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Monday May 28, 2012

World’s biggest design fair in Milan

Welcome to the world’s biggest design fair where ideas are generated and exchanged, and selling design has been elevated to new heights.

FOR six days in the first quarter of every year, the city of Milan, Italy, turns into design heaven with internationally renowned design ateliers and collectives presenting their most innovative, most creative, and most groundbreaking works.

What began as a mere trade fair to showcase Italian-made furniture in the 1960s has grown to become the “global benchmark for the home furnishing sector”, as the official website for Milan Design Week puts it.

This year, I was in the midst of it all, privileged to not only walk through the main furniture fair, the 51st Salone Internazionale del Mobile 2012, at the city fairgrounds in Rho but also three other collective showcases. It is an exciting time indeed in the Italian city!

The six-day (April 17-22) Design Week has grown to cast a much more international net: At the main fair this year, 64% of the exhibitors are from outside Italy (which puts Italian exhibitors at just over 35%).

Charming garden: At the Secret Garden display event, the little blue men designed by Paola Navone hold up lamp shades along paths leading to imposing giant nests of blue (below) that hide blown-glass chandeliers within.

A big presence are the Scandinavian countries. The entire spectrum of Danish design is present in Milan, its participants spread out at the various fairs around the city. In fact, the turnout is so substantial that the inaugural Danish Design 2012 magazine was published, aptly subtitled “The Milan Issue”. This is distributed at the Temporary Museum of New Design – Superstudio Piu at via Tortona – and by all Danish exhibitors during design week. At the fairgrounds at Rho, a good-sized conceptual booth shows the designs of 24 prominent Danish designers.

Dutch design has been showing at Milan for the past 40 years, a length of time that prompted a retrospective by Connecting The Dots magazine from The Netherlands that details the journey of Dutch design in parallel with the journey of the Milan fair.

Polish designers show up at Superstudio Piu, proudly brandishing their design offerings from an industry still nascent in their country. Thailand’s Slow Hand Design puts forth designs made by local artisans. British design icon Tom Dixon and his Most Salone give American and British designers the chance to shine. In fact, Design Week at Superstudio Piu at via Tortona rolls out countless independent and new designers from all over the world, all eager to show the world their talent.

Indeed, Milan has evolved into a global meeting point and launch pad for new design, and beyond the furniture fair, Design Week is fulfilling its purpose of making good design its epicentre.

While business is transacted, new brands are built and reputations are made. Ideas are generated and exchanged, and selling design has been elevated to new heights, evidenced by high-cost collaborations between design giants, such as that between Barovier & Toso and Citco at The Secret Garden installation, and Tom Dixon’s impressive Most Salone showcase.

The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden is a display event conceptualised by Barovier & Toso and Citco, the former to showcase its blown glass in collaboration with Paola Navone, the latter its expertise with marble in collaboration with Zaha Hadid.

Located in the design district of Brera, the Orto Botanico (Botanical Garden) is transformed into a magical place, resplendent with blue nests and little blue men. The latter are small glass figurines designed by Navone, each holding up a lamp shade and placed along the garden paths leading to imposing giant nests of blue.

The nests are woven with 15,000 pruned branches, collected from the felling of diseased trees. Literally, no trees were hurt in the making of this project. Navone used a striking indigo blue on these nests, in keeping with her passion for blue this time around (the same blue can be seen in her collaboration with Baxter – see page 3).

Inside these nests are grand chandeliers by Barovier & Toso, made with traditional Murano blown glass and enhanced with refined colours. Visitors catch glimpses through openings in the nests, which are resting on the ground or floating in the air, interwoven with hazelnut trees.

As the evening progresses and more people arrive, suddenly there is a hush. Zaha Hadid is here! Ushered in with an entourage, cameras start clicking like mad. Milanese high/art society clamours for a word or a handshake with her, speaking in awe about the marble pavilion she has designed for Citco.

There are three vertical surfaces in marble, each a jigsaw of irregularly-shaped, multi-faceted marble chips with repeating patterns. The result is three-dimensional and delicate, harmonious and statement-making.

After the launch, I make my way down Brera where there are exhibitions tucked into every nook in the area.

This design district is part of FuoriSalone, which are mini design fairs held all over the city during Design Week.

Salone Internazionale del Mobile

Next is the main show, the I Saloni 2012. This massive furniture trade fair comprises the Salone Internazionale del Mobile (the main furniture fair), SaloneSatellite (dedicated to young designers under 35), the biennial EuroCucina (kitchen design fair) and the International Bathroom Exhibition.

