It’s an ill wind that blows PRs no good

Stuck in Milan, stranded by a volcanic eruption? Forget about asking a designer for help – just leave it to the PRs, says Henrietta Thompson

They say that life is a journey, not a destination. And for thousands left stranded in Milan after last week’s Salone del Mobile, that was a fact. A pretty good year for inspirational design and innovation it may have been, but for all that was launched, lauded and/or lampooned at this year’s sunny, funny fair, it will be remembered for one thing above all others/ ash.

To begin with it was a just a rumour. The news of airports closing because of a volcano in Iceland slowly came trickling through by text, e-mail and word of mouth over Campari and canapés at cocktails around town. Some fair-goers were of the opinion that the alleged disruptive eruptions were a hoax: a quirky creative intervention perhaps, designed to shake things up.

For anyone who’d been perusing the new and thoroughly excellent Fuori Salone district of Ventura Lambrate, filled as it was with slightly surreal and philosophical design installations often of a multi-vowelled and unpronounceable Dutch bent, the very name of the offending natural phenomenon – Eyjafjallajökull – certainly was.

We chose to ignore it in favour of discussing the better installations: a Finnish sauna bath closet at Design Academy Eindhoven; Kiki Van Eijk’s beautiful Zuiderzee Settings pieces at Secondome; or the process stories behind the most bizarre of works at Ten Small Atlases. Much more compelling, generally. Anyway, what’s the worst that could happen? A prolonged stay in Milano? A forced retreat to Lake Como? Oh no!
The distractions, certainly, were many. Such must-see installations as Barber Osgerby’s Contemplating Monolithic Design with Sony saw a warehouse transformed into a giant anechoic chamber to show off how interiors accessories such as lamps and fruit bowls could function as high-class loudspeakers. At Spazio Fendi, Random International’s interactive LED lightwall provided a backdrop to a playground of optical illusions and giant bouncy balls for Design Vertigo.

There was Moooi’s new flagship showroom – one of a few it has in the pipeline at the moment – on Via Tortona, and, of course, Swarovski’s annual Crystal Palace, where Tokujin Yoshioka and Yves Béhar outshone their efforts of previous years. As usual, Rossana Orlandi put on a beautiful display of her favourite things, which included Piet Hein Eek tableware and lovely new pieces from Tomas Alonso, as well as an incredible off-site installation of Nacho Carbonell. I was pleased to note she’d scooped up my favourites from last year’s Salone, too: Artek and Thomas Eyck both had dedicated rooms for their pieces.

Gradually, however, and as people started to contemplate the journey home, the implications of the ash cloud began to dawn. It was quickly apparent that while it’s difficult to get a cab or a hotel room in Milan during Salone at the best of times, now it was impossible. Anyone hoping for a train, bus, car or coach was immediately told they were out of the question, too. Given that we were in a place with more Ted Talkers per capita than anywhere else in the world, however, the mood was optimistic. We would be rescued, surely, by creative thinking. But it never came.
The design industry versus a volcano – it could have become a Wacky Races-style gumball rally of home-made contraptions bound for Calais. But for a year when Zona Tortona was filled to bursting with car companies – Mini and Audi were just two – we didn’t see fleets of cars on a rescue mission.

Instead, it appeared all our creativity had been depleted by too much hard work in the run-up to Salone, or too many nights in Bar Basso.
In the end, the most ingenious plans were hatched from unexpected quarters, the most successful perhaps being the rescue mission staged by PR agency Murray Weir Willats.

Having somehow chartered a coach and secured ferry tickets almost the minute the disaster was announced, it proceeded to fill it with some 54 journalists. It had the design media sewn up and somewhat at its mercy for 22 hours.

No one left that coach unimpressed. There are certain companies, therefore, that we will be seeing in reviews of the fair, and I predict that the trend-setting clients of Murray Weir Willats – Alessi, Cappellini, Cassina, Poltrona Frau, Alias and Boffi – may well reign for some time yet.
Luckily, they are all serious forces to be reckoned with, and all – and I say this entirely without bias – launching beautiful new pieces this year. From the Campana brothers’ bamboo collection for Alessi to the Raw Edges bench at Cappellini. A volcano is no match for this lot.

Henrietta Thompson, Design journalist

Sounds fantastic

One of Milan’s top acts this year was UK design group Barber Osgerby with its installation for technology company Sony. The designers turned a former industrial space into a soundproof laboratory that housed sound- and light-related objects they had created for the Milan fair. Simple glass speakers were cited by fair-fanciers as one of the best designs around.

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