BY Alice Rawsthorn in Opinion | 18 MAR 15
Featured in
Issue 170

By Design

The shifting influence of Milan’s Salone del Mobile

BY Alice Rawsthorn in Opinion | 18 MAR 15

Martino Gamper, ‘In a State of Repair’ at la Rinascente, Milan, 2014; courtesy: Martino Gamper studio; photograph: Mark Beck Peccoz

Scoffing a delicious bolito at La Latteria. Perching on one of Enzo Mari’s panettone concrete traffic bollards. Finding Achille Castiglioni’s design studio looking more or less as he left it at Studio Museo Achille Castiglioni. Spotting the remnants of the 1960s subway system in Bob Noorda’s signs and Franco Albini’s granite benches. There is so much to enjoy on a visit to Milan.

Except, that is, if you go there during the six days in mid-April when several hundred thousand designers, manufacturers, retailers, curators, editors and bloggers descend on the city for its annual furniture fair, the Salone del Mobile. Not that you won’t be able to go to La Latteria or the Castiglioni museum then, but they will be very crowded. So will your flights to and from Milan, and your hotel, which will have doubled its rates. And good luck finding a taxi or subway seat, because the Salone is not only responsible for the busiest week of the year in Milan, but in the global design calendar, too.

Isn’t it odd that a furniture fair should exert so much power throughout design culture, not just in its chosen field? So far, the Salone has managed to do so, not least because of the dearth of competition. How much longer can it continue to pull it off at a time when design practice and the public’s understanding of it are increasingly nuanced and eclectic, and so many other design disciplines – from those which help us to make sense of technological innovations to reinventing dysfunctional social services – are becoming more important to designers, and the rest of us, than tables and chairs?

Memphis designers in Masanori Umeda’s ‘Tawaraya’ conversation pit, photographed by Studio Azzurro, 1981; courtesy: Memphis, Milan

When the Salone was founded in 1961, Milan seemed the perfect place to host a culturally ambitious furniture fair. It was the commercial heart of the Italian furniture industry, which had made an important contribution to the country’s postwar economic recovery by commissioning talented designers, many of whom had originally trained as artists or architects, to combine the region’s historic artisanal skills with recent technological breakthroughs in thoughtfully developed, visually seductive products.

Most of the 12,000 visitors to the first fair were Italian, but more people flocked there from further afield throughout the 1960s and ’70s to see the innovations of Gae Aulenti, Castiglioni, Joe Colombo, Mari, Alessandro Mendini, Ettore Sottsass and other Milanese designers who had forged close rapports with enterprising Italian manufacturers. At their best, these partnerships – like Castiglioni’s with Flos and Mari’s with Danese – produced models of enlightened industrial design, which were efficient, beguiling and expressive. In 1972, the Museum of Modern Art in New York celebrated the Italian furniture industry’s finesse in combining commercial clout with cultural vitality in the exhibition ‘Italy: The New Domestic Landscape’, curated by the Argentinian architect Emilio Ambasz.

Nearly a decade later, during the 1981 fair, some 2,000 people descended on a Milanese gallery, Arc ’74, for the opening of an exhibition of furniture by Memphis, a new design group. Photographs of its vibrantly coloured, flamboyantly shaped and kitschly symbolic work were published all over the world, with a team portrait of Sottsass, the group’s leader, lounging with his young collaborators in a ‘conversation pit’, designed in the form of a boxing ring by the Japanese architect Masanori Umeda.

Memphis was a true Milanese endeavour. Its designers were of different nationalities, but the project was hatched in Sottsass’s apartment on via San Galdino and the furniture was made by local fabricators. Yet it was also a triumph of perception over reality. Conceptually, there was nothing new about it. Sottsass had experimented with elements of the same aesthetic when working with Mendini and other members of Italy’s Radical Design movement during the 1970s. Nor was Memphis a commercial success: few of the designs sold more than 50 pieces. But its influence was immense. By distilling the principles of Radical Design into a form that was accessible to the public, Memphis popularized postmodern design theory, and copycat versions of its style appeared in bars, hotels and shops all over the world.

But by demonstrating the promotional power of the Salone so convincingly, Memphis unwittingly condemned it to a relentless quest for something equally sensational. Nothing else has quite matched it, despite the best efforts of mediagenic pranksters like Philippe Starck. Another debut show came closest in 1993 when the Droog group unveiled a gentler, more thoughtful approach to design in the work of Jurgen Bey, Hella Jongerius and other recently graduated Dutch designers, who treated furniture as a conceptual rather than a commercial medium. Every April, Milan’s campsites are packed with young designers hoping to kickstart their careers by exhibiting their work during the fair. I once saw some Swiss students installing an impromptu show on a traffic island, and spotted a local designer doing the same in the windows of his uncle’s carpentry workshop.

Sanluca chair, designed by Achille Castiglioni, 1960; courtesy: Museo Achille Castiglioni

Will the Salone have the same allure in future? It is still a commercial colossus with over a thousand booths packed into the cavernous halls of the Fiera Milano convention centre in Rho, to the west of the city. Navigating those halls can be exhausting, as is struggling through the city’s congested streets to far-flung fringe events. So many of these are shameless promotional stunts, seemingly unrelated to furniture, that the British designer Jasper Morrison has suggested renaming the Salone del Mobile, the Salone del Marketing. Yet something always makes the slog worthwhile: whether it’s finding a compelling new product, or an intriguing exhibition like the ‘menders’ market’ assembled outside la Rinascente department store last April by the Italian designer Martino Gamper to show off the restorative skills of local cobblers, bookbinders, 3D printshops and cycle repairers. Even so, the Salone does not have quite the same clout it once had.