Zaha Hadid’s marble pavilion for Citco comprises multi-faceted marble chips that create a delicate, three-dimensional statement-making work of art. — Wikimedia Commons

At the massive Milan Fairgrounds in Rho, I am looking at 209,000sqm of exhibition space, with 2,700 brands touting their wares in 24 massive pavilions. For six days, this is where top furniture brands from Italy and all over the world strut their stuff.

I navigate my way through the maze of booths using an iPad – I Saloni has an app this year – and stop at brands that catch my eye. Reps manning the spaces seem wary of me and my camera until I produce my press pass, upon which they load me down with press kits and give me free access to their showrooms.

My first stop is at the Danish Livingroom, where a collective of Danish designers congregate to show their wares in a “real life” context. Designed by Danish-Italian architects GamFratesi, the exhibition showcases the best that Denmark has to offer in three thematic homes: minimalistic, luxury boheme, and funky.

The list of designers who contributed to this Livingroom is extensive – Anne Black, by Nord Copenhagen, Bang & Olufsen, Fabula Living, Fritz Hansen, Lindberg, Louis Poulsen Lighting, Tom Rossau and many more.

I do the rounds of the brands that are familiar in Malaysia – Ligne Roset, Poliform, Moroso, Kartell, Minotti, Molteni & C, Gandia Blasco, newcomer Baxter – and also check out interesting brands like Vitra (whose Eames chair has been in circulation locally for many years), Artek, Missoni Home, and Magis.

The fun and flirty Nepal Blu chairs from ‘currently-crazy-about-blue’ designer Paolo Navone for Baxter.

The economic downturn in Europe has seeped somewhat into Milan Design Week; not in terms of the scale of the booths, which seem topnotch, but rather, in terms of collections. In place of radical new collections, there are a lot of “safe” pieces made to complement past collections. An end table here, a sofa in new materials there, new colours for existing furniture, a wall solution that works seamlessly with past pieces.

Kartell’s no-frills conceptual Work In Project booth is testament to this. It shows the studio’s whole stable of designers in sections. Each section is dedicated to the respective designer’s iconic works, while introducing one or two new pieces. Names like Patricia Urquiola, Philippe Starck and Eugeni Quitilet, among others, are present.

The showcase itself is impressive, and it’s like walking through a museum of iconic pieces. But as I look for exciting new designs, there is a stab of disappointment.

Starck puts forth a series of occasional tables (Ice and Archive) and mirrors (Only Me), while Urquiola has Jelly, a series of vases and bowls. Japanese designer Tojukin Yoshioka launched the Invisible collection in 2010, and followed up this year with an Invisible Light collection, which added a few pieces to last year’s collection, such as the Invisible low table and the Invisible armchair. In its press release, Kartell called these new offerings design novelties, which is an indication of the slightly more subdued and conservative mood of the overall fair.

A big buzz for Kartell is the Kartell Goes Rock! project with Lenny Kravitz. Kravitz and Starck co-designed six new Mademoiselle chairs, in materials like fur, python, and leather, in keeping with the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle.

The friendly Cubebot at the Most Salone emerged from last year’s fair, when David Weeks met with Quinze & Milan and decided to work together. A year later, the Giant Cubebot debuts at Tom Dixon’s Most Salone. — David Weeks Studio

Leaving Kartell in search of other brands, I come across a craftsman at Carl Hansen & Son’s demonstrating how to put together the seat of the venerable Wegner Wishbone chair.

Successful Living from Diesel offers a capsule collection with Moroso, interesting pieces in white and grey, printed with pictures of the ruins of ancient Rome, and given the unlikely name of Mr Softy. And of course Patricia Urquiola’s M.a.s.s.a.s. modular sofa system catches the eye. With compact shapes and defined lines, the pieces boast interesting details like visible stitching and tacking.

The whimsical kids’ collection Me Too from Magis is a crowd-pleaser, with buyers surrounding the display of plastic penguins and clouds suspended in mid air.

As I move from booth to booth, some with impressive showings, some nondescript, I decide to get out of the fair and see what else Milan has to offer. The furniture fair alone does not Design Week make. After the excitement of The Secret Garden the evening before, I am looking to be hit by that rush again, of seeing creativity in action.

