THE EMPEROR OF DESIGN FAIRS HAS NO CLOTHES
If there is an emperor when it comes to industry events then the Salone del Mobile which, as commonly understood, is the large furniture trade fair in Milan and the broader events during the Milan Design Week in April, clearly takes that title. The April 2020 edition was cancelled for obvious reasons, and so was the April 2021 edition, but the organisers have been determined to show that their event, which has grown well beyond something dedicated just to Italian industry and design, was alive and kicking and organised a special edition this September from the 5th to the 10th.
It takes courage to say the emperor does not have any clothes on, but my contrarian streak takes pleasure from pointing out flaws that I have seen with this particular event over the years, and the two-year break as well as the general increase in time to reflect upon things does mean that I believe there have been many others who have also questioned the method behind this gigantic event and whether there is madness in it. But I also know that I most likely suffer from a bias against the week-long extravaganza, and accept that can be held against me.
I will start with a couple of announcements that will deflect some of the criticism I can feel coming this way. To start with, Milan is a dynamic city, one that has maintained its preeminence in fields like fashion and design, and is one of the few cities in the world that can make these claims. Despite the grievous harm caused by the pandemic, I have no doubt this city will bounce back. I would also add that its rich industrial heritage, including a very large post-war industrial infrastructure, makes it an astonishingly successful place when it comes to temporary exhibitions, and this is said without considering the rich fabric of apartments and private residences that reflect the wealth accumulated by the city over the decades if not centuries.
I would also say that the Italian industry that is dedicated to the production of furniture has built up enough wealth and ability to overcome the challenges that the pandemic posed, rooted in the fame of Italian workmanship and aesthetic creativity, and the extensive networks of fans and partners all over the world is an asset that will not go away overnight. And from the look of what has been happening recently, this industry has back catalogues to die for, with designs dating back to the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s to revive and keep themselves going for years and years. I am being a bit ironic as there are only so many re-editions that I think we can survive.
And finally the city of Milan itself has benefited from a decade if not longer where hundreds of thousands of visitors pile in during a week of flaky weather in April, driving up the cost of accommodation and making simple things like taking the metro or taxi, or securing a meal at the end of the day a lot more interesting than usual for both residents and visitors. Whilst many small businesses who received an annual boost deserve sympathy, I have less warm feelings towards the many owners of mediocre or even terrible hotels who have charged €500, €750, €1000 a night during this week. I would hope they saved some of their proceeds to weather this storm.
So, shielded by these words and making it clear that I am looking at the latest edition through the eyes of others, primarily on Instagram, as opposed to seeing things for myself, this is what I observe, both good and bad.
The vast trade fair, with more than ten large exhibition halls full of expansive exhibition spaces prepared throughout the year by the companies involved, has been reduced dramatically in size with a standardised system of display, essentially long corridors with spaces along a wall, broadly the same size, allocated to each company. The assumption is that all the waste that goes with the construction of anything from 100 sq metre to 1000 sq metre "houses", some with a second floor, that are then swiftly demolished and most likely disposed of, is eliminated. The visitor gets an efficient overview of what is going on in the industry, in a more compact space. Obviously, some of the atmosphere that comes with enormous "booths" is lost and space to entertain clients is severely limited.
But the point here is that the world wins, because it is time to look at ourselves in the mirror and look at the vast level of waste that comes from the construction of exhibition stands, the waste that accompanies this circus of entertainment of clients on steroids, and the waste of time and damage to the environment that accompanies seeing hundreds of thousands of people, three hundred thousand if the numbers from 2019 are to be believed, arriving at the same time, many using air travel, in a city with a core metropolitan population of 1.4 million.
This is the moment to say that Milan is relevant and serves the needs and interests of the Italian industry. As such, it deserves a visit when necessary but, frankly speaking, everyone else needs to stay home more and to tap into the resources near them to communicate with the broader world. Seeing many in the Scandinavian industry focus on the 3 Days of Design event this week in Copenhagen feels timely as this industry can now look the Italian one in the eye when it comes to innovation and dynamism. So it is only right and proper that they cluster around the showrooms and spaces that Copenhagen has to offer.
