I just returned from the colossal annual design fair in Milan (Il Salone di Mobile). This event has become so huge that it draws more visitors (300,000+) than “the sum of all the other major design events worldwide” according to Design Boom. Only religious pilgrimages draw more people to one location for an extended stay. In addition to the massive official fairgrounds site, there were over 400 satellite design events in surrounding stores, parks, galleries, and public spaces. The spectacle itself is more remarkable than the work displayed – transcending its content like Carnival or the Oscars. Of the many blogs that cover the event, Design Boom and Design News are the most comprehensive. But, in order to fully appreciate the enormity of the fair, in order to be properly overwhelmed, there is no substitute for being there. Context matters.
Like a circus, the size and logistics of the event prevent you from taking the show – or your personal perspective – too seriously. It’s the absurd scale and the occasionally jarring juxtapositions that define the experience. Click here. You pass by objects like humorous freestanding lime plastic pop trees before entering a sophisticated warehouse shrine of kitchen furniture with cathedral-like candlelight. There will be a room filled with minimalist paper chairs like these by Ishigami and later a room filled with quilted versions of Jacobsen’s Egg chair by Danish artist Tal R. Some goofy pink dollhouses with eBay logos sit at the entrance to the Triennial Museum where there is a serious Vitra’s limited edition collection. There are delicate installations like Luisa Cevese’s purses and aggressive female warrior displays from huge companies like Canon. A whimsical black horse with a lamp on its head by Moooi is no less a stretch than a promotion for Egyptian furniture at the airport. Goldfish are projected onto floors at Ingo Maurer and designers' names are written on ceilings at Flos. Click here for a minor sampling of the show and the realization that another visitor might miss these completely and have an equally rich experience.
Retail stores pop up all over town, sometimes morphing into cafes or galleries. A great example is Spazio Rosanna Orlandi, a rambling group of indoor and outdoor spaces featuring work from two art schools, vintage products, fashion, and special spaces devoted to two prominent young designers: Jaime Haine from Spain and Piet Hein Eek from Holland. Click here. Piet Hein Eek’s work will be available in the US through Studio Forbes this summer. Fiat’s store concept was a free outdoor wifi zone in Corso Como. In celebration of the re-release of the Fiat 500 – one of the first city cars (1957) and one of the best pieces of modern design ever created – they rolled out a 50 yard long mat with pictures of common everyday objects. Click here for photos.
During the fair, design is everything and everywhere. Mini Coopers carry Philippe Stark logos down the street. Ads are plastered on the Cathedral. One could easily get cynical about the level of commercialism, but Milan is also the place where everyday Police motorcycles are pieces of design worthy of showroom attention. Where else do cops look cool?
I was left with two observations in the wake of this extravaganza. First, it is a lot easier to appreciate innovation in furniture design all day when you dine on classic food and wine at night. The Italians have the good sense to leave certain traditions well enough alone. Second, the United States seems to be the weak link in this highly international event. Small companies like Heller and Emeco are present, but there are no large manufactures of any scale. This might not be odd except when you consider that George Nelson, the Eames office, and Florence Knoll laid the foundation for much of what has become this spectacle today.