The Italian job

The Milan Furniture Fair may be mainly for the Italians these days, but it’s the British designers who are becoming a driving force at the show.

SBHD: The Milan Furniture Fair may be mainly for the Italians these days, but it’s the British designers who are becoming a driving force at the show.

In the Eighties, the Milan Furniture Fair – aptly described as carnivorous by the architectural writer Jonathan Glancey – was a cult event of international dimensions. You went, you saw, you were seen and you made copious notes and contacts. These were September trysts, albeit hot and sweaty ones, where reputations were inflated like balloons. The consequent buzz of excitement and delight rendered the stress involved completely endurable. Well, it ain’t like that any more.

With the fair now held in fresh, innocent April, and with both Euroluce and Eimu (for office furniture) hived off to other dates, the atmosphere of decadent sophistication which used to permeate the exhibition halls has departed, along with many foreign exhibitors. Milan in 1995 is mainly for the Italians. And though they continue with their exposition of somewhat solid and overblown furniture, enlivened by the extravagant exercises in which their more uninhibited designers are encouraged to indulge, the irresistible sensation that here is the centre of the design universe no longer prevails.

Several of the few brave British manufacturers such as OMK and Zoeftig, who once lined up alongside Italy’s glamour-boys, no longer find it worthwhile. “It was fun but we didn’t really sell, and we do so well at Cologne,” says Alan Zoeftig. “It’s a hollow event now that the lighting and office furniture shows are separate. It’s the wrong side of the Cologne show, and anyway there’s a different attitude about now,” adds Rodney Kinsman of OMK. That’s really the nub of it. Contracts remain in short enough supply to keep many foreign exhibitors away, and designers and retailers who comprise the bulk of the visitors no longer have so much time or money to indulge in trips to furniture shows.

Nineties stringency aside, there are still happenings at Milan 95 which are worth drawing to your attention. And against all the odds, some of the best emanate from Britain. SCP should go down in the annals of design history as a patron of British designers and British manufacture. Several of the products which SCP owner Sheridan Coakley is taking to Milan were, he admits, launched at the International Furniture Fair at Cologne in January or at Orgatec in October: the sofa by Terence Woodgate, as well as his stainless steel, aluminium and white laminate table system; the Archiver revolving bookcase by James Irvine (made of laminated medium-density fibreboard); Geoff Hollington’s tubular steel stacking chair; and Matthew Hilton’s small upholstered “reading chair”. But there will be new designs too: a chaise longue and new low table by Terence Woodgate, and a glass and steel coffee table and low comfortable upholstered tubular steel chair by Matthew Hilton. There’ll also be a slatted wooden table (beach for indoors, oak for out) by Konstantin Grcic.

Matthew Hilton has quite deservedly attracted an international reputation and client base which is all his own, so his designs appear elsewhere in the exhibition. Inter Art, now owned by Montis (London stockist Viaduct), is showing Hilton’s Shogun coffee table with moulded ply legs and glass top, while Sawaya and Moroni will have his design for a travelling, collapsible desk. Made of ply, thin aluminium sheet and aluminium, it packs into itself to become the size of a briefcase. And at Alter Ego you can see his design for a plywood and steel stacking chair.

Italian companies do not part lightly with information about designs they will be exhibiting at the Milan Fair, partly I suppose to guard the mystique with which they seek to surround the event. But also – they can’t fool me – because in most cases the prototypes are barely committed to paper, let alone reality. Luckily, several London-based companies which act as agents for important Italian manufacturers are able to give news of new products.

James Mair, who runs Viaduct, describes the new Atlantide collection of furniture which is being launched by Driade. The work of about 15 designers, it is “well-priced” to cater for those whose interest in modern furniture is not backed by large amounts of cash. This is a continuation of last year’s Driade Diffusion idea which saw the launch of Philippe Starck’s Lord Yo and Olly Tango chairs. Everything will be on show, not at the fairground, but at Driade’s dramatic new showroom which straddles the ground floor of two old palazzos in the Via Mazoni (right near Cappellini’s showroom).

XO is launching two Starck chairs which appeared at Cologne in prototype form: the Peninsula, which is his reinterpretation of the classic French Louis chair and is available as standard in 52 cover colours; and Lundi Ravioli, which was designed for the Teatriz Restaurant which opens later this year in Mexico City. Viaduct’s other main supplier, the Dutch firm Montis, is showing a large range of furniture – from sofas to conference chairs – the most interesting of the latter being the Sting by its chief designer Gijs Papavoine.

Another London agent, John Cook at the Flos showroom, gives news of more Ron Arad and Antonio Citterio designs for Kartell, plus a chair by Philippe Starck (does he never rest); and there will be exquisite, minimalist storage systems at Acerbis.

Atrium is also a reliable London-based purveyor of European furniture designs, most notably Moroso and Cattalan. Moroso will be showing designs by Ron Arad, whose work with them is legendary, but their wild card at the forthcoming Milan show is the Spanish graphics wizard Javier Mariscal, who has designed a curiously anthropomorphic collection of seats which cocks an irreverent snook at the Fifties.

For the rest, we must take their word for it that firms like B&B Italia Home Line, Georgetti, Cabas, Poltronova and Porro will be present – in some cases at locations outside the fair – with what they universally describe as great new designs, but about which they are revealing nothing in advance.

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