A Preview of the Milan Design Fair

The world's biggest design fair, the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, attracts industry insiders and just about everyone else

Davos. Cannes. Milan. Each of these European cities has come to symbolize high-profile annual events that executives in the respective fields of business (Davos), film (Cannes), and design (Milan) mark on their calendars each year. From Apr. 18-23, Milan hosts the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, an enormous trade show of new furniture, lighting, and appliances.

It's where international companies such as Siemens showcase their newest innovations in kitchen electronics. And it's where up-and-coming product designers debut their freshest creations in satellite exhibitions and temporary displays all over the city. This year's edition promises to be the largest ever, set to include about 2,600 exhibitors, with more than 200,000 visitors attending from around the world.

"Design Week", as the days during the Salone are called, draws manufacturers who sign deals with hip designers and architects to create commercial, mass-produced chairs and tables, and retail buyers who decide what products they might sell in the coming year.

Increasingly, however, the fair also attracts those who aren't in the furniture business at all. Design strategists, for example, are catching on to the importance of attending the Salone. John Edson, president of the Bay Area's Lunar, known for product design such as HP printers and SanDisk flash drives, will be attending this year for the first time.

Creative Competition

In past years, Edson noticed that designers on Lunar's staff would arrange their trips to Europe to coordinate them with the Salone and Milan's Design Week. So this year, after visiting Lunar's new Munich office, Edson will head to Milan, to research what design trends he might apply to Lunar projects. He figures exposure to new types of design and inventive uses of materials might spark fresh ideas—even if he'll be looking at chandeliers and beds rather than PC peripherals.

"Working in Silicon Valley, we see the same kind of design problems to solve year after year. So we have what I'll call habits of design," Edson says.

"Creativity is about breaking patterns. It's important to see what's going on in terms of expression through design at fairs and exhibitions for inspiration. Plus I know there will be a lot to see in Milan during Design Week. There will be an effect of creativity competitiveness—I'll challenge myself to think in new ways."

What exactly makes the Milan fair so important? As Paola Antonelli, curator of design and architecture at New York's Museum of Modern Art, observes, design is a physical enterprise. So it's important for manufacturers, distributors, and buyers to see prototypes and other new objects in person to research and test them—just as the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas or the North American International Auto Show in Detroit are important destinations for executives in the technology and car industries.

At these gatherings, experts and the public alike can test-drive new products to see if they live up to their hype. In Milan, that means touching or sitting on a delicate chair by Dutch designer Marcel Wanders, made from crocheted doilies and dipped in epoxy to create a sturdy seat.

World's Largest

Milan's Design Week also offers the opportunity to preview competitors' wares and to analyze broad trends that will soon hit the marketplace. In this sense, Design Week is, as Antonelli says, "similar to Fashion Week in New York or Paris," when fashion designers debut clothes and accessories with stylish details that are sure to trickle down to mass-market audiences. Savvy retailers and manufacturers can gain early insight into upcoming market hits and misses.

The Salone del Mobile, which launched in 1961, certainly isn't the only furniture exhibition that draws global audiences. The International Furniture Fair in Cologne, Germany, held each January, and the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York each May are other popular destinations.

But they're much smaller—in January, Cologne had 1,300 exhibitors.

And the latest installment of ICFF in New York (in 2006) drew 600 (42 of whom were Italian design firms that also showed at the Salone, thanks to a new partnership between the two shows). Last year the Salone drew 2,578 exhibitors, including major corporations such as Electrolux.

"There are lots of other furniture fairs around, but none has the same cachet," says David McFadden, chief curator at the Museum of Art & Design in New York. "Companies and designers hold what they're working on and wait to show it in Milan, where they know they'll get attention. You get to see new design objects and ideas when they are fresh."

Making the Connections

Claudio Luti, worldwide president of Italian furniture maker Kartell, which makes stylish plastic furniture by star designers such as Philippe Starck, points out that the Salone also provides an efficient venue for a quick series of one-on-one, in-person meetings with international buyers, distributors, salespeople, and designers.

It is an "opportunity for the company to meet with buyers coming in from all over the world. At the booth, we finalize agreements, close contracts, and initiate partnerships," Luti writes via e-mail. In other words, as with most trade shows, the Salone is a place where intense networking takes place—with a chance for a company to show off its latest designs and demonstrate how they might look and function to new customers or partners.

Kartell, for instance, hopes to market its new Pop line of chairs and couches—featuring sturdy plastic seat backs that can be covered with interchangeable cushions—to public spaces such as airports, as well as to residential customers. At the Salone, potential buyers can see for themselves how the Pop seating could work in an airline's passenger lounge or a living room.

Taking Over the City

But the official Salone and its sister fairs (devoted to kitchen design, lighting, and young designers), on view at Fieramilano, a 220,000-square-meter complex in the Rho-Pero district of Milan, are not the only draw. There are concurrent fairs throughout Milan, such as Zona Tortona Design, which takes place in an artsy neighborhood and features cutting-edge furniture and home accessories, as well as having an area devoted to student design.

And many design firms and retailers stage displays in boutiques and rented exhibition halls, hoping to attract audiences and build their brands during Design Week. New York design store Moss, for example, will set up shop temporarily in Milan and showcase bronze kitchen and home items such as a set of pots that, when stacked, look like the silhouette of a humanoid puppet, designed by hip Dutch design firm Studio Job. From the workaday commercial to the weird and wacky, it's all here—in Milan, truly everything is by design.

For a preview of some of the products on view during Design Week in Milan, click here.

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