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The Furniture Industry Has An Identity Crisis

At the largest design fair of the year, brands were caught between longing for the past and uncertainty about the future.

Milan Design Week isn’t just the fashion week of the furniture and product design world—though the latest interiors releases and styles do play center stage, true to its anchor event, Salone del Mobile (Italian for “furniture expo”). It’s also a hotbed of design and curatorial talent that converges to transform the entire city into a celebration and laboratory for design. Even if you attend in person, the number of showroom events, art installations, parties, and launches make it impossible to see it all.

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But the world’s largest design festival is something else, too: a litmus test and reflection of what’s going on in the design world right now. And as following trends suggest, design seems a bit confused about its place in the world right now. With Google, Sony, and other tech companies presenting at the fair, is tech the future of furniture? Or does it lie in a semi-academic nostalgia for the past, as the fair’s many archival re-issues of classic design implies?

Read on for the trends that grabbed our eye (and inspired our FOMO) from afar–and what they could mean for the industry over the next year.

Google and Li Edelkoort’s Softwear [Photo: Thomas Straub/courtesy Studio Edelkoort]

The Tech Industry Takes Over Design’s Biggest Week

Automotive companies have been sponsoring big projects at Salone for some time, with annual programs including the Lexus Design Award. But this year saw big consumer tech making moves into a world typically dominated by furniture and interiors companies.

One notable Salone debut came from Instagram, which launched its new @design channel in collaboration with Dezeen. Crowdsourced from an open call of contributors, Joel Escalona (based in Mexico City), Ivan Oda (Milan), Geraldine Tan (London), Minh T (Los Angeles), and Benedetta Anghileri (Shenzhen) will helm the account as its five founding contributing editors.

Google also made its Salone debut, partnering with Dutch curator and design trend forecaster Li Edelkoort on Softwear—an installation of tech wearables with a softer appeal—at Rosanna Orlandi’s gallery. VR headsets, headphones, Google Home Mini, and other hardware by Google were presented with muted textile casings and placed within a multi-room interior, giving a humanist, tactile touch to tech hardware.

Similarly, Sonos partnered with HAY and WeWork to launch a limited-edition collection of its Sonos One speakers in new colorways—red, pastel yellow, forest green, and a pale millennial pink—that accessorize the appeal of the design, recently equipped with Amazon Alexa capabilities. The installation marked the second time the smart-speaker company, which is hotly pursuing a design and interiors consumer base as part of its renewed strategy, has shown at Milan Design Week. By partnering with the darling Danish design brand and the global coworking space juggernaut, Sonos seems to be pinpointing that target audience a bit further.

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Meanwhile Bang & Olufsen, a more common fixture at Salone, introduced a new portable BeoPlay P6 speaker designed by Cecile Manz; elsewhere, Sony took a more mercurial take on tech, with “Hidden Senses,” forgoing a product display for an interactive installation of objects that responded to touch, movement, and sound.

The takeaway? Smart tech isn’t just for CES—and with its growing presence at Salone, it’s now part of design in an undeniable and increasingly stylish way.

Reality, Deconstructed

If living in a Trump presidency has taught us anything, it’s that nothing is ever as it seems. It was easy to see the past year of political tumult reflected in the reality-bending, deconstructed works that took center stage in Milan.

While clothing doesn’t typically play a starring role in the week’s festivities–unless you count people-watching the stylish attendees–COS, the sophisticated minimalist sister brand in H&M’s portfolio, has taken measured steps to more closely align itself with the art and design world. In past years, the company has commissioned large-scale installations by well-known talents like Studio Swine and Sou Fujimoto that have proven wildly popular (Asad Syrkett described the brand’s popular presentations as “one part architecture, one part science experiment, one part social media thirst trap”). This year, COS and Philip K. Smith created “Open Sky,” a giant courtyard sculpture made of mirrored panels that fan outward to create a prismatic reflection of the sky. Pure selfie catnip.

COS and Philip K. Smith, Open Sky. [Photo: Lance Gerber/courtesy COS]

For another large-scale installation with the materials brand Caesarstone, New York studio Snarkitecture reimagined the defining elements of the kitchen with Altered States, a theatrical exploration of water as an elemental wonder and our main cooking ingredient.

