The Memphis Group, a postmodern design movement that launched at the Milan Furniture Fair in 1981, was back to permeate this year’s fair, not just with its acid colours and fanciful squiggles, but with its pervasive search for clarity between the artistic and commercial.
The movement’s debut back then took the design world by surprise; its colourful optimism was expressed in fabrics, objects and furniture that represented a loud counterpoint to the commercial activity inside the fairgrounds.
“There was a dominant idea, an anti-fair activity. It was the freshest idea I had seen at a time when one idea could take over the whole city,” said the Knoll chief executive Andrew Cogan, who attended the fair that year as a student in his 20s. “It was one contrasting idea, and it broke the rules about what good design and tastes were.”
The furniture fair has long since spread out of the sprawling convention centre on the edge of Milan into clearly defined design quarters throughout the city.
The annual April gathering is no longer just about furniture, but about design as an exploration of how people live and work. Specific trends get lost in a flurry of openings, parties and showroom presentations, which add an avant-garde feel to a once purely commercial event. New players arrive every year, often using new technologies – from internet apps to 3D printers – that expand the definition of designer.
With the expanding Italian furniture industry providing the anchor, the fair and its side events, which closed on Sunday, attracted about 400,000 visitors this year. It gave the city an infusion of energy ahead of the Milan Expo 2015 World’s Fair, which opens on May 1 and lasts six months.
Many try but few succeed at designing a chair that can be called a masterpiece.
The French designer Philippe Starcke, who has designed more chairs than he cares to count, called it an “equation of harmony”.
Mr Knoll marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Italian-born designer Harry Bertoia with an anniversary edition of the classic Side Chair and an exhibit of Bertoia’s work.
The architect and designer Mario Bellini, a furniture fair star for decades, has passed the half-million sales mark of his leather-saddle Cab chair for Cassina with the launch of a Cab lounge (there’s also a Cab bed). The Cab lounge uses the same design language as its predecessor, launched in 1977: a sort of double-leather jacket that zips over a slight, interior steel frame. The lounge is on a swivel base, and fitted with foam and feather-padded cushions upholstered in leather.
“Very few nice chairs in existence are really masterpieces. I am proud to have done at least one,” Mr Bellini said, sitting back in his lounge at the Cassina fairgrounds stand. “Time will say if it is another masterpiece. It is for sure comfortable.”
Tribute to Memphis
This year, Kartell paid tribute to Memphis with a series of chairs clad in the movement’s bright textiles.
The Kartell chief executive Claudio Luti says new technology has allowed his company to realise the modulating shapes of the post-futuristic vases and stools in a way that would not have been possible a decade ago.
Mr Luti’s team is still working out which of the prototypes will go into production, but they fit Kartell’s push into the lifestyle-brand space. The brand famed for transparent seats and tables presented a new line of fragrances for the home, and round wall hangers that look like decorative plates and are almost too pretty to cover with a coat.
Tog has seen the future, and it is customisation.
Mr Starck, one of the founding designers of the enterprise launched at the fair last year, said the era of democratic design – accessible goods for the masses – is over. Now, it’s all about the unique and personalised.
His latest creation for Tog is a rough-cut wooden armchair called Maria Maria with a customisable plastic backrest. Buyers can insert a photograph or design that they print themselves at home, a process that Mr Starck said “takes 12 seconds”.
Realising his design was another matter.
“The Maria Maria looks so simple. It is the most difficult chair I have ever designed,” he said. He described the difficulty of connecting the plastic back with wood and finding artisans to create the wooden base.
Tog, backed by a Brazilian investor, is still in the launch phase. There are plans to open a flagship store in Brazil this year; products can be ordered in some retail locations in Europe and online in some countries.
Advancing technology of the LED bulb is allowing designers new freedom. The German lighting designer Ingo Maurer presented a lamp that consists of a bare halogen bulb with angel wings, dubbed Lucellino, and also in an LED version that uses less energy but mimics the yellowish fade of a traditional light bulb (without the heat). Mr Maurer’s creations are about 30 per cent LED, but the trend is toward 100 per cent as technology improves the light quality.
Over at Wonderglass, the Japanese designer Nao Tamura had Venetian glass blowers create the shape of a drop of water as it is about to fall, at the moment, she says, that “it is full of light”.
Style versus design
Milan’s fashion designers continue to move into home decor. The Brazilian brothers and designers Fernando and Humberto Campana invitingly covered a one-off sling chair with 100 bug-eyed expensive fur charms that Fendi typically hangs from its exclusive bags.
Missoni clad mirror frames in their zigzag knits, and Donatella Versace designed leather-covered seats in the same bold shades of red, white, black and turquoise that she favours on the runway.
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