Fringe activity

Gloom? What gloom? Whatever the mood in the UK, the sun was shining in Milan last month as international furniture buffs gathered for the annual fair. There was a resigned acceptance of the re-election of Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi among the locals, but nothing to suggest an economic decline in the wares on display in the fairground and beyond, or in the spirit of the city.

Attendance at the main show at the massive Rho Pero venue on the edge of town was up significantly on last year, according to the organiser, Cosmit. There appeared to be fewer Chinese and Russian visitors than of late, but the mix was truly international nonetheless and the crowds were almost alarming.

There were a few interesting, if not entirely new, designs at the fair from stalwarts like Moroso (though now at the edge of its comfort zone as it introduces ever-whackier new lines), Plank (with the Myto chair by Konstantin Grcic) and the UK’s Case and SCP. But the Salone Satellite – a mix of college exhibitors and smaller design groups from across the world – was the centre for innovation this year. Much of the derivative work of yesteryear has been edited out and the bulk of projects were interesting conceptually or had real potential for manufacture.

The UK’s Hidden Art made a showing in the Satellite of some of Hackney’s best – the likes of Mark Irlam of Something from Nothing, Gareth Neal and Jonathan Tibbs – while booths featuring work by London group Farm and independent designer Dylan Freeth were attracting attention, for Giles Miller’s cardboard ‘antiques’ on the one hand and Freeth’s plastic screens on the other. There is a blend of craftsmanship and quirkiness in this work that characterises the current generation of British designer-makers.

But it was the fringe events that really blossomed this year, not just in the volume of visitor traffic – the police had to ban cars from Milan’s popular Zona Tortona district on Saturday because of the crush – but in the diversity of what was on show.

Established furniture firms such as Emea and Dutch group Moooi have expanded into the spaces in this zone’s Superstudio vacated by the likes of Cappellini which, again (with Poltrona Frau Group stablemates including Cassina and Alias), was part of a massive stand at the main fair. But this year Zona Tortona also hosted technology companies such as Sony, Nokia and Samsung in the converted industrial buildings of the canalside – Samsung taking the opportunity of the biennial kitchen show at Rho Pero to show its fridges and white goods in a highly sophisticated setting off the main drag.

And technology wasn’t the only diversion. Art and fashion were part of the mix. Zeus director Nicolette Baucia – who, with partner Maurizio Peregalli, was a pioneer of the Milan fair fringe that made its debut in 1984 – reckons the fair has come full circle as a creative hub. The blend of art, design and fashion doesn’t happen at other Milan events, not even the acclaimed fashion shows.

Dutch collective Droog, along with German lighting maestro Ingo Maurer and Swarovski, remain leaders in this movement. This year all three were lower key than previously – Droog drawing together concepts straddling art, design and technology in an installation devoted to environmental friendliness, while Maurer revealed a couple of quirky additions to his collection and Swarovski’s Crystal Palace was still a haven of inspiration.

The real stars of this year’s fringe, though, show the diversity of ideas currently in the mix.

At the top end of the market is UK company Established & Sons, which really shone this year with outstanding new designs to add to its already impressive collection. Additions include the extremely slender Surface carbon fibre table by Terence Woodgate and racing car designer John Barnard, the equally elegant and ingenious Pole light by Paul Cocksedge, Sam Hecht’s clever Two-timer wall clock and the beautiful Table by architect Caruso St John, made of spruce lumber board and a choice of Corian or linoleum top.

In terms of presentation, it was matched by Italian company Moroso, whose city-centre showroom was transformed into a grotto of delights. Designs by Ron Arad et al were to be found in an uplifting theatrical set that used water, light and tactile fabrics to memorable effect. ‹

And then there was Dutch designer Maarten Baas, whose quirky organic designs never fail to please. Set this year in an oily garage, complete with tools and the smell of axle grease and petrol, they came into their own.

Niche bathroom manufacturer Teuco had a bath-turned-shower by Arad, a circular wall-mounted porcelain fitting that rotates to provide one or the other, and a less impressive basin and bath installation by French designer Jean-Michel Wilmotte. Meanwhile, Japanese design guru Toshiyuki Kita showed a collection that blends nature with technology in a way that is sensual and satisfying.

At the other end of the scale was the Tokyo Wonder show, tucked away in a side street, but a sensual delight nonetheless. The highlight of this show, which included tactile features by Japanese group Tonerico and a digital installation by Wow, was Light-Light by Curiosity, a Japanese group set up by French designer Gwenael Nicolas in 1998.

Light-Light features spheres of light – small balls lit from below that are pumped into the air – which rise and fall in a darkened space as if by magic. The result is entrancing.

If you were looking for themes this year, Tokyo Wonder had some clues. There was a lot of tactility in fabrics and finishes, ranging from the silky smoothness of the Surface table and various Corian-related products to the soft ethereal fabrics used by Tonerico and Moroso in their installations.

The Green movement notwithstanding, plastics were everywhere, in every colour. But there is a return to wood – for example, Matthew Hilton’s Bridge table and chairs for Case, Kay & Stemmer’s Juliet dining table for SCP and ranges by Jasper Morrison et al for Established & Sons were among the best. But there was metal too, on show as a recyclable alternative.

In all, Milan displayed an inspiring mix of projects where technology meets craft and art, with a strong tinge of social responsibility. It marks a turning point in a world that had become a little staid in recent years.

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