Fashionable? Who wants fashionable furniture in their home? - Furniture should be timeless and long-lasting, a far cry from all short-term trends and fashionable gimmicks - that went without saying even just a few years ago. For a long time, fashion was taboo for serious product designers and that may well be the reason why the black existentialist garb became a kind of uniform for architects and product-designers working in "the modern idiom", something between a necessary eccentricity and an emphatic rejection of everything brightly coloured, loud and superficial. In the search for timelessness and practicability in everyday use, product design in the twentieth century had necessarily to distance itself from a discipline which was apparently intent on celebrating nothing but evanescence and festive eccentricity. The debate about ornamentation, too, inevitably increased the divide, as it excluded any purely decorative functions from the canon of values of the modern. Fabrics, textiles and leather now appeared to be the materials of a feminine discipline which contrasted with the "hard" materials from industry - the metal, glass, steel of industrial design which had masculine connotations.
However, as the various artistic fields come to exert an ever stronger influence on one another and fields such as art and design come closer together, there has also been, in recent years, a rapprochement between fashion and product design. Designers and manufacturers have cooperated in countless cross-marketing promotions: Yoshji Yamamoto designed bags for Mandarina Duck, Issey Miayke vacuum cleaners for Dyson, Marcel Wanders accessories for Puma, Zaha Hadid shoes for Lacoste and for the Brazilian label Melissa. Many designers now no longer wish to confine themselves to the straitjacket of a single area. Hedi Slimane, say, the former chief designer at Dior Homme, also designed a furniture collection in 2007, the "F-system": taking their cue from functions in the 18th century, the pieces looked as though they had been designed by AG Fronzoni himself; they gave the impression of having been produced in an industrial process, when in fact they were made of anodized metal and ebony and hand-made in limited editions. As with fashion, in its forms, production methods and functions, furniture design was also particularly revealing of the social trends of the age, its desires, conventions, values and ideals. And for some time now, fashion has found its way into the seasonal cycle of furniture fairs, where there is constant pressure to present new products or to bring traditional ones "up to date".
Fashion has always been the discipline which puts emphasis on communicative functions, which can just be decorative, just make a statement. "Fashion," says Roland Barthes, "always has a practical use and a rhetorical form of expression." Something that is as close to one's own body as clothing seems to challenge one to confront one's own self more strongly than furniture does, which only occasionally comes into contact with people's bodies; and only by working with its owner as a kind of "third skin" does it communicate its owner's attitudes, status or sense of prestige. Fashion reacts more quickly to social and technological developments than furniture design is able to. The items people see on the catwalk are generally more about communicating a life style, an emotional universe, a brand philosophy, than about actual products on sale as in the case of furniture fairs. Since identity and individuality have become central sales arguments, the furniture sector has a good deal to learn from fashion in terms of staging and contextualising a brand: design labels understand perfectly how to concentrate the core statements of a collection into the ten minutes of a fashion show, and drive home the brand's emotional qualities. Fashion designers are increasingly also designing their own showrooms, shop fittings and presentational context, in order to keep the brand image as strictly focussed as possible. Fashion labels increasingly see themselves as life-style brands, not only designing clothing but, for a clearly defined target group, presenting a whole attitude to and style of life, and offering the products required to pursue that lifestyle in as many different areas as possible.
In line with this trend, an unusually large number of fashion labels exhibited a home collection at this year's Milan furniture fair. Thus for instance, for the first time, the Italian label Diesel exhibited lamps and furniture, produced in collaboration with Foscarini and Moroso: sideboards reminiscent of the touring trunks of rock bands and lamps which bring to mind elements of a DJ's console. Tables and lampshades, where X-ray pictures of turntables and prints of old sound systems are displayed. Dark stained tables and chairs, which make us think of the way jeans used to play with signs of wear, washing and coloration. Furniture and lamp designs, then, which - far from all notions of universal application and perennial visual appeal - consistently carry through a single theme, as in the world of fashion, and thus, one may assume, successfully appeal to a specific clientele.
Maison Martin Margiela, which has belonged to the Diesel Group since 2002, exhibited in Milan, with a simulation of the Paris studio, showcasing Margiela's strictly and consistently thematic universe, which can nevertheless be held up as a contrast to the life-style worlds of the big brands: a universe enclosed within itself, where files, calculators and computers disappear under white covers and ideas and concepts come to the fore. As at the Margiela exhibitions which were held in Antwerp and Munich to celebrate the fashion house's twentieth anniversary, the overall presentation provided impressive evidence of the strong influence exerted in recent times by conceptual fashion gurus on all areas of design. For, since the nineties, with designers such as Rei Kawakubo, Martin Margiela and Hussein Chalayan, fashion has come to enjoy the status of a conceptual, intellectually critical discipline and has thrown its own discipline and its exaggerated aestheticism more sharply into question than any established furniture designer has ever dared to.
In many areas of design, fashion has taken on a pioneering role: individualisation and customisation were taking place here at a time when hardly anyone was talking about the notion in the field of product design. Themes such as "vintage" and "ethno" and the rediscovery of the traditional and the hand-made were not reflected in furniture design until years later. Fashion traditionally draws inspiration from the reserves of the past, creates samples, mixes and cover versions which, whilst they do exist in contemporary furniture design, are still not openly referred to. Fashion plays a bigger part than furniture - or product design - as an indicator of social change in the pages of today's newspaper supplements. Alternative fashion magazines are concerned with symbolicity and cultural codes in a way that design magazines hardly ever are. Whilst bold experimentation in fashion design represents a half-yearly necessity for even many of the big names, in furniture design it is left largely to unknown newcomers. Fashion gurus such as Hussein Chalayan have even come to assume the role of research designers, a role which, once upon a time, seemed reserved for the world of industrial design that was dominated largely by engineers experimenting with new technologies, materials and possibilities for applications. The presentation of his "One Hundred and Eleven Collection" from 2006, where clothes with built-in micro-technology switched from one iconic moment in fashion to another, a Victorian outfit changed into a nineteen-twenties one and opulent hats metamorphosed into little caps, will doubtless go down in design history as the moment when the clichéd image of the superficial fashion designer was definitively consigned to the past, even in the eyes of the most serious of product designers.