In the annual lead up to the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, the rumour mill already grinds. This year was no different, though with less spice perhaps. How many visitors? Who won’t make it? Will the Charme group (Poltrona Frau, Cassina, Gufram) be back? How do you get on the list for the best parties? And most important to designers: who are their competitors, the rising stars? The 330,000 visitors and, for some companies, a bumper year in terms of sales, suggests a cavalier fight-back in times of strife.
With hundreds of events large and small scattered across the city, and 2,500 companies exhibiting in the main fair, the Fiera at Rho, Milan celebrates the design equivalent of the Edinburgh Festival and with equal drama. Much effort was put into the packaging. Fashionable Via Montenapoleone sported fully- furnished balconies by major brands. At the Fiera, outstanding displays at Cappellini and Kartell offset museum-like displays of greatest hits.
Overall, Milan continues to make any other design fests look puny by comparison. The reasons are simple − Italy (unlike the UK) still has a viable industry capable of turning ideas into reality. The entrepreneurial spirit sits well in the family business. Designers and design companies are mutually supportive, while in Britain, we have lots of design talent but almost no manufacturers. It is true that Italian industry is on the skids. Berlusconi’s profligacy hasn’t helped, and neither have Monti’s exorbitant taxes. It’s the couture end of design and, like fashion, it is readily copied, particularly in the Far East. Across the nation empty factories seem to outnumber those still operating. Every Italian furniture or lighting company worth its salt now has to work that much harder and reach that bit further. Despite little chance of selling at home, there is every possibility of upping your exports.
Whether you come from Italy or anywhere else in Europe, sitting on the fence means you’re dead in the water. ‘Made in Italy’ still carries cachet, and it will increasingly only be the preserve of brands that innovate and communicate. Foreign companies know they will attract attention, even if for any visitor it is impossible to visit every show.
Like virtually all visitors, designers included, you set out with a plan of where, who, and when. You tailor the experience by joining up your own dots in the guide while being open to the unexpected in the cultural dérive. In the Fuorisalone, the most engaging work was by young designers making the most of small-scale production. If they come from Italy they still have a wealth of artisanal support to draw upon, and if they are from outside, the UK included, they probably make it themselves. As well as the offbeat shows in town, I also wanted to catch the mood of the big furniture companies at the fair like Magis, Moroso and Edra. Indeed there were surprises hidden among the reissues.
Rather than a Salone that was down at heel, I found confidence in all quarters. The same designer names predominate but there are plenty of emerging stars too. Ours is an era of the survival of the fittest, but there was much to inspire from masters and newcomers alike. My double-dozen selection covers the gamut from industry to artistry. These pieces are the perfect match for the domestic future perfect.
Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas’s Candy for Zonca. These crystalline forms made a sugary feast at the Euroluce section of the fair. Each sweet is folded from punched steel and contains a single halogen source
Zaha Hadid’s Avia lamp for Slamp is at once organic and high-tech. The fins radiating from its central void create a complex interplay of translucence and opacity that shifts with the viewer
The Analogia Project, a talented young design team from Milan, launched a bespoke tile system that captures archaeological treasures by scanning the originals digitally, and then translating them into bas-relief
Empatia by Carlotta de Bevilacqua for Artemide. The fibre-optic spray revisited - each perfectly formed lamp harnesses an LED source and transfers it upwards along an acrylic rod to generate a fountain of light
Jacopo Foggini translates his experience in making gigantic light installations into a chair, the Alice for Edra. Internal lamps highlight the translucency and granular quality of the acrylic material
Venini, the most consistent name in Murano glass, trumped rivals with several big name pieces including the Ginevra lamp by Alessandro Mendini. Its Brancusi-like stack perfectly suits the artisanal moulding
Front, the Swedish design team, launched the Doodle Couch for Moroso. The complex raised pattern is stitched. The folded arms invoke their clever lightness of touch
Edra’s tradition of inventive forms for soft seating goes one step further - Francesco Binfaré turns the sofa outside in. Components can combine to face out, or turn inwards to make more of a bed than a sofa
Prolific and playful Spanish designer Jaime Hayon designs the brilliant Catch Chair for&Tradition. His quirky language evokes the body; the arms hug the sitter
Brazilian rising star Zanini de Zanine loves the chunky. His Inflated Wood chair for Cappellini combines cartoon-like over-scale with a sensual appreciation of the grain and mass of reclaimed Brazilian hardwood
Japanese design desiderati Nendo seem to crop up in all quarters. At Caesterstone their signature simplicity combines separate tablets of stone together, each with a single support
Super thin rod and a vocabulary of ironic elementalism has given birth to Konstanin Grcic’s Traffic series for Magis. Block-like upholstery appears suspended above a structure with medical connotations
Far from their world of limited editions, Cliff Shelving, Nendo’s first design for Kartell, celebrates the company’s skill with plastic both as a material and as an industrial product
Firmly on the limited edition front, Nendo’s collaboration with Dilmos demonstrates their breadth in approach while using one material - glass. This cut Baccarat goblet has been reheated to soften its sharp edges to remarkable effect
London-based designers Odd Matter created this exquisite limited lighting piece for Vessel Gallery. Faces of tinted glass are fused in a clever process of copper deposit that results in a granular surface
My own Carry Artid lamps for Secondome Editions seem to reverberate as if a solidification of the light source itself. They are derived from a series of five vases in glass that reflect a family of iconic forms
This modular LED wall or ceiling lighting system, Crocco for Slamp, also by me, combines elements in three different sizes in seven colours. The end-user can effectively design their own installation
Master of the Italian design scene Andrea Branzi loves to shift scale - many of his smaller objects have a distinctly architectural composition. This lamp configures the light source within a frame that signifies the room
Zaha Hadid’s beautiful tables for Cisco combine digital skills with marble, the eternally sensuous material. Rising and falling surfaces congeal into a horizontal outcrop
As if to counter the predilection for swathing forms, Piet Hein Eek goes super butch. Combining massive timbers and tarpaulin upholstery, his chairs, sofas and cupboards are the last word in military chic
The aptly-named Kuki chair, the latest in Zaha Hadid’s ongoing collaboration with Sawaya&Moroni, turns a complex of digital trajectories into a solid you can sit on
Sofas, storage system tables and accessories combine in Bikini Landscape, Werner Aisslinger’s new way to relax in the living room for Moroso. Its many parts encourage members of the family in their often divergent activities