02 May, 2009

Milan’s designs for life

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

From a ‘highway loop sofa’ to a Campari bar on wheels, a week-long fair in Milan brings together the best – and strangest – of international design

Colossal is the word that springs to mind when you arrive at Milan’s international design fair, the most important event of the year for designers all around the world. The fair, on the north-west outskirts of Milan, covers four times the surface area of the British Museum. Each of its 24 pavilions is the size of a football pitch.

The event has been going for 48 years, aiming to showcase new products, from lamps to beds, garden furniture, objects, textiles, chairs, rugs – anything found in a home, an office, or garden. For one week, 2,723 designers and furniture companies, a third of them from outside Italy, show off their latest designs, many of them prototypes. They are hoping to attract the interest of some of the 350,000 professionals – buyers, manufacturers, fellow designers and journalists – attending.

Many regulars go straight to the four pavilions dedicated to Design with a capital D – the fashionable, high-concept stuff – and ignore the rest. “I wouldn’t be seen dead at the others,” whispers a well-known Brazilian designer’s assistant. “They only exhibit kitsch furniture, the kind that you’d see in a luxurious brothel.” After this, we can’t resist having a peek. In pavilion 6, scantily clad young goddesses demonstrate how to operate enormous rotating round beds (designed by Italian furniture brand Prealpi); while in another, two very tall, tanned ladies in black show off a cream leather sofa with assorted pouffes. In the corridors, between stands, impeccably dressed Italian men keep guard.

Now on to pavilions 12 and 8, two of those dedicated to Design with a capital D. It’s a different world here – a world of innovation and radical thinking. Some products, you suspect, will prove too fashionable to last; others are simply too surprising. But it’s not all like that. Many designers here are seriously attempting to answer the challenges the world faces.

A quick tour round of the stands points up this year’s trends: environmental concerns, sustainability and carbon-free technology seem to top many designers’ agendas, though there’s plenty of playfulness too. Take, for instance, the German designer Nils Holger Moorman‘s minimalistic Steckling wardrobe, made of a 6-foot-high untreated maple-wood pole into which three aluminium hangers insert; or his ingenious Liesmichl bedside table, a birch plywood construction that’s also a book holder for paperbacks. Moorman’s studio, located in the Alpine landscape of Upper Bavaria, manufactures all his prototypes through local firms.

At another stand, Casamania, it’s all comic colours and shapes. I notice visitors smiling at the sight of Opus Incertum 100%, recyclable polypropylene bookcases designed in a colourful honeycomb structure by 41-year-old Sean Yoo, which can be used either indoors or out.

Belonging to the same trend, which La Repubblica’s critic Aurelio Magistà calls “crazy design”, Italian company Segis offers its highway loop sofa, “a modular seating system where the flat seat wraps itself to form a vertical loop”, essentially a long, undulating tape-like structure that can be folded over itself to form seats. Designed by veteran Italian architect Carlo Bartoli – whose works feature in the permanent collections of Moma and the Vitra Design Museum – the sofa, made of polypropylene and steel, claims to be 70% recyclable.

“Objects are dissected, deformed, liquidified as if contaminated by a surrealist virus”, writes Magistà. Amsterdam-based Pieke Bergmans actually uses the name “design virus” for her latest collection of lamps, each uniquely shaped, which look like huge water drops. On the other hand Matteo Ragni studio’s brochure claims that, for them, “objects are solid poetry. They must be irreverent but always concrete, purposeful and anti-ideological”. Their latest is called REDbar, a sleek red bicycle with an inbuilt Campari-soda bar that is (perhaps not surprisingly) the first Campari bar on wheels. Could it take off on Mediterranean beaches this summer?

The furniture and design fair proper shouldn’t, however, overshadow another important event, Euroluce, taking place in an adjacent pavilion. Euroluce, with its 525 exhibitors from 25 different countries, transports visitors into an eerie world and a mind-blowing variety of styles. You’d be forgiven for thinking that in some countries normal lamps don’t exist, just diamond-encrusted six metre high gold chandeliers or Niagara Falls replicas in gold, lit from within. Star lighting designers Flos and Artemide are here, but also, and perhaps more importantly, newcomers such as Inga Sempé. Sempé’s new Vapeur lamp is made of pleated paper sheets and looks rather like a chef’s inflatable toque: it is witty, simple and beautiful.

Milan design week, however, wouldn’t be nearly so successful without SaloneSatellite, its fringe fair, the only one open to the public (albeit for one day), which is dedicated to designers under the age of 35. This, in many ways, is where the heart of the fair beats. It features 702 carefully selected young designers, graduates from 20 leading schools across the world. You can’t help but be struck by the freedom of their ideas – perhaps because they haven’t had yet to comply with any commercial diktats. Store Muu Design, a collective of three young Japanese designers, have created Pit In, a wooden docking station for cyclists. Once the bicycle is parked, the cyclist doesn’t have to move: their saddle becomes their seat, they can rest their arms on a wooden stand, their feet on platforms, and they can spread a newspaper on the table in front or take their laptop out for a quick work session. “With this docking station, which we’d love to see installed in streets, cyclists only have to ‘plug their bicycles in’ and then take a break,” explain Ippei Kimoto and Masahiro Asakura, while their colleague Daisuke Ito demonstrates the concept, smiling, mug in hand.

My eye is also caught by international studio Out of Stock‘s Naked chairs, which need no tools to be assembled – their featherlight steel and wood frames fit together using butterfly nuts. Their designer, Wendy Chua, then shows me what looks like a classic pencil eraser, elegantly cased in wood. The case hides a USB stick.

Just as I’m leaving I see the stand of Aun2h4 studio, a collective of five young Japanese designers. People are queuing to try an armchair called I On the Flower. Made of polypropylene petals, the armchair opens up under your weight. It is surprisingly comfortable. I leave Milan with a smile on my face.

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