Milan's Salone del Mobile is the world's top event in the design calendar. While some criticize the participation of big brands such as Google and Instagram, the fair remains a celebration of the "optimism" of design.
The Salone del Mobile, commonly known as Milan design week held this year from April 17-22, is the world's leading event to learn about the latest and greatest in furniture and home product design. From new trends in home technology, to exciting advancements in recyclable materials, there's always something new to be seen each year. With impressive installations in hidden courtyards, palazzos and even former churches, this year's design week is no exception.
Held annually during the second week of the April , the fair and events surrounding it attract an estimated 350,000 visitors from around the world and thousands of designers and manufacturers.
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Rooted in tradition
Salone del Mobile began as a furniture fair in 1961 with the purpose of making a name for Italian furniture design. Italy was experiencing a postwar economic boom, and the "Made in Italy" concept was beginning to gain recognition.
The fair was the perfect vehicle to shed light on Italian furniture, and a handful of designers were commissioned to create new works, some with experience in architecture or artisanal craftsmanship. The first year drew 12,000 mainly Italian visitors, but by the 70s, the fair was attracting international clientele. Italian design had a boost in 1972 when the Museum of Modern Art in New York, put on the exhibition "Italy: The New Domestic Landscape," giving the Italian furniture design scene international attention.
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As the years went on, the events surrounding the trade show began to expand throughout the city and encompass a variety of fields: art, automotive, fashion, food. "Fuorisalone" is the blanket term for events taking place outside of the exhibition's fairgrounds in shops, historic buildings and even public squares. The concept was introduced in the 1980s and marked a turning point for Milan.
Furniture companies began to present new pieces in showrooms and historic buildings in the city center, opening Milan design week up to more than those in the industry visiting the trade fair.
The Memphis design group, a well-known, colorful and flamboyant Italian design movement led by Ettore Sottsass notably put on an exhibition in an art gallery, Arc '74, in the city's center, drawing visitors in the thousands.
A 'design circus'
Li Edelkoort, a leading design trend forecaster, has traveled to Milan each April for decades. The biggest change she's seen in the years is its growing popularity. "Sometimes it's a bit like a circus, but it's still the place to be and the place where we all meet," she says.
"Also, it's the beginning of spring so I think there's something very tantalizing in it. You always look forward to it, even if it's exhausting," she adds. This year, Edelkoort collaborated with Google's design department to present a collection of lifestyle technologies that emphasize textiles and craftsmanship.
Edelkoort's collaboration with Google is an example of how design week is increasingly attracting big name brands outside of the traditional design field that collaborate with furniture designers, fashion designers and artists to put on large scale exhibitions and events, most of which are open to the public.
The trend is not without criticism. Some feel the increase in events put on by brands places too much emphasis on marketing and reinforces stereotypes about the frivolity of furniture design.
It's undeniable that such events — including those by big name designers or companies outside of the traditional design realm— have arguably become the main attractions of the week.
Many are housed in historic palazzos, hidden courtyards and even private homes, which are transformed into temporary galleries; several of those spaces are closed to the public the rest of the year.
American artist Phillip K. Smith III collaborated with fashion company COS to present a large-scale mirrored installation in the courtyard of a 16th century palazzo, which puts emphasis on the building's architecture by transforming a typically traditional space.
A temporary diner in an abandoned train station
Immersive experiences such as these are becoming increasingly common in Milan each year. "The Diner," for example, is a fully functioning restaurant in a defunct area of a train station open for six days only. The concept was the result of a collaboration between American architect and designer David Rockwell, Surface magazine, studio 2x4, furniture company Design Within Reach and others.
Complete with grilled cheese sandwiches, milkshakes and apple pie, Rockwell says his diner is "a living, breathing experiment" that celebrates the American eatery and highlights furniture from the US. The concept of the diner, he said, "opened up a whole bunch of ideas within me about an installation that you wouldn't just look at, but would be in."
Visitors can book a table, wander in and find a seat at the bar for a cocktail (or milkshake) or join in on one of the events planned each evening, like karaoke. It's an example of the kinds of large-scale design week events that keep people outside of the design scene interested in returning each year.
"I think designers don't often acknowledge what an optimistic thing design is — making something from nothing," said Rockwell. "The design fair is a peek into the widest possible range of design approaches."