Milan or bust

Some visitors to Milan may call the 2010 I Saloni “a transitional year,” pointing to empty exhibit spaces; claiming there were less parties; accusing manufacturers of reworking the old rather than introducing the new, or of resorting to the stable of commercially safe designers like Philippe Starck, Patricia Urquiola and Marcel Wanders. However, despite the recession’s European migration and all flights coming to a grinding midweek halt due to Iceland’s volcanic ash storm, attendance still reached over 329,000, a seven per cent increase over last year.

More than 3,500 design businesses and designers used I Saloni — both onsite and offsite — to market, promote and sell their products. This translates into 500-plus furniture manufacturers who filled the 22 buildings of the main event, Salone Internazionale del Mobile. Several hundred more occupied the four buildings dedicated to Eurocucina (the kitchen expo, which alternates annually with Euroluce, devoted to lighting). Another building featured FTK – Technology for the Kitchen (appliances); yet another housed Satellite, offering up emerging designers and schools. In addition, the Fuorisalone (offsite events) have mushroomed to more than 400 permanent showroom exhibits and pop-ups by both established and emerging brands, as well as non-design brands vying for the attention (and dollars) of the passionate psychographic.

Zona Tortona, established nine years ago as a platform for alternative design, is one square kilometre of rentable temporary spaces hosting 250 exhibits. Straying slightly from its roots, the area now welcomes such established brands as the Poltrona Frau Group. Tom Dixon’s eponymous brand introduced a flash factory where fans could immediately purchase an already assembled or flat-packed vase or candleholder. Even Audi exhibited, courtesy of a new installation (Lucid Flux) by LED-lighting-designer-to-the stars Moritz Waldemeyer (credits include Rihanna’s on-stage attire).

New this year, Ventura Lambrate, founded by Netherlands-based Organization in Design, occupied a series of old factories. Installations featured such design schools as Eindhoven Design Academy. Dutch designer Maarten Baas rented an apartment that served as a hangout for international groupies. Known for his museum-worthy, handmade limited-edition pieces (i.e., the Burnt Series), Baas launched the democratic Analog Digital Clock, a 99-cent iPhone app that looks like an old-school alarm clock — but with the silhouette of a man behind the numbers, manually changing them.

Other offsite highlights included Nacho Carbonell’s Diversity, presented by gallery-owner Rossana Orlandi, where the artist took the same chair-table and presented it in 20 iterations, ranging from gravel and thorns to hair.

Milan Fashion Week may receive more ink than Design Week; yet it is design’s 329,000 visitors (not fashion’s 10,000) that allow Milanese hotels, restaurants and taxis to clear close to 50 per cent of their annual turnover.

The vibe in the city was positive — and not just because of the copious amounts of Veuve Clicquot poured for ash-storm-stranded visitors, but also because I Saloni showed ample solid commercial product coupled with enough eye candy to make buyers buy, bloggers blog and design junkies chatter.

B&B Italia’s Bend Sofa by PatriciaUrquiola appears as one monolithic form — but combines and bends to form a range of options, with irregular-shaped backrests and contrasting colour seams.

Italian lighting leader Flos showed the revolutionary Soft Architecture, which makes use of technology by Belgian manufacturer Under-Cover. Ron Gilad’s Wall Piercing features LED rings that pierce right through the wall.

A high note of new design venue Ventura Lambrate was Netherlands-based Frederik Roije’s Breed Retreat, an architectural henhouse. “To eliminate the estrangement from our origin, respecting nature will be necessary,” says Roije. “Designing a special place will give nature its place, even in urban society.”

Emeco’s classic U.S. Navy Chair (designed in 1944) and fellow American icon Coca-Cola have come together. The 111 Navy Chair is made from 111 recycled plastic Coke bottles; approximately three million 20-ounce plastic bottles will be annually recycled for these chairs.

Serving as a contrast to the fair’s proliferation of shades of ivory and cream, Paola Lenti’s breathtaking offsite presentation, using beautifully vibrant and energetic colour combinations, was pure eye candy. Joy is a new Mini-Me collection for kids, in Paola Lenti’s famous knits and felts.

Among the 30 new products pumped out by U.K.-based Established & Sons is Edge, a task light that pushes the boundaries of lighting technology. Created by architect Amanda Levete, in cooperation with Philips, the ribbon-like lamp is the first task light that uses OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) technology as its light source.

Art meets function in the Balancing Boxes table by the whimsical Swedish design trio Front. Giving the illusion that they are haphazardly stacked one atop the other, the powdercoated boxes provide unique storage. This table is one of the few new products Front has designed for Italian furniture manufacturer Porro.

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy (1861), Gaetano Pesce created the Sessantuna table for Cassina — a series of 61 differently shaped tables in the Italian flag’s red, green and white. Each table represents a part of the country; when all 61 are placed side by side, they recreate the entire Italian peninsula.

Kartell presented 16 new products, all in black. Patricia Urquiola’s Comback Chair transforms a traditional wood Windsor chair into an elegant, contemporary plastic chair.

Closet systems take a back seat this year to furniture in the Poliform My Life concept. Designed by Jean-Marie Massaud, the Woodstock modular coffee table comprises geometric volumes that can be combined or used individually, and is available in 28 lacquered colours and natural woods.

Always the showstopper, Moroso presented several new pieces — including Tokujin Yoshioka’s Memory Chair. The chair is covered in a dome of fabric made from a recycled aluminum; its shape contours and takes form as it is used.

Dutch Designer Richard Hutten is no stranger to rethinking tradition (i.e., his crucifix table). In an offsite exhibition, his Playing With Tradition carpets morph a traditional Oriental carpet into something coolly contemporary.