à-brac. Indeed, never before have there been so many round, angular, long, short, high or low side tables, made of wood, or sheet metal, or marble, or plastic, or glass. "Candy Table" by Sylvain Willenz for Capellini and the small "Torei" table by Luca Nichetto for Cassina being but two prime examples.
For some years now, Diesel's "Successful Living" collection proves that youthfulness need not be "bad". Even if the one sofa or another is more a place to lounge than a seat, the somewhat strange trend toward huge sofas with ever deeper seats on which you half-sit, half-lie, seems in general to persist, the furniture (devised in cooperation with Moroso) and the luminaires (made in collaboration with Foscarini) certainly have a certain flair to them. Another product line demonstrates that Diesel is not just creative when it comes to denim. Together with Scavolini the company has launched a kitchen line that undoubtedly looks set to grab the limelight from the big, expensive kitchen manufacturers. Not everyone has a kitchen that is as large as an entire apartment, meaning that flexibility is called for. "The Kitchen Misfits" is not a new line of kitchen units, but an ensemble of modular, standalone furniture items that radiate solidity thanks to the materials used (wood, steel, cement and reinforced glass) and with their "used look" also toy in a charming and ironic manner with the notion of the "vintage". The idea has the makings of a bestseller.
With regards to modular kitchens that are easily transported and can be expanded bit by bit, a somewhat different concept was to be seen in Spazio Rossana Orlandi, even if this was unfortunately rather hidden from view. Kilian Schindler, a young designer who has already worked for Rosenthal, Schönbuch und DePadova, created the "Concept Kitchen" for Nordhorn-based firm Naber, which develops and produces full-range kitchen accessories. Schindler seems to have really thought things through when designing this kitchen. It consists of open shelving and enclosed storage spaces that can be incorporated into the sink unit and stove unit. In addition, grid holes and a simple plug-in principle mean that the various elements can be alternated and expanded without the need for tools. But most notably, the Concept Kitchen can be integrated seamlessly into everyday life. Reduced in its form, it is functional while a retaining a certain emotional.
Occasionally the new is also the good
Coming to Milan from Hallenberg in Germany's Sauerland, mid-sized company Kusch+Co also had a few surprises up their sleeves. Highly successful in the commercial sector and known for their 100 chair collection from 1949, they are once again venturing a step forward in design. Not only is their stand in Superstudio Più (which considered as a whole is currently suffering from an ever greater shift in the direction of becoming a general store) excellently designed, and their new products certainly have no need to fear comparison with their peers. One chair, "Njord", really knows how to impress, its cupped legs supporting a light and comfortable shell made of anthracite-colored polyester felt. This was joined by a re-issue of the rather sophisticated folding chair "Soley", which was designed for Kusch by Valdimar Hardarson back in 1984, and the 9900 collection comprising an armchair and TV relax lounge chair designed by Luigi Colani in 1968 where organic forms meet Pop.
And what have the stars been up to? "Blocco" is the name of the simple ash-wood chair designed by Naoto Fukasawa for Plank, which (be it with or without armrests) continues to wow down to the smallest detail. Konstantin Grcic's "Medici" chair for Mattiazzi has the potential to become a classic like no other, precisely because it pays homage to a very simple principle of construction in an ingenious way, while at Plank he also presents "Palio" a chair with a leather hide shell, which taking a wild guess one would never have ascribed to Grcic. At first glance, "Palio" is reminiscent of Phillipe Starck's "Costes" from 1984, an illusion that is soon debunked by the contrasts in terms of the shape and the materials used. "Palio" is a sophisticated chair well-suited to a dining room or café setting, which might seem quite narrow to the eye but soon proves to be extremely comfortable. Above all, for all its elegance it has something dynamic about it thanks to the fact that the edges of the bowl curve downward at the front. Occasionally, the new is also the good after all.