The Great White Whale
A designer's epic voyage to the Salone Internazionale del Mobile
Kevin Walz -- Interior Design, 6/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
Rho-Fiera is the stop for the Nuova Fiera Milano, the new home of the Salone Internazionale del Mobile. The metro is filled to capacity. Registration lines are hours long.
Once again, Milan is taken over by the world's foremost presentation for furniture. The city is covered with red and white flags in- dicating showrooms, shops, galleries, and industrial lofts where a design event is being held.
Ian Schrager, Andrée Putman, and other high-profilers move from private openings to exclusive dinners. Reigning designers show their faces at press previews for negotiated amounts of time. PR teams scurry. Journalists check with each other about what they've seen where and what their take is on the trends. Following behind the throngs, cleaning crews with Windex keep fingerprints off the new product.
All seems to be well. But an army of supersize price-tagged Ikea products and packages—on guard at 10 squares and crossroads throughout the city—threatens a massive attack. At the fairground, Target slips in unnoticed, in limousines with blackened glass.
The new fairground is farther away, and there are inevitable grumblings about the extra time in transit, but the venue is better. Massimiliano Fuksas Architetto's halls flank a central outdoor corridor sheltered by an undulating canopy of translucent polycarbonate. It's a 26-minute walk end to end, with two shopping bags full of press materials in tow. Or 31 minutes if you use the snail-paced moving sidewalks.
It's a tentative year, 2006. Tired but holding. While some themes refuse to die, we notice a rush for new directions and a repositioning of the whole market—with mixed results. There's plenty of hype but less spirit.
I recall the recent return to romance, now a bust. I recall the year the economic forecast was weak, and there was a retreat to natural materials and conservative shapes. I recall the year Philippe Starck must have introduced a dozen chairs at a dozen companies; every one of those chairs could be described as a biomorphic form speaking to a geometric form. I recall when Kartell was the talk of the fair, and plastic was reinvented as a material of dazzling perceived value. This year, plastic entries from scores of manufacturers all took on faceted forms, jewel tones, or metallic finishes.
Furniture is no longer thought of as a future heirloom to pass on to the next generation. You can feel the Ikea influence. What's for sale is product for now, hence the success of relatively inexpensive plastic pieces to spiff up a space. The fashion industry has taught furnishings manufacturers how to position furniture as a stylish product to rejuvenate one's home, like a sweater or a pair of shoes. It's difficult to imagine many of the 2006 fair's introductions lasting long enough to set a record at auction, as a 1949 Carlo Mollino table did at Christie's last year.
At the other end of the spectrum, design marketing has taken a cue from the bullish art market. In 2004, Corian sponsored a presentation of Ron Arad's weighty Oh Void chairs, made of layers of brightly colored solid surfacing; each piece in the numbered series is rumored to have sold for six figures. Last December, he showed a group of the same chairlike forms during Art Basel Miami Beach.
Some designers in Milan are trying out the art of appropriation. For Established & Sons, Jasper Morrison introduces an exact replica of a slatted wooden wine crate. For Heller, Keith Mascheroni cooks up pop art "pasta" accessories in polyurethane, including a lasagna floor mat and a rigatoni bolster.
Other manufacturers and designers stick to their trademarks. At Edra, Fernando and Humberto Campana show more furniture assembled, seemingly, from leftovers: tabletops of colored mirror fragments. (Don't put away the Windex.) Zaha Hadid does Hadid. Karim Rashid does Rashid. But she isn't DJ-ing a party for Kundalini, like he is.
I think about identifying tomorrow's iconic pieces, but it's not easy to spot them fresh. At Bloomingdale's, New York, in the 1970's, Frank Gehry's original Easy Edges cardboard chairs sold practically for pennies. And didn't sell well. Now, displayed alongside the chairs by Verner Panton and Charles and Ray Eames at the Vitra booth, the Gehry chair stands as a marker of our time.
Is Milan where icons are launched? Gehry's aluminum chair for Emeco, which was looking like the chair of the year at 2004's Salone, now looks sad and ignored in the back of the booth. Maybe it takes time to appreciate relevance to history or, really, to the future. At dinner at Fioraio Bianchi Caffé, I ask two editors if they can spot an icon as it's introduced. "No, never," says one. "Yes, of course," says the other.
The week's strongest image is presented at the Fondazione Prada. Tom Sachs—famous for his toilet constructed, ironically, from Prada boxes—fills the cavernous space with an exhilarating life-size whale in white foam core, plus a full-scale Electrolux vacuum made of the same stuff.
Manipulation of scale is a repeated gesture, with designers supersizing anything as a last resort. Ceiling-scraping furniture crowds the showrooms. Armoires, wing chairs, and desk lamps are all pumped up. At Swarovski, chandeliers swallow space in crystal. Marcel Wanders's paper armoire for his own company, Moooi, ties together the size trend with this year's backlash color, white.
The lacy shimmer of Tord Boontje is citywide, both in his own products and in those designed under the influence. But the effect has been diluted. Squiggly doodles and perforations run across otherwise ordinary tables, chairs, bookcases, mirrors, carpets, and fabric. Visitors wear jackets in Boontje prints and pants with me-too wistful floral perforations.
Auto eroticism is on people's mind, too. A car manufacturer is in bed with a furniture company. Citroën and Kartell, if you must know. New models are to be announced—accessorized by a bevy of long-haired models, auto-show style. At fashionable 10 Corso Como, a Lexus is unveiled. Another exhibition pays tribute to the Ducati motorcycle. Nobody seems to care what any of this has to do with furniture.
An uninvited BMW intrudes on designers gathering at Bar Basso on closing night. The car jumps the curb and crashes through the cement planters, right into the bar, deflating the festivities and flattening a 1960's chair. As the cameras are flashing, Karim Rashid escapes through a side door.