A tidal wave of stuff

With another Milan furniture fair behind us, and another deluge of new products on display, Max Fraser argues the case for slamming the brakes on ’the consumption machine we’ve created’ by focusing more on relevance and longevity

Another April and another design world pilgrimage to the Milan furniture fair has passed. Across the world, now that visitors and exhibitors have returned to their everyday lives, you sense a collective sigh of relief after the intensity of Milan subsides and the hype of all of its die-hard design offerings dissipates. With hundreds of thousands of visitors diligently plodding around countless events and installations across the city (and 321 320 attending the trade fair), nowhere else in the world is the frenzy to ingest the ’newest’ and ’most exciting’ designs more acutely concentrated.

Last year (volcano year), I made the decision to stay in London and spun the story to Milan devotees that I was ’interested in observing the event remotely via social media, blogs and online coverage’. If truth be told, I simply couldn’t face going. I’ve been going every year since 2000 and perhaps with time and cynicism, I increasingly question the validity of so much ’stuff’. The enormous task of trying to see as much as possible while battling with Milan’s frustrating transport network, a lack of decent food and sleep and an inner demon who dictates that ’you must see more’ is a troubling reality each year.

In a panic to see the next big thing, we forget to absorb or reflect on what all of this ’stuff’ collectively represents. Instead, our digital cameras click haplessly while our already fatigued brains try to process and retain. In a conversation with Italy’s big daddy of design, Guilio Cappellini, he admitted to me that of the many thousands of new things introduced each year, we’ll probably only remember about 30.

A lot of people you encounter during the week rather nonchalantly shrug when asked if they have seen anything decent. Is this modern-day apathy towards too much choice, or the reality of a society reliant on regular snippets of sensation? With displays, installations and events literally clambering for attention in Milan, it’s the big-budget marketing fanfare that often distracts us from our propensity to enjoy the more sensitive and genuinely worthwhile interventions that are ever-present in all guises. I wouldn’t like to insult visitors to Milan by implying that they are no longer able to sort the wheat from the chaff, as the best work always finds its way to the surface. What’s depressing, however, is that we have to trudge through so much choice in the first place, bombarded with a myriad of derivative designs that wallow in the aisles of mediocrity. In this day and age, sustainable imperatives should naturally weed out the ’masters of blandness’ rather than seemingly fuel a market for more stuff which, quite frankly, we really don’t need.

Furthermore, I firmly believe that the persistent annual production of newness is doing little to benefit the talents who are creating it. There are queues of designers hoping for a big break, but survival from 3 per cent royalties is increasingly a mug’s game and reliant on volume, which is difficult to achieve in a crowded marketplace. Designers seem to be fodder to strengthen brand collateral, but are lured into thinking that payback will come via royalty earnings.

A debate that emerged from the dark waters of Twitter saw the topic surface as the hot subject bemoaned by Milan 2011’s crop of design talent. Careful not to bite the hand that feeds them, designers quietly revealed stories of just how difficult it is to survive from a royalty system that hasn’t changed much in more than 60 years. Hidden behind exuberant branding, marketing gloss and PR spin is a deeply troubled generation of talented ’ideasmiths’ whose skills seem to bottleneck at the elitist end of the market. It’s worth pointing out that I am not exempt from the equation I also sustain a living from the high end of the market, alongside most of the other media lording it in Milan who are collectively painting a false picture of glamour and success in this industry.

Our insatiable appetite for newness has prompted manufacturers to produce a sea of new product launches every year, many aimed at generating PR rather than solid sales for all involved. As one designer put it, ’Milan is the catwalk show from which the industry sells black suits.’

What Milan represents to me is an industry caught up in itself, unable to see a way out of its perpetual cycle of new stuff. Do we need this much every year? Can’t we slow down the consumption machine we’ve created and focus on relevance and longevity? How about better assessing the needs of people and investing properly in less, rather than creating more extravagant stuff for rich people who don’t need it?

While serious business is undeniably carried out in Milan, the enjoyment comes in the mass-exchange between people from around the world. However, lurking in the dark corners of glamorous cocktail parties is an industry that seems obsessed with unsustainable growth and image rather than creating a steady business model built around the principles of responsibility, fairness and relevance.

_Alan Morris at Milan’s Salone del Mobile/Euroluce 2011
_A few favourites

Arriving into Milan by a slightly unorthodox route I end up taking the metro from a remote station called Villa Pompea. Immediately I stop to look at the well-rusted metalwork of the station’s bridge and handrails. Even here out in the sticks there are still signs of Franco Albini’s well disciplined and elegant project for the Milan metro from the late 1960s. To me it looks as fresh as ever, with Bob Noorda’s graphics still showing off their great qualities. Pausing to sit on a marble bench to wait for my train, I muse on what it is that makes me so respectful of Italian design. A few minutes later, awoken from my meandering thoughts, the train arrives and wrenches my gaze away from the grid pattern of the balustrading. Suitably fortified and ready for the physical ordeal I set off towards Porta Genova, in search of inspiration at this year’s furniture fair. After four days trawling and many miles later, my favourites were a mixed international bunch…

Aim light
Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec for Flos

The suspended light from the Bouroullec brothers for Flos caught my attention in among a motley crew of new offerings from Flos. Its strong sculptural presence and formal confidence offer yet more examples of how the French pair approach designing products. A light whose visual weight appears to cling to the lazily looping flex without offering any diffused light from its bulbous body except through the circular frontal aperture. This directional nature of the light presumably inspired its name and makes it an unusual style in the market.

Dip in Space
Installation Zona Tortona

Amid the throngs of people infesting the ever larger Tortona district, now surrounding the original via Savona headquarters, I came upon an installation organised by the Geneva University of Art and Design, art directed by Matali Crasset with Alexandra Midal. The installation is a mini ’factory’ where objects are dipped in red liquid wax and hoisted up into the space as suspended dripping forms mutated by their coating. Everything about it fascinated the public and showed just how successful a ’happening’ of this type can be when done exceptionally well.

Yill mobile power supply
Werner Aisslinger for Younicos Zona Tortona

Impressively made and designed by Werner Aisslinger for Younicos, this mobile power source for offices can be charged from Green energy sources or a conventional grid socket. Able to power up to 300 watts, an elegant cylinder trolley uses lithium titanium cells. Expensive raised floors in a wireless world become a thing of the past and power can be used exactly where it’s needed. Charging once every three days will be sufficient for the average deskspace.

Stool
Jack Smith for Royal College of Art Zona Lambrate

This prototype stool with three legs that folds flat and locks together with no fixings is a masterpiece in my opinion. It is impressively stable and ingeniously engineered. Where can I buy one? Manufacturers should be queueing up.

365 Knitting clock
Siren Elise Wilhelmsen Salone Satellite

No wonder the SCP men were spotted deep in talk with the designer. On the stand was a series of wonderful designs by the Siren Elise Wilhelmsen design studio, from Norway, including the 365 Knitting clock. This is a beautifully made clock-cum-knitting machine that sits quietly on the wall and knits 24 hours a day, producing a 2m-long scarf at the end of a one-year cycle. As Wilhelmsen says, ’Now the past can be carried out in the future and the upcoming year is hiding in a new spool of thread, still un-knitted.’

Euphoria chair
Paola Navone for Eumenes

A newcomer manufacturer from Milan, Eumenes, showed a series of cleverly moulded chairs and tables. The monocoque shell of the Euphoria chair by Paola Navona, made from an automotive material called Woodstock, is nicely proportioned with a comfortably wide seat and available in a large series of colours and surface patterns. Here is someone who’s finally elevated the humble laundry bag check pattern to design status.

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