Time to inject an element of fun into the hard work

An artist friend said recently of the Milan Furniture Fair, ‘It’s only a chair show’, but even he – a self-confessed chair addict – turned up there last week because he knows it represents so much more. It is an international cultural event that brings together art, design and manufacturing with a passion that was hardly dampened by the constant rain that poured down in Milan this year.

But Milan is in a state of flux. Now in its 41st year, the main fair has changed over time from being an experimental hotbed in the ‘contemporary’ halls to presenting slick artefacts that only move design forward slowly. Even with the likes of Philippe Starck and Ron Arad ever present here, it is not the place for rebellion and, in many respects, it’s a long time since they – and Starck in particular – moved off the fringe. There are the odd showstoppers, though fewer this year, that make good magazine covers, but the main event is now more about trading than promoting design.

But the energy is still there in Milan, characterised at the fairground by the spirited, if often improbable or copyist stuff, to be found in the SaloneSatellite – the younger designers’ sideshow to the main event – and installations to be found across the city from creative activists of all nations.

My hope and belief is that the five-year-old SaloneSatellite will rapidly grow in status and quality of ideas, because though many of the talents showing there are struggling to eke out a living, they are unwittingly celebrating the notion of ‘play’. By ‘playing’ with ideas, materials and social issues, they are rekindling the old spirit of Milan – and providing welcome relief from the risk-free commercial straitjacket holding back genuine innovation in some areas of the fair.

The notion of play, albeit through hard work, is what has always made Milanese design special, but experimentation with form, colour and materials is no longer purely an Italian thing. The Netherlands, Scandinavia and to a lesser extent France, are exploring new models and are arguably at the forefront, with UK designers still in there. The Milan fair organiser, Cosmit, is astute enough to already be recognising this trend, but it could do more.

There is a lesson here to John Sorrell and London First, both looking to establish annual ‘designfests’ in the capital. Yes, let’s celebrate design and its impact on everyday life and business in London. But let’s not forget the importance of ‘play’ through and within design. That’s what inspires and delights people – take Droog Design’s interventions in a Milanese hotel, for example – and that’s what designers, clients and consumers need right now.

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