Attendance peaked in 2008, only to fall the following year as the property market collapsed. Some of the industry’s best-known European brands – including Artek, Cappellini, Cassina, Flos and Poltrona Frau – have changed ownership in the last two years. Yet the media presence in Milan continued to grow throughout the credit crunch, fuelling the Salone del Marketing element of the fair, while redefining its role within the furniture industry, which increasingly uses it as a showcase for new ideas. If the response is positive, the prototypes are turned into fully developed products, many of which are sold at the increasingly powerful imm cologne furniture fair in Germany the following January. Designers often complain of manufacturers rushing unfinished prototypes into the Salone to generate media coverage, and complain again if, as is often the case, they are not put into production. Even if they are, the designers’ royalties are often paltry: most manufacturers still refuse to pay more than the three percent industry standard that dates back to Castiglioni’s heyday. Very few designers can expect to make as robust an income from royalties as the Bouroullec brothers, Konstantin Grcic, Morrison, Starck and Patricia Urquiola do. The odds are even shorter on them parlaying their exposure at the Salone into ambitious industrial commissions, like Jongerius’s for the Dutch airline KLM, and the British duo Barber & Osgerby’s work in designing the trains for London’s Crossrail network.

The Milan fair has become one of those highly visible yet increasingly ambiguous events, like the Hay Festival in the Welsh Borders, which are sustained as much by their promotional prowess as by their significance within their original field. The problem is that the Salone faces growing tension between its official role as a trade fair (-cum-branding bacchanale) and its unofficial one as a general design forum. Both roles were sustainable in the last century, when furniture – and the chair in particular – occupied more cultural space than other design disciplines, which explains why so many design museums are stuffed with it and why chairs command the highest prices at design auctions. There was a rationale for this. In an age when design innovation tended to focus on physical things, the chair was an eloquent medium through which to trace changes in aesthetics, technology, demographics, social and political concerns. Furniture’s cultural status was also strengthened by its links to architecture. Historically, whenever architects engaged with design beyond their own field, the outcome was often a chair, which is doubtless why Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Hermann Muthesius and the other architects responsible for much of the critical discourse on design in the first half of the 20th century were so preoccupied by them. So were the architects-turned-curators who produced pioneering design exhibitions and museum collections, as Philip Johnson did at MoMA in New York. In this context, why shouldn’t a furniture fair have exerted wider influence within design culture, especially one associated with such mile-stones as Droog’s and Memphis’s debuts? Equally helpful to the Salone’s cause was the support of the burgeoning industry of interiors magazines and blogs, and the ‘Home’ sections of newspapers, which depended on its exhibitors for much of their advertising revenue, giving them a vested interest in the fair’s continued success.

Dawn/Dusk mirror, designed by Minale-Maeda for Droog, 2010; courtesy: Droog

But, by dominating the media’s portrayal of design so relentlessly, the Salone has unintentionally reinforced the popular stereotype of design as a superficial, stylistic tool steeped in consumerism. Not that this is new. As long ago as 1967, the British design historian Reyner Banham inveighed against what he called ‘furniturization’ in an essay for New Society. ‘The area worst blighted by furniturization lies right under the human arse,’ he wrote. ‘Check the area under yours at this moment. The chances are that it is occupied by an object too pompous for the function performed, over-elaborate for the performance actually delivered and uncomfortable anyhow.’ Rampant though furniturization was then, it has become even more so since the Milan fair’s post-Memphis metamorphosis as the Salone del Marketing.

Conversely, other areas of design have become increasingly diverse and intellectually dynamic as designers have used their new digital tools to work independently by pursuing their own political or environmental objectives, rather than the commercial interests of clients. This shift is evident in the content of the most interesting of the student shows presented in empty factories and warehouses during the Milan fair. A decade ago, many students seemed set on becoming mini-Starcks; now they’re more likely to aspire to curbing the environmental crisis, redefining design’s interpretation of gender identity or finding life-changing applications for new technologies. Why would they choose to devote their careers to producing more chairs when there are so many arguably more rewarding possibilities open to them? The design landscape has changed so dramatically since Droog’s debut, let alone Memphis’s, that it is impossible to imagine a future development in furniture having a similar impact. Moreover, the furniture designers of the future are as likely to spend their time devising ways of enabling the rest of us to customize chairs on 3D printers, as they are to develop those objects themselves.

Many of the new design challenges are explored in the fringe exhibitions and debates held during the Salone. But a furniture fair is not the most empathic or effective forum for them, raising the possibility of their migrating elsewhere. Just as imm cologne has emerged as a commercial competitor to Milan, a number of small-but-feisty cultural events are becoming increasingly influential within design discourse, as the Ljubljana and Istanbul design biennials demonstrated last year. None of them commands anywhere near as large an audience or as much media attention as Milan, nor has another city mounted a knockout bid to host the pre-eminent designfest. Even so, there are now more congenial homes for the provocative design projects that may never have been on the Salone’s official agenda, but have given it such prestige and vitality over the years.

Alice Rawsthorn is the author of Hello World: Where Design Meets Life (2013) and Design as an Attitude (2018). She lives in London, UK.