• Design: Review - Milan Furniture Fair
  • Ralf Würth
Design: Review - Milan Furniture Fair

It`s spring in Milan – time for the annual International Furniture Fair (April 17-22) and all the exhibitions that spring up around it. To start off the city`s design week, the husband-and-wife designers Stefan Scholten and Carole Baijings of the Amsterdam studio Scholten & Baijings are unveiling their “Colour One for Mini” installation. Part of Interni Magazine`s Legacy exhibition at the University of Milan, the Dutch duo`s project, which is on view until April 28, takes apart – both conceptually and literally – the automotive brand`s base model, the Mini One, and reimagines it.

The installation includes a model of a Mini One as interpreted by the designers, but its main focus is an array of parts that are spread out on the ground, much as they would be in a racing paddock, in a nod to Mini`s rally heritage. These parts, however, are not exactly the ones you`d see when you took apart an actual Mini; they are Scholten and Baijings`s rethink of the car`s components.

When the designers were invited by Adrian van Hooydonk, the senior vice president of BMW Design (BMW is Mini`s parent company), to think about a new way to approach the popular Mini, they saw a concept car in BMW`s design studio. Noting that concept cars were highly finished, Scholten and Baijings decided to explore something much more abstract. “We thought we should do a conceptual concept car,” Scholten said. He and Baijings “peeled the car like an onion,” he said, to see how it was built and to explore its various functional “layers,” eventually narrowing their focus to a small number of elements, including the body, chassis, wheels, steering wheel and seats.

They ended up perforating the car`s body with thousands of tiny holes that allow ventilation and admit light, and create a surface texture not usually found on the glossy bodies of most automobiles. (They also used a matte-finish porcelain lacquer, which was developed with Mini Design.) They cast the wheels in one part, in a transparent blue polyester resin, thereby “reinventing the wheel,” as Scholten noted jokingly. Using the technology of rapid prototyping, the steering wheel and pedals became a single, asymmetrical and sculptural object that Scholten compared to a joystick. Scholten and Baijings used their well-known eye for color and textiles on the car`s seats, which they rendered as minimal, almost folded forms with specially developed fabrics and hand-stitching with silk thread. Today`s cars are so meticulously finished, Scholten said, “that you almost miss the human touch.” To that end, the designers` consideration of how people use the car extended even to a door pocket that becomes a a tote bag, or a detachable visor that doubles as a clutch purse.

Anders Warming, the head of Mini Design, said that Scholten and Baijings`s project “opens completely new doors” for the company, giving it “a new way to deal with automotive icons.” One of his favorite aspects of the project is the car`s windows, which, depending on whether you look out the back, sides or front, offer you views to the past, present or future. “We experience this every day,” Warming explained. “Going forward.”

Another year, another Milan Furniture Fair. The crowds at the fairgrounds outside the city, as well as those attending the numerous exhibitions in town, seemed as enthusiastic as ever. But the furniture on display looked a bit more subdued than in recent years, and there seemed to be less of it, as if manufacturers were being cautious about the near future – which is understandable given the current mood of economic uncertainty. Still, there were plenty of bright spots.

At Vitra, which showed, among other things, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec`s Corniche pedestal shelves, the space was divided by floor-to-ceiling stacks of translucent white plastic storage boxes: a clever, economical move that seemed just right for the temporary space of a trade-show stand. Porro`s Gentle chair, designed by the Swedish collective Front, looked like an elegant line drawing of a chair – that is, not exactly promising comfort – but its leather-covered back turned out to be surprisingly flexible.

At Established & Sons, Ingo Maurer, who is known for his innovative, poetic lighting designs, realized an idea that had been brewing for 30 years with his engaging Floating Table, a tabletop that rests, free of legs or a base, on the arms of four bentwood chairs, which pull out from the table by an extension mechanism underneath it. Ligne Roset showed pieces by a number of young designers, but it also brought out upholstered seating that Pierre Paulin originally designed in the early 1970s for the smoking room of the Élysée Palace when Georges Pompidou was president.

At Kartell, one of the most distinctive pieces was Rodolfo Dordoni`s O/K lounge, perfect for poolside with its shapely blue plastic legs. The German company E15 presented furniture by the early Modernist architect Ferdinand Kramer. Karnak, a linear side chair that Kramer designed in 1925, looked startlingly fresh, reminding you that there really is not much new under the sun. And at Arco, the Deskbox, a tidy, wall-mounted desk by Raw-Edges, was just the thing for a small space. While much of the furniture on view this year emphasized the useful, Moroso bucked the trend, showing furniture that made more of a statement, from Werner Aisslinger`s environmentally friendly Hemp chair to Nendo`s more conceptual Zabuton seating, which is based on the idea of a futon draped over a wire frame. The actual design is far more sophisticated technically, and its form is graceful.

