At this year's Salone Internazionale del Mobile (International Furniture Fair), held from April 14 - 19 in Milan, designers tackled an area untouched as of yet in their field-setting out to redefine not only how- but what we eat.
Of course, food is always on everyone's mind when in Italy, but with several exhibits - from grand affairs to intimate settings - focusing on the dining experience, one could hardly escape the temptation to indulge. After several years of "competing" exhibits, Cosmit, organizers of the Salone, and Interni, Italy's leading magazine on interiors and design, joined forces to present separate, but complimentary dining exhibits featuring a "street" of differently-themed restaurants. Following on the heels of his "Grand Hotel" exhibit two years ago, celebrated New York restaurant designer Adam Tihany once again curated Cosmit's contribution to the fair, organizing an exhibition of restaurants by students from design schools across the globe. Interni's exhibit at Milan's Triennale brought together several well-known designers, including designer-of-the-moment Patricia Urquiola, to create a fancifully designed gastronomic passage beginning with appetizers and culminating in a wine bar and glass dessert stand of Godiva chocolates. Smaller off-site exhibits tempted taste buds as well. Students at the University of Bolzano recreated an exhibit organized this past Christmas where international designers were asked to create an innovative cookie design; the Dutch label Droog presented an exhibit around the theme of "slow" dining, while the venerable Milan eatery Sant'Ambroese, showed off cakes by a "who's who" of designers including Karim Rashid, Tord Boontje, Hella Jongerius, and Matteo Thun.
Perhaps the one thing the Milanese love as much as a good meal is great fashion. And as furniture design continues to merge increasingly with fashion, fashion designers seem to be more and more taken with furniture. Missoni and Paul Smith took turns in designing the dining room for Cosmit's exhibit, though Missoni went a step further with a stunning exhibit designed by young American Stephen Burks in Milan's Brera district that showcased their tableware and fabrics. Domenico Dolce & Stefano Gabbana also got in on the action, hooking up with Kartell in a showroom exhibit of the duo's favorite pieces from the last twenty years of Kartell's collection.
Another hot topic at this year's fair was the changing of the guard among the top furniture lines. Cutting-edge label Cappellini, always a must-see in Milan, found itself in a financial mess (its New York showroom recently closed). Poltrona Frau stepped in and acquired the line, adding to its other recent acquisitions of Turin-based furniture line Gufram and the Austrian company Thonet. The formerly family-run B&B Italia also sold off close to half its shares, becoming part now of the Bulgari group.
With all this going on, it 's easy to forget about the furniture…and it seems as though some did just that. Gone are the bold introductions and daring designs of years past. Most companies chose instead to play it safe this year - showing off new additions to existing lines or reinterpretations of pieces already in their collections.
Others, like Tom Dixon, found success experimenting with reductionism in a solid but sober presentation that included wire chairs and simple box lights. You can never go wrong with a classic either, as many lines re-introduced designs by twentieth-century icons. Cassina acquired the worldwide rights to produce Charlotte Perriand's furniture designs - the presentation of which overshadowed the company's new, but perhaps ill-conceived, audio/sofa design by Philippe Starck. Poltrona Frau paid homage to Achille Castiglioni, for the first time putting into production one of his chair designs - the classic Sanluca chair previously produced by Gavina, Knoll, and Bernini. In addition, Spanish line Bd Ediciones announced plans to produce more of Salvador Dali's designs.
There were some noteworthy exceptions however. Though Patricia Urquiola appeared to present new designs for just about everyone this year, her most interesting work continues to be realized by Moroso, whose other introductions included clever new designs by Ron Arad and Konstantin Grcic. And though Frank Gehry presented two new chair designs for Heller and Emeco respectively, it was the Campana Brothers' new chair for Edra that looked like a Gehry sketch come to life - seemingly defying gravity and logic at the same time.
Product introductions from the 2004 Salone del Mobile (including the biennial Eurocucina exhibit) will be featured in the July issue of the magazine.