What a relief
The Milan marathon part 1
by Thomas Wagner | Apr 17, 2013
Rem Kohlhaas' vision of furniture for Knoll International designed for the 75th anniversary of the company. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark

Milan will always be Milan. Aside from this, the largest furniture fair in the world, there is no other event that merges business, spectacle, north Italian modo di vita and urban culture to create such a flurrying, shimmering and brimming concoction. And that even in these times of crisis, something which has impacted on design in various ways and certainly cannot be ignored. So what was awaiting us this time, waiting to be marveled at, experienced, bemoaned and consumed? Now, let’s try and squeeze it into one sentence, even if this is unlikely to hold for very long, dying to disband into its various parts, like a bouillon cube plunged into hot water. In any case, it would go a little something like this: The Zona Tortona is quickly losing ground as a platform, major manufacturers are returning to the fair and reverting their focus back to their core businesses, most show a great deal of modesty with their stand designs, there simply isn’t enough in the pot for extravagance and truly surprising novelties prove to be something of a rarity. And when it comes to the designers themselves: Ross Lovegrove styles himself on his car, Rem Kohlhaas transforms Modernism, Konstantin Grcic shows everyone how it’s done (yet again), and while the Bouroullecs run around in circles in “Quiet Motion”, Jaime Hayon sets off a rocket or two. Got it? No? Ok, let’s slow it down then, one at a time.

Simplifying living

Now, furniture is not real estate. Chairs can be carried off and even fitted wardrobes that take up entire bedroom walls can be moved – an insight that is anything but new. Nonetheless, in these times where being permanently on the go is something to be revered, one can hardly overlook this tendency to simplify chairs, tables, armchairs and shelving under the dictate of efficiency. Entire living rooms can now be relocated outside for the summer – promises like these are just as much a part of this trend as stackable chairs, small armchairs and the triumphal march currently being made through the showrooms and trade-fair halls by woven materials, plywood and aluminum. But it’s not just when it comes to materials that the heavy is being replaced by the lightweight. During the boom years, it was often sufficient that this feverish search for some kind of “innovation-induced” ecstasy bore an exalted yet in fact average result. Design history was also perceived as something of a burden that was to be thrown off at all costs. Now, once again, we instead tend to reflect upon it from time to time, make playful references to it and rewrite it with newfound confidence. There is no question that the more we doubt the sense behind this acceleration in every area of our lives, the more concretely this campaign for simplification and deceleration takes shape. Everything should be simpler: chairs and armchairs, our homes and at the end of it all our lives as well. Whether this will ever happen and how it will happen, no one knows. It is as though we believe that we can only take on the future by traveling light.

It’s the same every year: once the Milan marathon is over and those weary feet, which have carried us over days and nights through trade-fair halls, showrooms, streets, factory halls and bars, are back in place beneath our desks, we see in our mind’s eye a flurry of all too familiar questions arising from daydreams of Milan: What exactly did we experience there? Was it an above-average Salone? What surprised us, what disappointed us? How has the crisis manifested itself in the industry, which really bore the brunt here in Europe when the ruptured real estate bubble and turbulence on the financial markets pushed redecorating and renovating way back down on people’s list of priorities?

Consolidate and wait it out

There was one thing that could not be overlooked in Milan this year: In the field of premium design, 2013 proved to be an exercise in restraint. While manufacturers of dramatically retrograde luxury items for the nouveaux riches in Russia and Asia went flat out with an abundance of gold and brocade, restraint became the companion of all those who have made it their mission to articulate a contemporary form of design. Consolidate and wait it out until the storm has passed was the name of the game on many a stand. But this doesn’t mean hiding away or sitting on your hands. You carry on and stay on target. In concrete terms this means: the times when the major manufacturers would try to outdo one another with a sparkling array of novelties are well and truly over.

Those who did dare to present new products – be it out of pure habit or in the hope of enhancing their own range – kept it to a minimum and put their trust in only the most prestigious of names, which they hoped would act as their one-way ticket to success on the market. Which in turn leads to the sobering realization that a smaller number of prototypes that have been knocked together in haste (only a few of them would ever go into serial production anyway) is in fact doing the industry the world of good. And when it comes to the A-listers of the design world, 2013 has afforded a great opportunity to those (more than anyone else) who have always worked on developing products with the greatest precision and taking them right up to serial production, rather than simply relying on superficial impressions. To put it another way, in the end the fact that this sector, which is ordinarily rather inclined towards overdoing it, has been forced to limit itself in times of crisis has led it to calm down somewhat (and not only in the sense of sustainable production), whereby the positive impact for the consumer wins hands down.

OMA and the cat at the window

The saying goes: “The first cut is the deepest”. And accordingly there’s all the more reason to get excited when Rem Koolhaas makes his way to Milan to present his first ever furniture collection. At first glance, that which Master Rem and his “Office for Metropolitan Architecture”, OMA for short, have developed for Knoll International under the name “Tools for Life” comes across surprisingly American and Modernist. At the premises occupied by the Prada Foundation, the architect created an opulent scene, placing a (projected) Siamese cat in front of cool glazed windows – an installation that turned out to be a consciously calculated, transatlantic amalgamation of architecture, design and engineering ingenuity. You were hit between the eyes by the mighty, cylindrical telescopic legs that not only hold boxy armchairs but above all solid table tops made of Plexiglas or travertine, whose height can be adjusted as needed at the push of a little red button (even at the end of the 19th century, Kodak founder George Eastman was already using the slogan “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest”, though back then he was of course making reference to the photographic development process). You’ve got to hand it to OMA, their motorized Modernism unfurls a distinct fascination, not only because all of the parts together create a unique synthesis of work and leisure. In their aesthetics, these telescopic legs are reminiscent of the modern era of solid mechanics, but also of the hydraulic extremities of the “Walking City”, which Archigram designed in 1964 for a human race that roams the earth as traveling workers and, like snails, carry their homes along with them.