Even this more focused Milan still has much to work on. Beware of the people that hand out bags with their logo, whether they are made of paper or cotton or whatever. I will not name and shame, the bags will speak for themselves. Do we not, in the western world, each have a collection already of 20 if not more cotton tote bags from the bag mania of the last few years? Who in their right mind is adding more to the waste that already exists? And a retailer inaugurating a showroom in a beautiful industrial space, precisely the kind of thing that is Milan’s undisputed strength, filled their showroom with plants of many types as well as furniture to delight the eye. But that was not enough, so a man with a bag full of rather large butterflies was commanded to come forth and release the poor hapless creatures so that the Instagram crowd could take pictures of plants, furniture and butterflies. So even after the pandemic, even after the Salone has been cut down to size, there are still fools out there. What does this say about our relationship with the natural world, bar that we want to enslave everything around us and turn it into a circus?
I have found two more things to vent my anger against. I am incredibly pleased to hear that Maria Porro is the director of the Salone, hopefully setting the tone that has led to this current edition and I hope battling it out so that when we return to "normal" in April, we will not go right back to where things were. She is a woman, and she is younger than most, and both things can only serve the image of Italian business well. But note: I spotted images released to the press of the inauguration of the event, where I assume the great and the good were all present. I say this as I spotted the Italian president, an elderly man who is widely respected. But alongside this distinguished guest was a fleet of men in suits, all of them of a particular age, and their token "boss", young Maria. Oh yes, I forget two women in short skirts and big smiles, holding some sort of cushions where I imagine the big scissors folks use to cut ribbons were to be placed. If this is the image the Italian industry wants to share with the wider world, so be it.
Another set of images that struck me is those of very long dinner tables, not in terms of new products, but the tables that certain companies set up in their showrooms or exhibitions and to which they invite the high and mighty and the press that comes with that. Aren't we all tired of all this? Wasn't the pandemic designed to remind us that spending time with true friends, being surrounded by people that we genuinely like, and things like mealtimes are precious gifts not to be wasted? Or do we want to sit at the end of a table with 50 people on each side, straining to hear whatever it is the person who paid the bills and is sitting in the middle is saying? And asking the person next to us that terminal question: "What is it that you do?" When will we sweep these bad PR habits out with the broom that sweeps the dust of history?
To wrap this up, there is a tentative step in the right direction. But already I hear people say how important it is to have a deadline, a moment everyone can point their product development towards, a moment where the press stampedes upon all the novelties and somehow amongst all this din and turbulence we are supposed to get our message out. Are we so infantile that we need a trade fair to bring a product out of development and into the world? Is there any reason why April should be the moment when we all show things? It bears no relevance to the patterns of consumption, which follow the seasons much more than any other factor. Nor do people feel predisposed to consider the new in April more so than in September. Then why on earth do we need a bloated, overhyped Milan? Does not the fine city of Milan itself need a break, and perhaps as a city to consider quality above quantity?
Speaking of a job well done, the local design office Dimore, which I believe converts either their own residence or their office in a glamorous apartment in downtown Milan into a thought provoking and emotionally captivating experience of rooms with objects and colours and sounds, is local at its best, a studio tied to the city, in a building that speaks of the city, using the light touch of a temporary exhibition to create a memorable experience. And the Norwegian company Vestre, dedicated to the manufacture of outdoor furniture for public spaces, walking the difficult talk of sustainability, has recycled their previous exhibition materials and presented a space in a city centre exhibition. So two contrasting examples in terms of the origin of the firm, but both using imagination to remain coherent and true to the principles of good design.
In fact, good design more than ever needs to reflect the respect we need to show the natural world, eliminate waste and one-off products, move to materials and processes that are sustainable and therefore do not make climate change worse than what it is, and do so with honesty and urgency. So to pay lip service to sustainability and then head off to Milan and speak well of vast exhibition booths that will all go into the bin, or how beautiful the butterfly looks on Instagram, and take a free bag at the end which we know will end up in the bin after a 10-hour flight back home, is the kind of dishonesty that just cannot be tolerated. It is time to walk the talk and to change, and I hope that when Milan and the Salone return to the usual dates in April that there are enough of us to force this change, if change is not forthcoming from within.
We need creativity, we need invention, like men and women need water to drink. But not at any price, and not if we are going to corrupt the ideals that have to drive us for the generation that lies ahead of us. The emperor is naked and it is time to say so.
ILLUSTRATION BY RIMA STUDIO