It is no secret that the interiors sector was, relatively speaking, a beneficiary of the Covid crisis. People’s confinement to their homes during lockdowns provided furniture companies with an initial boost from those who re-evaluated their domestic surroundings. They have since enjoyed a fillip from bosses’ desire to entice staff back to the office. Ikea, the world’s biggest furniture retailer, reported sales up 6 per cent on the previous year for the period to the end of August 2021, covering the most severe phase of most countries’ lockdowns.
So there is a definite feeling of optimism around Milan’s Furniture Fair, Salone del Mobile, which runs June 7-12. And, after a no-show in 2020, and a compromised version last September, it’s also celebrating its 60th edition.
The event, which started in 1961 as a way to flag up Italy’s homegrown furniture industry, has become the biggest showcase of design in the world. There is the official fairground in Rho, 10 miles to the north-west of the city centre, where more than 2,000 companies will show their wares in 20 pavilions.
But it’s a citywide affair, which offers the best snapshot of design trends for the year. As might be expected in 2022, it includes an emphasis on responsible production and sustainability. In another form of recycling, many products from the past are being revived and made bracingly contemporary.
This being Milan, the fashion houses are ever-present, even when it comes to the home. Ralph Lauren revealed a new collection at an invitation-only event, although it had not given away any details beforehand. But Fendi Casa — now in an enormous new showroom, opened in April next to the Piazza della Scala — has a range of new pieces. They include a sensual chocolate-brown leather chair by Marcel Wanders.
Dolce & Gabbana also opened two stores dedicated to interiors in April, celebrating not just the brand’s love of leopard print (though there is plenty) but also Italian craftsmanship. The ceramics are made by Caltagirone in Sicily and the glass lighting comes courtesy of Barovier & Toso, one of the very best producers in Murano, Italy’s glassware capital. For Milan, they are adding to their lighting collection — fancy little table lamps with bases in the inevitable leopard print, as well as blue and white ceramic.
Loewe’s annual appearance focuses, as usual, on craft, with the emphasis on weaving, including the Galician straw-making tradition of Coroza.
“Craft is integral to Loewe, and when we look at some of the earliest bags in the world they derive from weaving,” says Jonathan Anderson, its creative director. “Milan is a driver for Loewe. These projects allow us to delve into areas that bring my interest in craft in new, progressive and unexpected directions.” A second part of the Loewe project is the repair of 240 baskets, by a group of master artisans, using fine leather strings.
The London-based Italian designer Martino Gamper is also focusing on re-use, a path he has frequently followed before. For the Milan exhibition he acquired a job-lot of 30 pieces of furniture by the English company Cox, which started making tubular steel-framed chairs and tables in the 1930s.
“I started chopping bits off, and reworking the frames,” says Gamper, who is a master of reconfiguration. For the Salone, he has grafted brightly coloured sections in laser-cut steel to the old frames and reupholstered chairs in a fabric he has developed (with Atelier Luma in Arles) from undyed French wool. The tables are topped with new linoleum in bright colours. They will be shown at the Nilufar Depot, the impressive space run by the design gallerist Nina Yashar.
Sam Klemick, the former fashion designer who produces works under the name Otherside Objects, has created handcrafted stools and chairs made with a combination of deadstock parachute nylon and canvas, and
industrial-grade Douglas fir. The wood was salvaged from demolished buildings and old construction sites in Los Angeles. Committed to detail, she hand-turns the wood on a lathe, then fills in any imperfections with gold resin, in the spirit of Japanese kintsugi, the practice of repairing broken pottery with gold-coloured lacquer.
Her work is on display at Alcova, a new spot established in 2018 that tests the temperature of what’s happening in contemporary design with up to 80 mini-exhibitions. Among the other mini-exhibitions in the space is the Solar Energy Kiosk from Rotterdam’s Het Nieuwe Instituut, designed by Rotterdam studio Cream on Chrome.
“We need to redesign our relationship with energy, and in this case with the sun,” says Aric Chen, the institute’s director. Visitors will be offered orange juice made using a solar-powered juicer, as a way to kick-start the conversation.
The London company SCP is returning to Milan after an absence of five years, with owner Sheridan Coakley presenting a number of designs that include a reworking of the classic Windsor chair by Grant Wilkinson and Teresa Rivera, a young couple who are work and life partners. Replacing the standard chair rods with a candy-twisted variant, they have made it in local London plane, and hand-built the rush seat.
Also at SCP is a new motorised reclining chair by Matthew Hilton. “It’s a chair for our age,” says Coakley. “There’s a desire now for pieces that can be more than one thing, and this design goes from an extremely comfortable armchair to a fully extended chaise.”
Coakley also represents Joe Armitage, a young British designer who has developed a classic standard lamp design by his grandfather in 1952 into a product for today. (In Milan, Armitage will be showing his work in a solo exhibition in an apartment in the city’s central Brera district.) Armitage now makes the light — a simple base with a slender wooden arm — in walnut and brass. He has swapped the parchment his grandfather used for the lamp’s conical shade for plastic. The material, developed by a Swiss laboratory, is made from recycled plastic bottles.
Other designers have also borrowed from the past. The Italian producer ClassiCon is recreating the bedroom from Eileen Gray’s groundbreaking Modernist home — called E-1027 — that she built in the south of France between 1926 and 1929.
ClassiCon has every excuse to celebrate the designer. The house has recently been restored and many of Gray’s designs have more than stood the test of time. The E-1027 adjustable round-topped side table, for example, made in tubular steel and glass, is still a bestseller.
The deluxe design company B&B Italia, meanwhile, has mined its past by offering a reappraisal of the Bombole chair series. This armless range of seating, created by Mario Bellini 50 years ago, still exudes 1970s iconoclasm. It has now been brought up to date with more sustainable production and materials, however, and will be on show, with a host of other new products, in the company’s showroom in via Durini.
But even in Milan during the furniture fair, it’s good to be reminded that design is about more than tables and chairs. An antidote can be found at gallery Triennale di Milano, where the curator Maria Cristina Didero has created an exhibition of the work of Mathieu Lehanneur. Didero says that, while Lehanneur can design an “amazing coffee table”, he can also be political. “He . . . is concerned with broader issues,” she says.
She has brought together four of his projects where he converts data, derived from collaborations with the United Nations and one of its agencies, the World Health Organization, into physical form. A series of 50 enamelled discs detail the conditions of seas around the world by reproducing their colours. Another, of anodised aluminium vessels, represents the evolution of population growth in 150 countries.
It’s serious stuff, beautifully made: an intellectual pit-stop in a city of chairs.