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Varier’s delightful Ekstrom chair—whose rerelease in the States we are praying for nightly—was designed in 1984.
Varier’s delightful Ekstrem chair—whose rerelease in the States we are praying for nightly—was designed in 1984.

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Design trends to watch from Salone del Mobile and, soon, NYCxDesign

Intel from Milan Design Week and predictions for this month’s design festivities in New York City

I’ve got to be honest: This wasn’t Milan’s most cutting-edge year. In 2018 there was enough Big Design Energy to ask some pressing questions of the industry’s most hallowed affair. In 2019, we saw a lot of retreads from previous fairs, and noticed more than a few fairgoers singing the praises of Milan’s architectural attractions rather than the temporary installations occupying the city.

That being said, let’s not get too jaded, shall we? There’s still plenty to discuss, particularly as a lens for what one might expect this month, as New York puts on its springiest design season hat.

Fair intrigue

Typically, the biggest contemporary exhibitors (Poltrona Frau Group, Molteni, B&B Italia) and smaller but mighty brands (Muuto, Emeco) are housed in Halls 16 and 20. This year, it took a half day of getting my steps in to find where some of the big players were hiding: downstairs, in Hall 24. That space was anchored at the back by an absolutely massive B&B Italia Group pavilion encompassing individually built-out experiences for B&B proper, plus Flos and Louis Poulsen (usually found in the every-other-year Euroluce pavilion). Unconfirmed rumor has it that B&B requested more floor space, and thus, a new hall was born around it.

Yes, we all love terrazzo

One thing I spied at this year’s Salone included terrazzo as pattern—versus terrazzo, the aggregate stone flooring. My personal theory (as a self-proclaimed collector) is that what was once a cost-saving measure for marble flooring is now almost as expensive, given that artisans who can do terrazzo aren’t as common these days. The pattern is visually friendly, and it’s had such a resurgence that the new thing is to use aggregate stone as a pattern, rather than an actual material. Case in point, this armchair upholstery at Moroso.

Terrazzo-printed upholstery fabric, as seen at the Moroso booth at Salone del Mobile.

Design diplomacy

Outside of the fairgrounds, the city of Milan is chockablock with exhibitions, presentations, and excuses to nip into palazzos. A few bright spots for me this year included a compelling Artek show pairing contemporary Japanese designers with classics from the Finnish company’s vault. (Artek was purchased by Vitra in 2013 and didn’t have much presence at the fair proper last year, so it’s a relief to see that the company is still doing its own offbeat thing.) The space was designed by Linda Bergroth—she of last year’s Zero-Waste Bistro at WantedDesign in New York—and the pairings felt much more authentic and considered than the typical designer collabs.

Norway takes the stage

Another Nordic highlight was Norwegian Presence, a group show whose name speaks for itself. Sweden has been manufacturing design forever (Ikea, Volvo), Denmark has a long history of woodworking that has morphed into domination of the pastel-hued mid-priced furniture market (Hay, Muuto), and Finland has its own design cred that exists a bit outside the Scandi bubble (Marimekko, the aforementioned Artek). It’s exciting to see the Norwegians start to own their sensibility. I was especially into the new creative direction for Varier, whose name you may not know but whose ergonomic chairs you most certainly do! Look out for these stateside, coming soon.

I ended this year’s Milan Design Week with a trip to the Triennale museum to see the recently-installed permanent collection of historical Italian design—an absolute must-see.
Varier’s Balans seating—recently reintroduced with a new creative direction by Shane Schneck—is the kind of ubiquitous classic I adore.

Just Google it

“Experiential” is a common buzzword during Milan’s design week, and the outstanding instance of an immersive exhibition was courtesy of Google and the International Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins University. “A Space for Being” had visitors enter into three different rooms, each designed by Suchi Reddy and sporting Muuto furniture, while wearing a sensor wristband that tracked one’s physiological responses to each environment. While focused, the experiment was an attempt to demonstrate how bodies change according to environmental and designed inputs—as Lab director Susan Magsamen told me, “to show how people feel neuroaesthetics, by making the invisible visible.”

