Friday 13 May 2011


Bringing the world inside: a round-up of Milan Furniture Fair 2011

Thousands of furniture, product and lighting designers set up camp at this year's Milan Furniture Fair to showcase their latest offerings to the world. The 200,000 sq m Rho Fieracomplex was transformed for one week into a vast labyrinth of exhibition stands for this huge, international design event, while a plethora of independentshowcases and installations popped up in and around the city.

Last year's event saw a rise in visitor numbers after the recessional plummet in 2009, and gauging from the atmosphere it seems that this year was even more successful. While the economyremains at a plateau, a sense of embracing austerity and a thoughtful, reflective reconsideration of human needs seems to have pervaded the landscape of furniture design.Theplayful reinvention of traditional methods and design classics, pared-down shapes and subtle humour manifested within a handful of strong conceptual themes in many of the exhibitions, from futuristic discovery to a global return to the raw design techniques of our ancient collective roots.

A familiar dichotomy of retro-futuristic,scientific exploration and vestiges of ancient civilisations proved consistently popular, with clean, angular structures and restylings of antiquated technological innovations.Despite theseslightly clichéd influences, Diesel's exhibition at the Temporary Museum for New Design stood out with a selection of great end products. Its zine-style press kit was indicative of its try-hard approach, but designs such as the Chubby Chic furniture, linen Pipe Family lamps andRock Lamp/Rock Chair - ‘ripped from the earth, sent from the stars' - were solid enough to withstand the slightly embarrassing captions that accompanied them. The Mindstream cabinets, inspired by the random eclecticism of modern image information,were a particular favourite of ours in Diesel's collection. Cloaked in the gloomy half-light of the room, the display had an otherworldly mysteriousness befitting its theme, with matt prints of tower block buildings, a bust of Venus, a glowing sunset, a closed blue curtain and a music mixing desk covering the respective cabinet faces.

The DUIII lamp,which, we are told,comprises ‘a real car lens combined with pieces of Mecano, with a head full of personality!'was another highlight at Diesel, encapsulatingthesense of honesty and modesty in both choice of materials and approaches to aesthetics and functionality that underpinned the festival.

A general shift towards humble, inexpensive materials was apparent in a variety of guises, from the highly commercial brands at the Fiera to the younger, more innovative work that dominated the Via Tortona area.At mini-exhibition Start, Italian/Icelandic furniture designers Hver presented their HEY range; a cheeky selection of beanbag-style seats made solely from hay bales wrapped in PVC covers.While hay bales are a theme to look out for, untreated blocks of wood and cardboard constructions were also plentiful; of the latter, the most memorable was Iris Bijvelds'collection at Studio Iroko as part of the The Hague's exhibition. As she guided us through her Furniture City - whichconsisted of scaled-down versions of familiar architectural structures, converted into complex cardboard cabinets, wardrobes, tables and lamps -Iris divulged her aim of bringing the outside world into the realm of the private domestic interior.

Pigr's show, in a disused warehouse onVia Tortona,had instant impact with its displays of the simple yet iconic Atelier Chair and Table9045,designed by Studio C Milano.The screw-mechanism stools stood atop cardboard box pedestals in stripped-back industrial surroundings, emphasising the beauty of their restrained design, while the tables, which designer Christoph Schnug explained are named after their sharp 90 and 45 degree-angles, fitted together like an enormous puzzle. With the concept of‘6 tables / 6 stories',the owners of each of the first six tables can get in touch with each other on a dedicated blog,to tell stories of the events thattheir part of the creation has witnessed.

Down a little alleyway off Via Tortona we found Belgian design company Wunderbardebutingtheir Full Moon range, which included a party table thatlifts guests' feet from the ground to encourage a sociable, informal atmosphere. Not only are Wunderbar's chair and table designs sensitive to such subtleties of human behaviour, they are executed beautifully with glossy and matt-coated wood in black, traffic blue and indigo, and are made by local artisans. The designers of this young company informed us that the cow-hide cushions on the chairs and foam poufs are deliberately made to appear inside-out, revealing the red stitchingthat binds them.

In fact, imperfections and mutations abounded within the displays, with faults and modest attributes exaggerated and embellished, and simple materials elevated through experimental approaches. The throng of people milling around Poliform's show at the Fiera was testament to its impressiveness, and the array of upholstery, lighting, accessories and storage solutions was as spot-on as ever, but the softly worn, blue Persian rugs covering the floor were a beautiful encapsulation of this trend, of taking an apparent fault and emphasising it to create something beautiful; tufts of thread resembling the frayed results of natural wear and tear were carefully sewn in, adorning the showroom floor like blue and yellow sea anemones.

Wicker baskets were another notable feature at Poliform, a bold return to one of the simplest, most ancient yet globally familiar designs, as were Russian dolls, oversized light-bulbs, lights that looked like something Galileomight have come up with one bored evening, and the notion of nature brought indoors.

The eponymous Tom Dixon collaborated with Blackberry to produce his Multiplex exhibition on Via Stendhal. Suitably ostentatious, it contained a live gallery of sliding photos taken from around the Furniture Fair - chosen by Tom Dixon himself - and interactive displays where visitors could select images on a touch-screen to be projected directly onto a cabinet of his design. Interspersed amongst a selection of archetypal designs was his new range of furniture and lighting; displayed both tangibly and digitally, of course. There was also a mini-theatre room - complete with purple curtains - in which visitors could sit down and enjoy an animated showreel of his latest products, as well as a café and gallery space. His new range of Etch lighting was particularly striking, with its golden, honeycomb futurism merging the natural world with hi-tech digital processes. The deep indigo Fan chair, also part of the new collection, nods to British heritage with its contemporary interpretation of the classic Windsor chair; a timely reference echoed by the huge portrait of Queen Elizabeth that welcomed visitors at the entrance to the exhibition.

The Swedish Love Stories exhibition at the Temporary Museum for New Design was another highlight of the week. Themed on the county of Västra Götaland in Sweden, the collection of Swedish designers also offered subtle twists on icons from the past, such as a line of seats with intertwining backs by Tengbom & Gemla, reminiscent of the classic bentwood chair design by Michael Thonet, and Lukas Dahlen's humorous reinterpretation of the simple lightbulb.The sensitivity to materials and their meaning in works such as Roberto Cardenas' poetic furniture and Marie Dreiman's textileswas taken a step further by Design For Us, which unites the creative minds from HDK School of Design and Crafts with brain researchers from Sahlgrenska University Hospital to produce designs which have a tangible impact on overall wellbeing and even recovery speeds in hospitals.

Trussardi ventured outside with its installation at the Piazza della Scala.Designed by Michael Young as part of the Trussardi MY Design project, the enormous sculpture required over two years of research and uses high-tech gilt aluminium modules designed to create ‘infinite structures.' Conversely, UXUSbrought the outside inwith its Not So Fragile exhibition at the Banana Republic store. The reappropriated furniture, made from neon orange packing tape and displayed on miniature gardens of plastic grass and flowers, claims to be‘furniture for the Post Materialist; a collection that is at once unique, sustainable and iconic.'

This notion of post-materialism neatly sums up the current need for products to have meaningfulness on more than one level; to have intellectual and experiential as well as aesthetic and functional value, with a real consideration of the senses and emotions involved in our experience of design. This is design without superficiality - design in synchrony withhumanity, which encourages us to sit back, take time to think and observe,and bring the outside world inside.

Amy Knight, Arts & Media Correspondent