Caesarstone’s Altered States. [Photo: David Zanardi/courtesy Caesarstone]

Working with luggage brand Rimowa, emerging designer Dozie Kanu, whose early fans count rapper Travis Scott and fashion designer Virgil Abloh, dismantled suitcases to create a series of conceptual furniture designs out of their parts. Called Stretched, the installation reads like an expanded take on “Knolling,” that pleasing exercise of organizing things neatly. Along the same lines, Plusdesign gallery exhibited a show called U-Joints all about–you guessed it–joint hardware, an industrial designer’s dream.

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Over at the Salone fairgrounds, Swiss makers of modular furniture USM tapped UNStudio to create a hyper-modular space—apparently the single largest furniture piece ever made from USM’s kit of parts—called Homework, blending the ever-blurred boundaries between residence and workspace to the point of near-parody. Made from a grid of panels, balls, and tubes, the behemoth trade show install amounted to a whopping 8.9 tons of material.

In an era where our grasp of truth is increasingly shaped by social media, the recurring theme of deconstructed, mirrored, and fragmented designs that seduced us to look—then look again, with a bit of skepticism—was an apt reflection of the uncertainty in the world right now.

Vitra and Robert Stadler, Typecasting: An Assembly of Iconic, Forgotten and New Vitra Characters. [Photo: courtesy Vitra]

Revisiting The Archive

For all of Milan Design Week’s emphasis on the new and the next, several legacy brands took to their storied archives to shed light on the old. Vitra invited artist and designer Robert Stadler to dig into its historic collection and curate Typecasting: An Assembly of Iconic, Forgotten and New Vitra Characters, focusing on past pieces that highlight the social role of furniture alongside new releases by Stadler, Barber & Osgerby and others. Among the more surprising historic selections was a prototype of a double-decker chair designed by the Eameses—a spindly design that recalls a lifeguard tower, but with seats for two.

Italian powerhouse Cassina unveiled a reissue of Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand’s 1959 dormitory furniture for Maison du Bresil; to celebrate a new showroom redesign by Patricia Urquiola it also hosted a Back to the Future-themed cocktail party, cheekily specifying a “futuristic” dress code. Elsewhere, design greats were paid homage at various gallery and museum shows: Nilufar Depot mounted a show on Italo-Brazilian designers Lina Bo Bardi and Giancarlo Palanti, Atelier Mendini’s architectural works were celebrated at La Triennale di Milano, and SuperDesign presented works by the Memphis designer Shiro Kuromata.

[Photo: ECAL/Calypso Mahieu]

Critical Takes From Young Designers

For a departure from the rampant commercialism and escapist fantasies brought to you by the many Artful Brand Activations™ of Milan Design Week, refer to the installations from students at some of Europe’s most progressive design schools to bring contrarian viewpoints.

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An irreverent contrast to the limited-edition and luxury offerings displayed all week, Swiss school ECAL teamed with Formlabs to present Digital Market, a 3D-printing factory and shop that explored the possibilities of “mass production on-demand,” with 41 printed objects designed for day-to-day use, rather than spectacle–all available to visitors as cash-and-carry purchases.

Last year, the Netherlands’ Eindhoven Design Academy tackled the specter of fake news and digital media spectacle with a live-streaming news channel called #TVClerici, replete with green screens and rendered personalities; this time around, the school took on job scarcity and capitalism. With (Not for Sale), curated by Joseph Grima and Tamar Shafrir, students staged a “Basic Income Cafe” and a newsstand distributing a publication called The Misinformation Times–which subversively features a nearly blank front page. The event’s graphic identity cheekily lifts IKEA’s iconic blue and yellow, and rather than cloistered away in a pop-up venue, each of the installations were staged in a local Milanese osteria and in neighborhood streets—a welcome grassroots approach to an overwhelmingly corporate-funded week of events.

While the furniture industry may be torn between the future and the past, negotiating the uneasy realities of pushing luxury goods in a fraught time, finding solace in beauty where possible, young designers are picking up the slack and talking about topics that actually matter in the world–a high point in the annual onslaught of news that is Milan Design Week.

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About the author

Aileen Kwun is a writer based in New York City. She is the author of Twenty Over Eighty: Conversations On a Lifetime in Architecture and Design (Princeton Architectural Press), and was previously a senior editor at Dwell and Surface.

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