Milan: A Fresh Look at Furniture

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Each year in early April, designers and retail buyers from around the world convene in Milan for one of the design world's biggest trade shows, the Salone Internazionale del Mobile. The designers' mission is to show, and the buyers' mission is to seek, what's new and innovative for each room in the home or office. The fair, first launched 45 years ago, is a peek into the future of design -- the furnishing equivalent of New York's Fashion Week or the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

This year's installment of the Salone, held from Apr. 5-10, was larger than ever with 2,550 exhibitors, up from 2,100 last year. The roster featured a slew of fresh new talent, as well as forward-thinking technology from big brands such as Siemens (SI). Added to the mix were inventive experiments by famous designers who usually work in non-furniture arenas, like Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake. Of course, the latest sleek offerings from fashionable furniture labels like Italy's own Kartell were also on view. More than 670 nations were represented.

One of the design highlights was the venue itself -- Fieramilano, a 220,000-square-meter complex in the Rho-Pero district. During the event, about 200,000 visitors passed through the hallways of the recently opened site. It's situated at one of Italy's most innovative architectural destinations, a sprawling, undulating metal-and-fiberglass roof designed by Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas using a complex system of rhomboid and trapezoidal meshlike grids.


  And if the official Salone itself wasn't enough, nearly every neighborhood in Milan hosted related events, product launches, and additional independent fairs. These included a global design exhibition curated by Wallpaper* magazine at the Armani Theater (with a gigantic, snow-scape-like installation by architect Zaha Hadid that trumped her smaller offering at Miami's Design.05 fair in December), to the Zona Tortona, a consortium of smaller fairs in Milan's industrial warehouse district. The widespread presence of design across all corners of the Northern Italian city has caused visitors and vendors alike to dub the duration of the Salone "design week."

Trends first sighted at the fair ripple out across the home-furnishings market in the years ahead. So what were some of 2006's most visible and innovative trends? One was furniture and appliances geared toward multitasking. Issey Miyake, in collaboration with his design engineer, Dai Fujiwara, and London-based designer Ron Arad, created a chair whose cushion doubles as an elegant jacket. It was created using the patented A-POC (acronym for "a piece of clothing") system that weaves seamless clothes using a single string of thread.

Sweden's Electrolux (ELUXY) presented a take on the ice-and-water dispenser that's standard in most refrigerators -- this one pairs water with a sleek espresso machine and is housed within a compact range rather than a fridge. Electrolux also presented ovens that could convert from steam cooking to microwave, grill, and convection heating.


  Another trend: innovative technologies that seemed to address everyday design problems that could use a simple solution -- call it the "duh!" factor. There were Siemens' newly launched liftMatic ovens, which allow food to cook in up to 30% less time thanks to elevators that lift the dish to high-mounted heat chambers (a lot of heat escapes from the front-opening doors of most traditional ovens). Another notable entry was Japanese company Toto's high-tech toilets, with seats that rise and fall automatically, among other intimate features.

The most poetic application of cutting-edge technology was a chandelier by up-and-coming Dutch designer Simon Heijden. Commissioned to create a one-off light fixture for Swarovski, Heijden used "smart thread." It responds to electrical pulses triggered by wind patterns detected by a wireless weather sensor to mimic the real outdoor breezes indoors, causing the black-crystal chandelier to sway.

Another trend visible in Milan was the use of experimental new materials. Material ConneXion, an international clearinghouse of information on advanced materials, had twin displays at the Triennale museum and at the Zona Tortona, a series of fairs and displays in that neighborhood, Milan's industrial district and home of many photography studios and soundstages. And at the Salone's Satellite exhibition -- a fair-within-a-fair devoted to young designers -- the design department of the State University of Rio de Janiero showcased its experiments with sustainable wood panels made from the discarded parts of harvested banana and palm trees.


  Yet another trend was the increased -- and highly varied -- selections of children's furniture. Designers presented imaginative new takes on bassinets and miniature tables. These ranged from Spain's Amelia Aran (for Spanish firm Qambala), who makes rather basic, traditional items like tiny armchairs, to Slovenian designer Nika Zupanc, who creates sophisticated cradles made of translucent materials in edgy colors like blood red and deep black. Her wares were on view at the Salone's Satellite exhibition.

And speaking of emerging designers to watch, the young Dutch design group Natwerk drew a lot of attention on the streets of Milan by using the trunk of a tiny orange car as its showroom. Dressed in all white and performing to throbbing techno music, the designers showcased their newest collection as if they were hip street magicians. Their wares included rechargeable light bulbs that plug into a hanging square base of outlets. When plugged in, the bulbs serve as parts of a minimalist chandelier, but when removed they can be used as individual lights. Natwerk's flair and inventiveness -- as well as its roaming presence -- conveyed the forward-thinking spirit of modern design.

Click here to download a podcast on hot trends and rising stars at this year's Milan Furniture Fair.

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