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Milan furniture fair recap 2018: The good, the bad, and the palazzo

Record-setting attendance has us asking some big questions

Fairgoer matches the Montana booth at Salone del Mobile
Fairgoer matches the Montana booth at Salone del Mobile
Courtesy Luca Fiammenghi / Salone del Mobile.Milano

We’ve returned from Milan for the 2018 Salone del Mobile—the annual event that remains the design world’s biggest outing. After ogling approximately 421 chairs, petting countless versions of woven upholstery (most of them produced by the Danish company Kvadrat), and selfie-ing in elaborate mirrors all over town, we have more queries than conclusions about What It All Means. Join us as we lay out some pressing questions:

Does anyone give a fig about sustainability?

The glory of Milan is partially thanks to its over-the-top nature. Austere it is not. (Evidenced by the general freak-out over Hermès’s weeklong installation, which entailed ten or so interior pavilions clad in 150,000 zellige tiles imported from Morocco.)

The official fair, Salone del Mobile, issued a manifesto calling for “exhibitors to have a greater awareness of the impact of their products on the environment,” echoing ideas that have been argued by the likes of Dutch designer Hella Jongerius and British critic Alice Rawsthorn. As Rawsthorn wrote back in 2015, the yearly to-do in Milan has “unintentionally reinforced the popular stereotype of design as a superficial, stylistic tool steeped in consumerism.”

For every Emeco—which has a tightly edited product line and takes care to manufacture new products out of post-consumer recycled material—there are ten companies whose Salone installations display dozens of prototypes that aren’t in production (and may never be). Aside from the time, money, and material spent to pull off such a feat each April, it hardly seems a sustainable model for designers themselves, who get paid through royalties, i.e. only once their product is available on the market.

Is the future of tourism... furniture?

Every year during Milan’s design week, industry attendees (designers, manufacturers, buyers, journalists) can be heard bemoaning just how crowded it’s gotten around town. Cranky empirical musings aside, the official fair clocked a 26 percent increase from 2017—more than 430,000 visitors over six days. Milan’s status as a mecca for design and art is undisputed, but one has to wonder about furniture’s newfound power to draw a crowd. The Instagram effect is real—and the company was out in full force throughout the week, hyping its new @design account.

Reinforcing Milan’s uniquely seductive qualifications as a design week hub are the city’s gobsmacking number of palazzos. Brands have hipped to the fact that a glorious neoclassical pile makes for a pretty spiffy furniture installation—thus, Gubi, Hay, Swarovski, Cos, Doppia Firma, and countless others are now displaying their novelties to an adoring public on terrazzo floors under vaulted ballroom ceilings.

The Best Dressed award goes to Villa Borsani, a private home by architect Osvaldo Borsani, better known as the designer for most of the back catalog of Italian manufacturer Tecno. The villa’s location half an hour outside of the city center, coupled with ticketed entry and curation by Design Miami/ cofounder Ambra Medda, made it the destination for design pilgrims seeking an experience out of the ordinary.

When will women in the design world get their due?

A designer-who-shall-not-be-named kvetched about the sheer ubiquity of Patricia Urquiola collaborations in 2018. And while we’ve nothing against Urquiola, whose work is as playful, colorful, and joyous as ever, we’ve gotta say: Tokenism is not a good look, and there are droves of women designers who can hold their own for big-brand collaborations.

Vitra booth at Salone del Mobile, featuring a patchwork textile sofa by Hella Jongerius.
Courtesy Alessandro Russotti / Salone del Mobile.Milano

One contemporary powerhouse worth noting is Mette Hay of Hay, who put together a dazzling pied-à-terre for the company and its partners in a lived-in palazzo. She orchestrated the exhibition with the help of over 70 people, who drove down dozens of trucks to Milan from Copenhagen the weekend prior, and the effect was a gesamtkunstwerk of the Hay ethos of easy, crisply-designed Danish living (but in Italy).

Another power duo to laud is architect India Mahdavi (the “virtuoso of color” as decreed by the New Yorker this year) and Nina Yashar, founder of Milan’s Nilufar gallery and Nilufar Depot. Yashar tapped Mahdavi to outfit a pop-up nightclub upstairs from her gallery space—and it was every bit as scene-y, sultry, and silk-lined as you’d imagine.

The polar opposite of silk-lined is the incredibly well-engineered Cosm task chair for Herman Miller designed by Berlin-based Studio 7.5. Carola Zwick, cofounder of 7.5, is a marvel, and we were fascinated to learn about the process of engineering a self-adjusting mechanism that allows the chair to suit anyone—of any height or weight.

And for recaps attuned to great work by women designers, plus tons of photos, we recommend Sight Unseen’s Fair Report.

U-JOINTS exhibition, curated by PlusDesign Gallery, with a chair by Max Lamb at left.
Courtesy PlusDesign Gallery

Is there one thing we can all agree on?

Why, yes, thanks for asking. The universally beloved—especially by designers who flocked to the show in droves—U-Joints exhibition put on by PlusDesign Gallery was the toast of Fuorisalone.

At once extensive to the point of obsession and accessible enough to appeal to industrial design groupies, U-Joints featured a world of connections: an antique knots collection, Chinese architectural joinery used for temples, furniture prototypes by contemporary designers like Max Lamb and Cecilie Manz, off-the-rack plumbing parts arranged in color groups. For a layperson like your faithful correspondent, the taxonomy spanning the back wall of the space was especially enlightening.

Two iterations of architect David Chipperfield’s Basis wood trestle for e15
Courtesy e15

Wait, was there any actual furniture to get excited about?

Marc Newson—he of the most expensive item of furniture ever sold at auction, and of the lucrative Apple contract—introduced a new side chair, the first of three seating collections on the books with Knoll. (By our count, aside from a light for Flos and a few one-off designs, the Newson Aluminum Chair is his first furniture in production since the Bunky bed for Magis, from 2011.) The cantilevered, cast-aluminum chair pays tribute to the canonical 1928 Tugendhat Chair by Mies Van Der Rohe as well as Marcel Breuer’s tubular steel chairs with rattan caning.

German company e15 is a low-key favorite, as well. Their Zona Tortona showroom may be tiny, but David Chipperfield’s new Basis trestle—constructed with traditional joinery in oak or walnut—paired with a cooking objects installation by artist Laila Gohar had us hooked.

Finally, we didn’t keep our trend blinders on the whole time. Corrugated textures reigned, from a Muuto cabinet in lemon yellow to glass, glass, and more glass (Glas Italia screens designed by Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec, glass-topped coffee tables by Norwegian newcomer Martin Solem, Lee Broom glass-tube chandeliers).

L-R: The Bouroullecs’ Rayures screen for Glas Italia; a table by Martin Solem shown at Norwegian Presence; and a detail of Lee Broom’s new Aurora chandelier.
L-R: Courtesy Glas Italia; courtesy Norwegian Presence; photo by Kelsey Keith.