Palazzos? So last year

And finally, churches were kind of a thing. The highest concentration of #salone Instagrams seemed to originate at Santa Maria Annunciata in Chiesa Rossa (where there’s a permanent Dan Flavin installation), Chiesa di San Francesco d’Assisi al Fopponino (a Gio Ponti-designed church that completed a lighting restoration last year), Chiesa San Paolo Converso (the location of WSJ. Magazine’s design week party, and the former location of architect Massimiliano Locatelli’s office), and San Bernardino alle Monache (a chapel from 1279 that played host to Anton Alvarez’s extruded bronze work with Fonderia Artistica Battaglia).

Moving on to New York City

And now, for the Milan happenings that I predict we’ll see again this May, during New York City’s month-long design exhibitions:

I mentioned Anton Alvarez, who worked with a Milanese bronze foundry under the creative direction of Nicolas Bellavance-Lecompte to extrude hot bronze into a water bath then shape them into sculpture. Extrusion—in which great amounts of pressure are applied to a malleable material instead of a die, then pushed out—is all the rage these days, my friends, whether it’s free-form or rigorous. For the latter, I’m thinking of Philippe Malouin’s extraordinary Pole collection of lighting for Roll & Hill, which you can see in NYC this May. For the loosey-goosey extrusion fans, the debut of mini-fair Object & Thing in Bushwick did not disappoint.

Overall, art editions seem to be appealing to designers who have been working in industrial mode. The primary example is Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, who reliably and dutifully come up with something nice for Vitra every year. This year, their “new” was not a chair or table or system, but a collection of hand-built ceramic vases with (I’m not making this up!) extruded accoutrements. If you’re looking for something extra-beautiful and non-industrial, head to Casa Perfect, The Future Perfect’s new showstopper of a showhouse in the West Village for “Romancing the Stone,” a collection from Chen Chen and Kai Williams.* Their signature combination of raw materials and polished finishing is extremely complex, tactile, and irresistible.

Left: Erwan and Ronan Bouroullec’s Découpage vases for Vitra, which debuted in Milan this April. Right: Chen Chen and Kai Williams “Romancing the Stone exhibition at Casa Perfect in New York City.
L: Vitra. R: Eric Petschek for The Future Perfect.

Everyone is Bauhaus-obsessed this year, present company included. In terms of new furniture production, that homage can read as cheap, or legit. I won’t bother to trash the multitude of bad examples, but I will rep for an informed and technically excellent colorblocked version of Gropius’s F51 chair by Katrin Greiling for Tecta. The company’s “Bauhaus Nowhaus” collection also includes a spiffy Tobias Gross remake of an Erich Brendel table, plus Esther Wilson’s take on a Breuer folding chair. And considering the across-the-board coverage of the Bauhaus’s 100th anniversary, I would be shocked if it doesn’t make an appearance during NYCxDESIGN.

I’m calling it now: the Ingo Maurer revival! The German lighting designer has been a wee bit overlooked in the Postmodern revival of late (perhaps because his work can skew more surrealist, perhaps because he’s still alive). In any case, Ingo Maurer staged a huge display at Euroluce, and the oh-so-Brutalist Torre Velasca was lit up in Maurer-designed blue for the duration of design week. Curious whether we’ll see Maurer putting on a show in New York this May.

Last but not least: Food as a design object has transcended the cutting-edge (hats off to our old fave, MOLD magazine) and become something a little more de rigueur for companies looking to add some edge to a design event. Equal parts artist and chef, Laila Gohar is racking up some real transatlantic miles between Milan and New York this spring—and Paris, and Los Angeles—doing her specific brand of elaborate food installation.

“Six Tableaux,” an installation of inventive marble tables by the architecture firm Studio Binocle in their incredible domed office space in Milan, also featured food as design elements.
Studio Binocle

*Deep cut: Chen and Kai designed Curbed’s Groundbreakers trophies in 2017.

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