The most unexpected twist to Milan`s design week, however, was the abundance of compelling tabletop objects by well-known designers. At Spazio Rossana Orlandi, the Japanese company 1616 Arita showed the Colour Porcelain collection by Scholten & Baijings, a seductive array of plates, bowls and cups that employs the Dutch duo`s luscious but modern palette of blues, reds and yellows.

In the Ventura Lambrate district, Jaime Hayon also showed delicate designs in Japanese porcelain (with a dash of his usual whimsy), for the manufacturer Kutani Choemon. And color provided a fresh accent in Patricia Urquiola`s crystal stemware and vases for Baccarat. At 10 Corso Como, Georg Jensen, the Danish silversmith, unveiled a group of sensual bowls and vases by Ilse Crawford, in more affordable metals like stainless steel, copper and brass (although one of the vases is available in a hammered silver version). But one of the most satisfying tabletop collections was also the most utilitarian.

Sowden, named for its designer, George Sowden – a veteran designer of everything from watches to chairs to pay phones, and one of the original members of Memphis – includes dinnerware, coffee and tea pots, accessories and even small appliances (a toaster, an electric kettle, a juicer), all of which are made of porcelain.

Sowden started two years ago with the coffee pots, called SoftBrew, which use a cylindrical stainless steel filter that is photo-engraved with almost invisible holes. (He developed a similar filter for the teapots.) These were so successful that he decided to branch out. Sowden showed the entire line in a single group in his studio, and its simplicity and common sense made you want to buy every piece in it.

One thing you can be sure of when you go to Milan for the furniture fair: you can never see everything in it. And that goes double for the exhibitions outside the fair, which used to be clustered in just a few areas of town – like the upscale Montenapoleone shopping district or the formerly industrial Zona Tortona – but which are now scattered even farther afield. So, with apologies to those exhibitions left out only because of a lack of time, here are a few notable shows.

The Villa Necchi Campiglio, the early 1930s house museum that starred in the movie “I Am Love,” became the home of, and inspiration for, the exhibition “Villa Necchi: Details of Life and New Visions.” Its 25 objects, designed by Fabrica, are interspersed throughout the rooms, interpreting and extrapolating on the history of the house and its original inhabitants, the sisters Gigina and Nedda Necchi and Gigina`s husband, Angelo Campiglio. For instance, a closet full of hatboxes inspired a group of boxes, a lamp and a basket that combine the notions of hatbox and hat; a carpet`s design is the plan of the house`s grand staircase. But one of the most compelling interventions is found in Gigina and Angelo`s bathroom, where two glass bell jars, his and hers, sit on wooden bases that are impregnated with fragrances – one masculine, one feminine – that were created for the exhibition, and which offer an intriguing scent “memory” of a couple the viewer has never met.

At Nilufar, in addition to the limited-edition and one-off contemporary and vintage designs for which the gallery is known, Nina Yashar, its owner, has unveiled Nilufar Unlimited, a new program of production pieces by designers and artists like Michael Anastassiades, Sam Baron, Bethan Laura Wood, Martino Gamper, Giacomo Ravagli and Nendo, whose tiny lacquered paper boxes, made with a 3-D printer, combine high tech and high touch to maximum effect.

Tom Dixon`s monster undertaking, MOST, filled the Leonardo da Vinci Museum of Science and Technology, which is housed in a 16th-century monastery, with exhibitions and demonstrations of his own work and that of many others. Dixon showed his own lighting and furniture and partnered with the German fabricating machinery giant Trumpf to produce his metal Stamp chairs (some of which were given away) on-site. The chairs also provided seating for Spring Table, a pop-up restaurant that was overseen by Stevie Parle, the chef at Dixon`s Dock Kitchen in London, and which served dinners in the monastery`s frescoed refectory. Elsewhere at MOST, Studio Toogood`s installation/demonstration La Cura (sponsored by Nivea) offered a white-on-white, multimedia “hospital for the senses” as an antidote to the general overload of the city`s design week.

One of the week`s most refreshing exhibitions was “Kvadrat Celebrates Hallingdal 65,” at the Jil Sander showroom. Kvadrat, the innovative Danish textile manufacturer, showed projects by 31 young designers that incorporate Hallingdal 65, the company`s first and best-known fabric. The work on display ranges from furniture, like a large revolving ottoman by Constance Guisset or stools by Philippe Malouin (who was recently named one of Design Miami`s Designers of the Future), to whimsical animal pillows by Ionna Vautrin, a hammock by Jean-Baptiste Fastrez or a full-size fabric car by the fashion designers Bless.

  • Ralf Würth