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Milan Dispatch: Holding Out for a Hero

The parlous state of the economy seems to be making manufacturers risk averse and innovation shy.

By Justin McGuirk
April 12, 2013
Image courtesy Moroso
The Bikini Island modular island sofa by Werner Aisslinger for Moroso.

Milan makes a habit of celebrating its own heroes. Every year, the Triennale holds an exhibition dedicated to the same (now mostly dead) maestri—Sottsass, Mendini, Magistretti, and the like. Wonderful though that generation was, Milan ought to be a place that generates new heroes. But this year, far from being a hotbed of innovation, Milan was in the grip of the tried and tested.

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Where normally the fringe events are so numerous and compelling that many visitors feel no need even to go to the fiera, this year the city was quieter than usual and the fair itself seemed busier. I’ll be curious to see the attendance figures, but it was as though Milan was retracting to its core concerns—products, and business, as usual.

The word on the street was that this was not a vintage year at the Salone. But as far as I could see, it seemed to be nothing but vintage. Companies were falling back on their archives, tarting up proven bestsellers. Vitra, once a reliable source of new ideas, revived old standards by Prouvé, Citterio, and the Eameses in new colors and finishes. It was like a step into the fashion world, where colors count as concepts.

Occasionally however, there was interesting and occasionally challenging work to be found. At the Moroso stand, Werner Aisslinger captured the zeitgest with his Bikini Island Landscape, a modular sofa system that incorporates screens, tables, and hanging plants. These micro-environments are popping up all over the place, reflecting the need for versatile interiors that fluctuate constantly between work and leisure, the private and the social. On the weirder side of things was Front’s Anomaly stool, a blob of foam and natural-coloured leather on legs. Deliberately ambiguous, it resembled a headless pig. While not everyone’s cup of tea, it is a bold and strangely appealing object that is not afraid to subvert Milan’s conventional good taste.

Emeco was exhibiting Konstantin Grcic’s bespoke new chair for Herzog & de Meuron’s Parrish Art Museum in Long Island. It was characteristically Grcic, in other words, technically innovative, masculine, and not hugely comfortable. With the legs and back connected by a “heart” under the seat, the advantage of this system is that it creates an open frame, like a simple line drawing enclosing an empty space. The result is like a 21st-century version of Thonet’s legendary bentwood chairs.

In Euroluce, the biannual lighting exhibition, the Flos stand dominated. With the developments in LED technology, lighting is where all the innovation is happening these days. Grcic was present again, with OK, an elegant mobile lamp on a wire that updates Achille Castiglioni’s Parentesi lamp for the company. Flos took the wire theme even further with Michael Anastassiades’ String Lights system, which uses the wires to draw in space, like aerial geometry. These pencil-thin lines culminate in classically minimalist shades. It’s hard to imagine anything more perfect, though it’s best if you live in a monk’s cell.

Finally, Jean Nouvel created something of a talking point with his sprawling and hugely expensive installation, Project: Office for Living. Nouvel is evidently horrified by conventional office design. “In 30 or 40 years’ time we will be stunned to see just how unliveable most of today’s office spaces really were,” he says in a press release. He’s correct there. But he’s hardly telling us anything we don’t already know, and the installation, bombastic as it is, falls short of a radical solution.

These notions of working from home or in converted industrial buildings are all well tested. The real challenge would be how you convert a generic glass-and-steel office building into an environment that is comfortable and inspiring rather than sterile and soul-destroying. Still, it was worth a visit to watch the fly-on-the-wall documentaries on the working lives of designers such as Philippe Starck, Marc Newson, and Agnes B., where you discover if they need creative chaos, meticulous order, or a big pair of headphones and a view of the ocean to be productive, like Starck.

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