Tortona Design Week

Away from the commercialism of the Salone del Mobile, I explore the indie flavour of Tortona Design Week in via Tortona. It has been going on for 10 years now, and though big names – such as Foscarini, Diesel, Canon and even Samsung – have infiltrated the event, the spirit is very much about projects and collaborations. My destination is the Temporary Museum for New Design 2012, at Superstudio Piu. The organisers describe this space as “less fair, more museum”.

New design is presented in video and light projections, spectacular light installations, holograms, augmented reality, and special effects. They’re like art projects in school, elevated a million times. Going into each booth is a discovery of new experiences.

At Foscarini, a video projection in a darkened room takes you to the precipices of a solar eclipse, then transport you to the quietness of water drops, to the explosion of nature – wind blowing, blades of grass swaying in the breeze.

Japanese company Lixil lets you experience of sensual pleasures of a foam bath, with new technology foam. That’s right, foam!

Canon takes you on a photographic journey with digital imaging while Samsung uses augmented reality to show you what a room looks like. On a palette of grey, visitors train the tablet on an area (kitchen, bedroom, living room), and the room becomes furnished and coloured.

Danish designers have a big presence here, as they set up a library installation. At the “library”, visitors get to take home Volume 1 of Danish Design 2012 – The Milan Issue. The magazine gives an insight into their design philosophy, and their apparent obsession with chairs and shelves.

The Polish design faculty also has a presence here, with an installation entitled Design From Great Poland – Promotion Of The Local Culture.

In the basement of Superstudio Piu lies a hotbed of emerging talent: 43 young Italian and international designers, 24 winners of the Ilide (a national Italian light contest organised by GUaleni Design Studio and Italian companies) and 20 designers of the Musei di Carta design project (under the auspices of Italy’s Arts and Culture and Heritage and Culture Ministries) showcase their designs.

The atmosphere is very bazaar-like, with each designer occupying a small space, ready to talk about his or her work.

A few stand out, like the young team from Chile at ladesign.cl, which fuses photography with furniture; Hierve rethinks the traditional wardrobe as a showcase as well as functional furniture; Veronica Posada from Si Studio cuts an innovative figure with her origami Migration Lamp, inspired by the migratory flight of birds.

Outside the Temporary Museum, the streets are packed with mini exhibitions. Each narrow alleyway will take you to one showcase or another. Vendors on via Tortona take advantage of the carnival atmosphere, and creative retail is definitely the norm rather than the exception. One shop sells technicolour watches that you can customise, and a street vendor hawks cork espadrilles in myriad colours from a converted van, at €80 (RM320) a pair!

Most Salone

Tom Dixon decides to rile things up a little this year, and organises the inaugural Most Salone, which he has called the new epicentre for design, food and technology. He transformed Milan’s Museum for Science and Technology, housed in a 16th century monastery, into a hub of exciting innovations and culture. The entire space is an area of discovery.

Among the brands are Studio Toogood, which collaborates with Nivea to provide a tongue-in-cheek antidote to the chaos of the main furniture fair, a hospital for the senses where visitors are invited to rebalance through a series of intimate performances.

There’s also Tumi, American design firm Bludot, and Carpigiani Gelato University, which teaches visitors about the elaborate process of making the traditional Italian iced treat in a Tom Dixon-designed space – and a gelato cone design contest!

Fabrica presents a limited collection of 12 chairs designed for the Italian Chair District, while To-Design in the World shows works by 15 designers from Italy’s Piedmontese region.

New companies include La Chance from France and Resident New Zealand. Portugal Brands presents 19 Portuguese design stars including Attitude, Antiga Barbearia de Bairro, Boa Boca Gourmet, Boca do Lobo, and more.

Award-wining American-based designer David Weeks Studio, Quinze & Milan, the innovative Belgian design company, and Areaware, the New York City-based producer of unusual design objects, have all joined forces to produce the lounging Cubebot, a sculpture that provides you a spot to take a breather from the Salone madness.

Dixon himself takes up four spaces at Most, one of which is a beautiful installation of his iconic lights, called Luminosity.

The highlight of Most is the collaboration with German industrial design manufacturing company Trumpf, which brought over eight tonnes of machinery to demonstrate how to make a signature Tom Dixon chair out of steel. Dixon’s intention is to take the manufacturing process to consumers and create a sense of immediacy by creating products on the spot and ready for purchase.

And in the courtyard of the old monastery, there is even a pop-up restaurant run by Dock Kitchen’s Stevie Parle. Delicious, indeed!

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