Monoblock and communicative counter

One element of the collection in particular demonstrates how the Rotterdam team has based its sense of interactivity and variability on Modernist notions: The “04 Counter” consists of three rectangular, monolithic beams that initially form a kind of, well, counter. As the two upper elements can be rotated to the side and arranged in almost any constellation, the monoblock swiftly becomes a bench, shelving unit or seating area. At the push of a button, a simple ‘hulk’ in the space morphs into a communicative center that can be configured as desired. Taking a symbolic view of the counter, it playfully demonstrates the transformation of a rigid Modernity into a “tool” that can be used both communicatively and socially.

Another example shows that famous architects do not find success in design per se. The “Dream Chair”, a rocking chair Tadao Ando designed for Carl Hansen & Son, failed to live up to expectations on more than just the functional front. While its frontal appearance is undoubtedly attractive, the solutions for both the base and the link between the base and seat shell are unimpressive.

Recliners, big and beautiful

Anyone taking a break from work nowadays seems to prefer relaxing in a lounge chair. At least that’s what manufacturers and designers seem to think. Whereas sofas are returning to the cubic forms and historical designs of the 1950s and 1960s (take, for instance, “Bruce” by Ludovica + Roberto Palomba for Zanotta, “My World” by Philippe Starck for Cassina, “Larsen” by Verzelloni, and even “Standard” by Francesco Binfaré for Edra or “Westhausen” by Ferdinand Kramer for e15) the good old recliner is suddenly taking on new qualities and increasingly becoming an indispensable item of furniture. Vitra showed us how it’s done just a few years ago with Antonio Citterio’s “Grand Repos”. Now Jaime Hayon, who is increasingly developing into a master of clear, sophisticated forms and who already successfully revamped an Eames classic with “Lounger” for BD Barcelona in 2009, has thrown a notable new design into the mix.

“Ro”, which simply means “calm” in Danish, is a one and a half seater that Hayon has designed for Fritz Hansen and anyone else looking for relaxed seating. The shell’s curves are as sensual as Oskar Niemeyer’s architecture, but look neither obtrusive nor manneristically exaggerated. Its elegance is beautiful to behold, its breadth and upholstery promise comfort, the colors of the fabrics are pleasantly restrained and, we are assured, the high-grade armchair is reasonably priced to boot. Who knows, perhaps “Ro” will become a new classic. In any case, Hayon’s original creation need not fear being overshadowed by Arne Jacobsen’s legendary “Egg Chair”, likewise in the Fritz Hansen range. Looking at “Ro”, Patricia Urquiola’s “Clarissa Hood” (Moroso) seems like the poor relation in comparison.

Club chairs, petit and perfectly formed

Those who aren’t fussed about putting their legs up, reading, dozing or watching TV, or those who simply don’t have much space, are much more likely to opt for a small armchair. Even last year, it was already clear that the handy, manageable form of the club chair was in great demand, whether as a complement to the sofa, as a conversation area in the living room or simply as an alternative to its larger counterparts. And the number of round, rectangular or shell-shaped exemplars perched on firm bases, three or four-legged swivel frames, is now fittingly large, too. So it’s really no wonder that Vitra has now supplemented “Grand Repos” with “Petit Repos”, also designed by Antonio Citterio. It doesn’t require that much imagination to foresee that this small, fine specimen with its cheeky “wings” is set to conquer hotel lobbies across the globe.

At Walter Knoll, where you are bound to find a few solid and slick pieces in the range, the latest addition is called “Hausmann 310”. It was actually designed back in 1962 by the Swiss architect and designer duo Trix and Robert Hausmann, who had explicitly subscribed to a form of “critical Mannerism”. And while the “310” may exude technical refinement with its elevated, semicircular form and button upholstery à la Chesterfield, it does in fact take up seemingly lost traditions and interpret them (with a good dash of mischief and self-mocking) in the spirit of the present. And then there was Konstantin Grcic’s “Traffic” (Magis), which in fact stands for an entire series including a comfy recliner. And taking a completely different approach, “That” (e15) by Stefan Diez. But we’ll come to that a little later.

Read on in part 2 of our Milan marathon:

Cat in front of a window - be a consciously calculated, transatlantic amalgamation of architecture, design and engineering ingenuity. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
OMA unveiled it's collection at the Prada Foundation, the fashion company which is in strong contact with Rem Kohlhaas. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
A "Tool for Life" - the monoblock "Counter 04" swiftly becomes a bench, shelving unit or seating area. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
The solutions for both the base and the link between the base and seat shell are unimpressive: Tadao Ando’s Lounge Chair for Carl Hansen & Son. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Inspired by the 1950s and 1960s: “Standard” by Francesco Binfaré for Edra. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
The good, old lounge chair turns new: Patricia Urquiolas designs for Kartell and Moroso. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Urquiola's sense for color: "Mafalda" for Moroso. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
The chair and his companions – buffet at the stand of Moroso. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
The Eames Lounge Chair in black for Vitra. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
Vitra puts the „Petit Repos“ aside to the “Grand Repos, as well designed by Antonio Citterio. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
At Walter Knoll the latest addition is called “Hausmann 310” - button upholstery à la Chesterfield interpret them in a spirit of the present. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
Jaime Hayon‘s „Pina“ (Magis). Photo © Martina Metzner, Stylepark
Outdoor as well as indoor: couch combination "Tropez" by Stefan Diez for rthe spanish company Gandia Blasco. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Design! Color! History! At the Triennale we found lovely boxes made by well-known designer setting up a design chronicle for the popular companys. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark