One reason is, of course, that tucking into a delicious risotto alla milanese is a treat on any visit to Milan. Another is sentimental. A defining statement of the golden age of Italian design in the mid-20th century was the assertion by the Milanese architect Ernesto Rogers that he wished to design “everything, from the spoon to the city.” This particular spoon, the work of the French designer Inga Sempé and the Italian manufacturer Alessi, evokes the finest objects of that era. As well as being pleasing to look at, it has been shaped to fulfill its intended function with a slender rim that scoops up risotto as deftly as possible.
Enticing, robust and fit for purpose, if only the same could be said of everything else that will be presented in Milan this week. Thankfully, some of the other new products will match the spoon’s standards, but the search to find them becomes tougher each year as the furniture fair and its fringe events are dwarfed by the promotional shindigs thrown by the banks, fashion houses, carmakers and other companies that will converge on the city. No wonder the British designer Jasper Morrison has suggested that the Salone del Mobile should be renamed the “Salone del Marketing.” “I think it was prompted by the launch of a washing machine,” he explained dolefully.
Grimly accurate as “Salone del Marketing” sounds, the latest incarnation of the Milan fair might also be called the “Salone della Machina,” because so many of the bona fide fringe shows will be focused on new manufacturing technologies, 3-D printing in particular. By making individual objects at extraordinary speed and with great precision, 3-D printing enables them to be personalized for each user. It also saves money and scores eco-points by leaving less surplus material and unsold stock than conventional production processes.
Both Domus, the Italian design magazine, and Z33, the Belgian contemporary art center, will stage exhibitions of young designers’ experiments with new forms of manufacturing in Milan this week. More experimental work is to be presented in the “Hacked” exhibition at La Rinascente department store. The Japanese design group Nendo will show a new series of 3-D printed objects at the design gallery Nilufar. And the British designer Tom Dixon plans to make chairs and lamps on a live digital production line and then to give them away for free as part of a cluster of events he is organizing at the Museum of Science and Technology.
Digital systems, like 3-D printing, have been hailed as the future of manufacturing. The Economist magazine recently predicted that 3-D printing would prove to be as transformative as the invention of the steam engine and the transistor. So far, these technologies have been used experimentally, but they could prove tempting to the big European furniture makers that dominate the Milan fair at a time when they are eager to reinvent their business model after several bruising years of recession.
The industry’s established markets of Europe and North America are still sluggish, but there is growth in expanding economies like China, India and Brazil. As the cost of 3-D printers plummets, it may become more efficient for European manufacturers to use them to produce products “on demand” in those distant growth markets, rather than to ship bulky furniture there.
But right now, the industry is preoccupied by its financial woes, not least as last year’s furniture fair was relatively subdued. About 321,320 people attended the main exhibitions in the Rho fairground in 2011, down from 334,673 the previous year and well below the 2008 record of 383,793 visitors. And there will be fewer exhibitors at Rho for the 2012 fair, 2,479, compared with 2,720 last year. Since then, most of the Habitat furniture stores in Britain have closed, as has Moss’s SoHo flagship store, once the heart of New York’s design scene.
Yet new furniture makers continue to emerge. The French company La Chance will present its first collection of objects, mostly by young European designers, this week, as will Discipline, an Italian group, which aims to use sustainable materials and production systems. And yet more fashion brands, including Marni and Roberto Cavalli, plan to introduce furniture lines. So far, however, most of the furniture developed by fashion houses has owed more to cookie-cutter management theories on brand extension than to compelling design.
Thankfully, Ms. Sempé’s spoon, the first piece in a new range of cutlery for Alessi, will not be the only intriguing new product in Milan this week. Among the others is the Medici, a beautifully proportioned wooden chair developed by the German designer Konstantin Grcic for Mattiazzi, and his French counterpart Constance Guisset’s Sol rocking chair for MolteniC. On the sustainable front, the American designer Stephen Burks has produced Dala, a collection of outdoor furniture for Dedon, using a specially developed fiber made from recycled packaging and recyclable polyethylene.
Equally promising are the Corniches shelves designed by the French brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec for Vitra, the Rabbit tables by the Singaporean group, Studio Juju, for Living Divani and the Soft Marble seating by the Israeli designer Ron Gilad for Salvatori. Irma Boom, the Dutch graphic designer, has developed a stunning collection of wallpapers for Thomas Eyck. While Nendo seems set to slip into the role once occupied by Philippe Starck and Marcel Wanders of being the busiest designer at the fair. And for anyone yearning for vintage Italian design, a retrospective of the playful 1960s and 1970s furniture of De Pas, D’Urbino and Lomazzi opens Tuesday at La Triennale.