The Milan furniture fair is huge. The Fiera compound comprises 25 large buildings and hosts around 2,000 exhibitors; it's a town in itself, complete with roads, restaurants and even a hairdresser. Outside the main complex, designers and manufacturers mounted around 300 satellite shows in spaces ranging from art galleries and design showrooms to warehouses, which brought the fair to the outskirts of the city for the first time. It's like the Venice Biennale and the Basel art fair rolled into one, then multiplied by ten. To help visitors navigate the event, the furniture magazine Interni publishes a guide. It helpfully includes a survey of celebrity designers' favourite restaurants in case you want to know where Marc Newson recommends for happy hour. Not to be outdone, Interni's competitor Abitare distributes a free daily newspaper during the fair.
The prevalent theme at this year's event seemed to be that old friend of contemporary art - crossover. Everywhere, practitioners of different disciplines were getting into bed with each other. In their recently opened superstore Armani showed their new range of home furnishings. The Prada Foundation exhibited the plans and models for Prada stores designed by Herzog & de Meuron and Rem Koolhaas. Furniture manufacturersCappellini scored a double: they collaborated with fashion house Pucci, whose designs were used to upholster Patrick Norguet chairs. They also commissioned art director Fabien Baron, designer of Calvin Klein perfume bottles and one-time art director of Harper's Bazaar, to create a range of furnishings. (To view the Pucci/Norguet chairs at the Pucci showroom the viewer was invited to don 3-D style tinted paper glasses, a fun but rather pointless touch.) Manufacturer Edra also raided 1960s textiles, placing vintage rose prints on one seat of a sofa next to bright, high-gloss pink on the other.
Economically, furniture's crossover with fashion makes sense. After all, although a Pucci-upholstered armchair may have a timely retro feel today, in a couple of years it will require replacement. This logic can also be applied to the year's dominant colours - in place of the tasteful beige bouclé and Wenge veneer of a couple of years ago came hot pink, orange and red. From the fashion industry's perspective, furniture can be seen as one more extension of the consumer's personality and ripe for inevitable branding.
Highlights of the satellite shows included the international group Sputnik, exhibiting such varied pieces as Masamichi Katayama's Big Chocolate Carpet, a floor covering with raised squares resembling a chocolate bar, and Waazwiz' Colour Bean, a 2001-style sofa made of translucent plastic with fluorescent lights beaming out from the inside. In his solo presentation legendary light designer Ingo Maurer'sLicht.Enstein lamp used digital circuit boards for the shade, each of which controlled an LED display to create the image of a ... light bulb.
Both Wallpaper* and Surface magazines laid on parties and installations of their own. In yet another warehouse space at the edge of Milan, Surface commissioned New Yorker Karim Rashid to design a 'surface-scape', which turned out to be a number of curvy daybeds, upholstered in various patterns, for guests to climb over, sit and lie on, Panton-style. The laid-back experience was rather spoiled by the sight of Rashid scrambling across the piece, asking visitors to remove their shoes. The Wallpaper* project was on an altogether different scale. The magazine commissioned Austrian architect Oskar Leo Kaufman and Swedish designer Johannes Norlander to create a low-cost prefabricated house for a small site. The resulting full-size house in Milan was, we were told, constructed in six hours. While its aim of increasing the design quality of low-cost housing is laudable, the practicality of the venture is doubtful. How easy will it be to find a 12 by 4 metre plot of land in the middle of a terrace of houses? As with much of the dream-led design in evidence in Milan, the theory may be difficult to put into in practice.