Scoping Out Salone

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It was mid-afternoon of a balmy April day, the fourth day of Milan’s massive annual International Design Fair, and out at the Salone del Mobile, the fairgrounds were abuzz. Matteo Renzi, the handsome young prime minister of Italy, was paying a visit. A crowd gathered at the top of the escalators expectantly, as a smiling Renzi rode up to visit the hall to see some of Italy’s finest furniture companies showcasing their wares.

The visit had larger significance than politics alone. Italy is a nation of artisans and fabricators, but in recent years, the country (like many others) has been plagued by a stagnant economy, in some ways exacerbated by a somewhat controversial government, which meant that Renzi’s appearance at the Salone signaled better days ahead. “In Italy, we believe that design is value, that quality is value” says Claudio Luti, who is not only president of the design company Kartell but also heads Cosmit, the consortium of Italian furniture manufacturers that mounts Salone.

Each year designers, architects, collectors, showroom owners, gallery operators, journalists, scholars, and aficionados descend on Milan by the thousands. The Salone itself is a prime destination for most. This year a special exhibition, Where Architects Live, offered a multimedia glimpse at the personal homes of architects Shigeru Ban, Mario Bellini, Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas, Zaha Hadid, Marcio Kogan, Daniel Libeskind, and Studio Mumbai/Bijoy Jain.

It is almost axiomatic that at the fair itself, lovers of contemporary design make a beeline for Halls 16 and 20, where brands (many though not all of them Italian) ranging from Artek to Zanotta can be seen. (Other modern and contemporary brands can be found elsewhere at the Salone, but these two halls offer the concentrated study of what’s new and what has endured.) Among the many standouts: Patricia Urquiola’s rugs for Gandia Blasco and Artek’s launch of new work by Konstantin Grcic and reinterpretations by Hella Jongerius of some of Artek’s Alvar Aalto staples.

The celebration of contemporary design spills out from the fair across all of Milan, with entire districts (Brera, Tortona, Lambrate) devoted to showcasing design, often, though not always, from younger designers. The venerable Milan design guru Rossana Orlandi showed an array of fascinating (and sometimes provocative) work at both her gallery in an old tie factory, and in the separate Untold, which took over the historic Museo Bagatti-Valsecchi. Orlandi’s acute eye is legendary, and this year was no exception with works from the Lebanese duo known as Bokja, the Viennese firm of Lobmeyr, and the Japanese-born Yukiko Nagai, just to name three.

Others—among them Hermès and Established and Sons— similarly occupied venerable Milan palazzos and other landmark buildings to display often remarkable new work. At the Palazzo Clerici, for example, one could see edgy new work from Formafantasma for Gallery Libby Sellers using cooled lava as a primary material. The Dutch brand Moooi, on the other hand, took over a modern factory space and then reshaped it with Massimo Listri’s giant-sized photos of palazzo interiors shaping the spaces.

“It goes from the young to the stars,” Luti says. “I like to think that it is the best in the world.”