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‘The best work was from emerging designers’

From Erlenmeyer flasks of tea to the 2015 Expo UK Pavilion, James Haldane reports on Milan’s annual design fair, Salone del Mobile 2015

A cup of English breakfast tea served with a smile and a fortifying cloud of milk – could there be a more effective remedy to the battle scars of a week at the Salone del Mobile, Milan’s annual design fair?

The source of my caffeinated salvation was Daniel Rous, resident at the prolific Benetton-sponsored Fabrica research cluster in Treviso and an exhibitor at Housewarming – one of this year’s major shows. The exhibition, produced in conjunction with Airbnb, explores the theme of ‘a warm welcome’ through a host of projects inspired by the diverse cultural backgrounds of Fabrica’s global pool of young designers. Installed in the palatial surroundings of the Palazzo Crespi, a privately owned mansion in central Milan, the lavish experience offered an ironically exclusive vision of the burgeoning ‘sharing economy’. Still, the consensus was they had the best croissants in town.

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Daniel Rous’ tea set for Housewarming exhibition

Rous’ investigation of the traditions of British hospitality culminated in the form of a contemporary tea set. Anchored around three glass steeping vessels of differing volumes – designed to achieve varying strengths of tea – it draws its visual language from the measuring flasks and beakers of the chemistry lab. Though a dramatic departure from the bone china of Middle England, it’s an aesthetic that felt surprising well matched to the air of service and exactness that underpins this most British ritual.

Individually compelling though many of the other items were, the true success of Housewarming lay in the exposure it granted their emerging designers. The matter of the prohibitively high cost of entry to the Salone – from the expense of shipping products to Milan to the rental of exhibition space – is a perennially sore issue. Before the fair even began, French brand Moustache released a provocative bodypaint-heavy film showcasing their latest designs (imagine a Gotye music video with some sconces thrown in for good measure) with an accompanying statement that it could no longer financially justify attending in person.

The matter of the prohibitively high cost of entry to the Salone – from the expense of shipping products to Milan to the rental of exhibition space – is a perennially sore issue.

With such sentiments abounding, many turned to SaloneSatellite – a sub-show contained within Milan’s main commercial fair – for a more affordable space to present. The busiest stand there belonged to students from Aalto University in Finland. I was particularly drawn to Heikkilä Hanna-Kaarina’s Keshini glasswork range, which modifies the technique of aquarelle painting to capture abstracted landscapes within its delicate volumes. Similarly successful in achieving a sense of visual weightlessness was Fanni Suvila’s Canneloni seating range. Resembling the lovechildren of a Klein canvas and a Caro sculpture, her armchairs conceal their metal structure within a volumetric skin of aircraft-inspired bent plywood.

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Heikkilä Hanna-Kaarina’s Keshini glasswork range

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Fanni Suvila’s Canneloni seating range

The success of these unpretentious projects stood in opposition to a tepid showing from the blingy biennial Euroluce lighting trade show, where there was little to raise the pulse among the row upon row of Murano glass chandeliers. The craftsmanship of these fixtures goes without saying, but given that they’ve been blowing glass on the Venetian island since the 7th century, I don’t consider a stylistic reboot too much to ask. It’s depressing to see the extent to which the glass and ceramics markets have retreated to the safe decorative taste of “classic with a modern twist” since the bold Postmodern vibrancy of the 1980s.

Mercifully, in their showroom across town, Italian brand Foscarini debuted a comically tongue-in-cheek range of lamps, using ice cream as their point of departure. Designed on commission by Nendo and Luca Nichetto, the Kurage lamps combine the modest materials of cypress wood, whittled flat to resemble lolly sticks, with traditional Japanese washi paper.

In fact, intertextuality – the cross-referencing of iconographies and sources –emerged as a major theme across the big brands at the Fiera. Martino Gamper’s new Cirque range for Gebrüder Thonet, for example, brings together a subtle nod to the drama and dynamism of the big top, while simultaneously showcasing the historic brand’s technical know-how in bentwood furniture. Meanwhile, Cassina unveiled a new line of tables designed by Jaime Hayón and inspired by the architecture of Le Corbusier. The Réaction Poétique collection commemorates 50 years since the death of the seminal architect and draws on the organic lines of his work at Ronchamp and Chandigarh. Despite their differing sources of inspiration, there’s a clear parallel between these two furniture collections in their common choice of plainly finished wood. Selected for its straightforward materiality, it allows the plasticity of their forms to sing without interference.

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Cirque chairs by Martino Gamper for Gebrüder Thonet

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Réaction Poétique by Jaime Hayón for Cassina

Of all the numerous bashes throughout the week, two stood out for boasting the most interesting environs and, not unconnectedly, the best canapé menus. This year’s Wallpaper* Handmade project set its participating designers and manufacturers the challenge of creating objects to celebrate gastronomy and the art of entertaining. After I’d torn myself away from the launch party’s intoxicatingly pongy ‘cheese area’ – I kid you not – I came upon the handsomely spare Grill Royal by Konstantin Grcic and Valcucine. Its compact stainless steel design unfolds like a doll’s house for nomadic Atkins dieters. I wouldn’t ordinarily put myself down as a barbeque fetishist, but the gridded formalism was a welcome relief to a week of soft furnishings.

The true epicurean and experiential highlight of my week, however, was a preview visit to the UK pavilion for Expo 2015, designed by artist Wolfgang Buttress and designer and engineer Tristan Simmonds, and built by Stage One. Milan made an ambitious choice in applying to host this second global gathering just two weeks after the Salone. The sageness of this decision remains to be seen. My passing view of the site revealed what looked like far more a fortnight’s work remaining on the majority of the national pavilions – a fact that’s currently causing a furore in the Italian media, who have reportedly been banned from further visits until opening day on May 1st.

By contrast, Buttress’ completed Hive design offered a resolved and intellectually articulate place of refuge. My evening inside its diaphanous, hexagonal matrix of aluminium – largely spent gluttonising samples from the various menus that will be served over the coming six months from the likes of Tom Aikens and Angela Hartnett – read like the inverse of that simple cup tea in the lavish palazzo. Ostentation and glamour have their place, but like all things, are really only enjoyable in balance.

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UK pavilion for Expo 2015 designed by artist Wolfgang Buttress and designer and engineer Tristan Simmonds, built by Stage One

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