Celebrating 50 fabulous years

As the world’s biggest furniture fair turns 50, Italian designers and manufacturers are preparing for the next half-century. Nicole Swengley reports


Who would have thought a small trade show launched in 1961 by a group of Italian furniture manufacturers would have exploded into the hugely influential, global showcase that Milan’s annual Salone del Mobile Internazionale has become?

As the Salone celebrates its 50th anniversary this year it’s interesting to compare statistics. Initially, 328 Italian exhibitors attracted 12,000 visitors. This year 282,483 visitors (63 per cent from abroad) saw 2,794 exhibitors - of whom 1,725 were Italian - at the Salone and its ancillary shows including Euroluce and SaloneSatellite. Meanwhile 5,313 visiting journalists helped spread the word. The results speak for themselves - around €7.3 billion exports last year alone.

For half a century the Italians - and, latterly, companies from overseas - have launched new furniture and furnishings at the fair. This is why the design industry heads en masse to Milan each April while scouring online blogs and websites for the latest product reviews. Crucially, the Salone throws open a window on this world without which designers, manufacturers and their creations would be far less visible.

Throughout the years the Salone has acted as a cultural barometer with the designs on show reflecting social, political and economic changes in the wider world.

In the Sixties the wooden furniture favoured by previous generations was usurped by modern materials like nylon, neon, vinyl and polyurethane. Zanotta’s flat-pack PVC armchair was inflated by a bicycle pump and Gaetano Pesce’s Up chair for B&B Italia was sold in vacuum packs. Modular seating and flat-pack furniture echoed the decade’s social instability (think Women’s Lib and student riots) while Zanotta’s trendy Sacco beanbag found its way into New York’s MoMA collection. Another gamechanger was the Castiglioni brother’s swooping Arco lamp - still a bestseller for Flos today.

Pop culture enlivened the Seventies. The giant, boxing glove-shaped Joe sofa by De Pas, D’Urbino and Lomazzi was named after Marilyn Monroe’s husband, Joe DiMaggio, while Kartell proved that highlycoloured plastic chairs weren’t throwaway items. Meanwhile Italian manufacturers collaborated with architects to create benchmark products such as Richard Sapper’s Tizio lamp for Artemide – an era-defining design that’s still in demand.

This is why the design industry heads en masse to Milan

The Eighties embraced the extremes of minimalism and Postmodernism’s exuberance while the Memphis movement combined both in its quest for decorative effect. Giulio Cappellini launched his first collection in 1986. Other architects started creating homewares for Alessi with French designer Philippe Starck producing the decade’s iconic, if inefficient, design – the spider-like Juicy Salif lemon squeezer.

Starck was ubiquitous through the Nineties, designing chairs for Kartell, Driade and Vitra and lights for Flos. British designers also moved onto the scene with Ron Arad, Tom Dixon, Jasper Morrison, Matthew Hilton and Nigel Coates storming Milan. Industrial-style materials came to the fore with designers favouring sand-blasted glass, rusted steel and faux concrete as the decade that began shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall moved from nervy recession into economic confidence.

Digital technology allowed designers to create increasingly sculptural shapes as the millennium dawned. Materials also adapted to new technologies with Corian coming out the kitchen and newly-minted composite materials used for baths and other furnishings. Sustainability became an issue with designers responding to greener demands from governments, industry and consumers. Ross Lovegrove’s Solar Tree for Artemide stored sunlight to illuminate nighttime streets while Tokujin Yoshioka’s Memory chair for Moroso employed recycled aluminium. Galleries began to treat designed objects like artworks and designers responded by creating one-off pieces or limited editions, some of which fetched eye-watering prices at auction.

And the traditional chandelier was consigned to history when Swarovksi launched its amazing Crystal Palace project.

This year, Moroso’s stand was a highlight with Patricia Urquiola’s innovative Biknit chairs and Doshi & Levien’s angular Paper Planes chair. Dror Bershetrit’s Tron chair for Cappellini appeared hewn from rock and Driade’s huge, circular day-bed was another eye-catcher. Kartell showed a whole family of Starck designed, plastic Ghost chairs and Cassina’s soaring, sailboat-like Veliero shelving, made of wood and glass, was also admired.

The Brits were out in force too – notably Tom Dixon with his Bulb chandelier made from oversized, energy efficient light bulbs, Russell Pinch with his elegantly understated furniture and Matthew Hilton with his updated Windsor chairs for De la Espada.

The Italians, meanwhile, remain heavily focused on the high design values and exemplary craftsmanship of their “Made in Italy” brand. In the face of lower-priced products manufactured in the Far East, especially China, competition has never been keener. Which is why Carlo Guglielmi, president of Cosmit, the organisation behind the Salone, says: “We haven’t the slightest intention of resting on our laurels. We are well aware that substantial challenges lie ahead –first and foremost the need to keep striving for quality. We need to be ready to tackle this in the same spirit and with the same determination to succeed as we have shown over the last 50 years.” Bravo Salone.

MEMPHIS MADNESS

Memphis – named after Bob Dylan’s Stuck Inside of  Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again – was an experimental movement that sent shock-waves through the design world in the 1980s. Led by Italian designer, Ettore Sottsass, a group of international designers developed witty, irreverent furniture and objects that ranked brightly-coloured surface decoration above conventional forms and put playful self-expression above utilitarian function.

Some designs, such as Marco Zanini’s Colorado teapot, were so fanciful that their function is barely recognisable. Other key Memphis designers included the Italians Michele de Lucchi and Matteo Thun, English designer George Sowden and the French artist Nathalie du Pasquier.

Their first exhibition, held in Milan in 1981, was hugely influential. Critics, however, argued that the designs were more about style than substance and Sottsass quit the group in 1985, disillusioned with the hype surrounding Memphis. Its lasting influence, however, can still be seen in the radical use of expressive forms, for example by architects Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry.

Memphis objects were only made as prototypes or built to order. As a result they quickly became collectable. Among the most enduring icons are Sottsass’ Carlton bookshelf/room divider and Michael Graves’s architectural Tea and Coffee Plaza for Alessi, both of which recently fetched high sums at auction.