Italy's furniture and design industry embraced the Milan Furniture Fair after a two-year pandemic delay with unapologetic, over-the-top statement pieces, multi-purpose furnishings adapted to small spaces, and sustainable creations by young designers pushing the industry toward a greener path.
After a surprising pandemic redecorating boom, the industry is looking to an uncertain future. There are raw materials shortages, higher transport costs and general economic uncertainty generated by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Sales of Italian furnishings surged to 16 billion euros (about $16.7 billion) in 2021, a 16% increase over 2019 and 25% more than 2020.
Despite the murky outlook, the world's premiere furniture and design fair, known in Italian as Salone del Mobile, kept the focus on innovation as it recorded a rebound in attendance during six days of previews that closed Sunday.
"Attendance was above expectations," reaching some 400,000 at both Salone and collateral events that spill out into the city, said Alessia Cappello, Milan's top economic development official. Two-thirds were from overseas.
Eye-catching novelties included an oversize gild-framed non-fungible token (NFT); benches that convert to workstations or shaded beds for the homeless; and an elegant, dignified walker whose purpose was disguised by its sculpted shape.
"It was fantastic to be back at Salone del Mobile,'' said Alana Stevens, president of the U.S. furniture maker Knoll. "Much more than a fair, rather a gathering of an incredible global community of those passionate about design. The intersection of designers, artists and the business of design was inspiring."
German fashion designer Philipp Plein unveiled his inaugural furniture collection in collaboration with the Dutch brand Eichholtz, which has furnished many of Plein's own homes in Europe and the United States.
Plein's entry into home design closes a circle for the designer, whose first enterprise was designing dog beds. Fittingly, the new collection includes a leather dog bed on a golden frame for a well-appointed pooch.
"He represents over-the-top luxury, and people want that right now,'' said Eichholtz COO Robin Goemans.
Jet-setters aspiring to Plein's rock 'n' roll aesthetic can settle into a curved velvet sofa with gold studding. They can admire their wardrobe on a marble-pedestal clothing rack fit for a diva, and their sneaker collection in a standing trunk with mirrored interior. A marble table doubles as a pingpong table, and unique NFTs are digitalized into logoed mirrors.
Plein is just the latest fashion brand to enter the world of furniture design starting in the early 1990s, often by way of homes collections featuring bedding, pillows and towels close to their textile roots.
"The fashion world understood at a certain point that design was able to capture the popular imagination in a way that was extremely interesting also for clothing brands,'' said Marco Sammicheli, director of design at the Triennale design museum.
On the sidelines of Salone, Sammicheli curated a show at the Triennale of the Memphis Group, a postmodern design movement founded by Ettore Sottsass that made its world debut at the Milan Furniture Fair in 1981.
The movement pushed the limits between the commercial and the artistic, tensions that still exist between the trade fair, with its commercial aims, and the myriad collateral events where the focus is often more on artistic statements.
"Memphis is the example that gives the best interpretation of Italian design after Olivetti and before Alessi,'' Sammicheli said, referring to the Olivetti business machine manufacturer best known for its typewriter, and the Alessi tableware and décor brand.
Alessi celebrated its 100th anniversary at Salone with a cutlery collaboration with the late Off-White designer Virgil Abloh. It held an exhibition looking at the family-owned company's journey from a metal factory to a laboratory for design, and a dinner where invited guests included some of the 300 designers who have worked with the brand in recent decades.
Abloh's three-piece cutlery set, dubbed "Occasional Object," features an industrial design reminiscent of a mess kit, with a carabiner to clip the pieces together and onto the body as a fashion extension easily paired with the popular Off-White 200-centimeter industrial belt.
Nigerian designer Lani Adeoye won top prize at the SaloneSatellite event with the walker she designed for her grandfather, who rejected the more standard, medical-looking versions. An interlocking arch that represents unity gives her walker a sculptural flair, and the cording made out of water hyacinth connects local artistry with sustainable materials.
"He is a dignified man who worked at the bank for many years and finds it embarrassing to be out with a walker,'' said the 32-year-old designer. "You can have it in your environment, and it looks artistic. No one knows it is a walker."
Satellite is open to designers under 35 years old, and aims to help them develop relationships with manufacturers and find ways to realize projects that were developed "in full liberty, without needing to take into account production processes," said Maria Porro, president of Salone.
The younger generation's natural hewing to sustainable materials and processes also presents a challenge to the wider industry. Bigger brands are more often heralding sustainable materials.
That included recycled plastics in the latest iterations of Kartell's famed Louis Ghost chair by Philippe Starck, but also the Re-Chair collaboration with illy coffee that is made from discarded coffee pods, alleviating somewhat the guilt of the home capsule consumer.
Knoll introduced an oak chair, bench and stool series by Antonio Citterio called Klismos. Cotton chord is woven into a seat with a light elastic give, and the wood is notched together, so it doesn't require glue, typically sourced from petroleum products. Leather cushions filled with vegetable fibers are optional.
While responsibly sourced materials are important, Porro said, the real challenge to the industry is to reduce its energy footprint, doing things like replacing electric light with natural light and producing by order instead of creating stock. Toward that end, the Federlegno association of Italian furniture makers joined the UN Global Compact committing to responsible business practices during the 60th Salone last week.
"We need sustainable production, that is the real challenge,'' Porro said. "It is a question of culture."