What worked at Milan Design Week – and what didn’t

MILAN – Sets are dismantled, muscles are recovering, hangovers are subsiding: Milan Design Week is done and dusted. In the aftermath of the increasingly overwhelming event, what will be remembered?

Ask anyone who visits Milan Design Week and they’ll tell you the same thing: it’s too much. Too much to see, too little time. While there’s no doubt that inspiration and creativity await at every corner, the event seems to spread its reach each year. There’s always a different so-called ‘upcoming design district’ and the list of must-sees stretches into oblivion. It’s like a balloon that just might pop.

As a brand, how can you stand out amongst the visual cacophony? Since we consume so much with our eyes, a strong visual statement is non-negotiable. That strength comes from curation. The biggest stand-outs in Milan may not have been simple – visitors were perplexed by Studio Swine’s malleable vapour-filled bubbles for COS, and Tokujin Yoshioka’s striking installation for LG required the brand to literally build a new model just for the occasion – but they were clear. One underlying statement, no excess.

At Palazzo Clerici, Dutch collective Envisions playfully explored the possibilities of one material by MDF manufacturer Finsa. Photo Delfino Sisto Legnani

It’s becoming increasingly important for brands and designers to edit. While too much stuff gets lost amongst too much other stuff at many of the palazzo presentations – such as at Palazzo Litta, where a labyrinth of aesthetic objects blend into one another – Dutch collective Envisions grabbed attention with playful explorations for MDF manufacturer Finsa. Why? Because the unifying thread was one distinct material. Elsewhere in the city, Formafantasma highlighted its curatorial prowess at Spazio Krizia. The studio’s portfolio is broad, but by focusing solely on lighting, the exhibition forged its way into the memory bank.

Formafantasma’s Foundation exhibition at Spazio Krizia focused exclusively on lighting. Photo Masiar Pasquali

The Salone itself has a tradition of being the place where manufacturers unleash x number of products. They set out to impress with sheer quantity. And rather than showing only new products – which, let’s face it, is what the masses are there to see – they typically display everything. With a well-known designer’s name as a USP, the manufacturer’s job is apparently done. Booths are product showcases rather than branding instruments, illustrating little if nothing of a company’s DNA. These presentations have had their day, and it’s time for manufacturers to move on from a one-spiel-fits-all approach, which generally involves an explanation of the various colours and fabrics in which a product is available. As the role of the trade fair changes – becoming less a marketplace than a meeting hub for those in the business – content and presentations need to adapt. Otherwise, where’s the narrative? What’s the point?

Lamps had the space to speak their own language in Flos’s Salone del Mobile stand. Photo Germano Borrelli

Arper and Flos made steps in the right direction. Rather than ambling from product to product, visitors were directed around the stands. By showing only a handful of fixtures per room in a scheme designed by Calvi Brambilla, Flos ensured nothing detracted from the lights on display. Over at Arper, the stand introduced vignettes around a central courtyard-like space. The small surrounding ‘cabinets’ gave fairgoers a more intimate (and therefore memorable) product experience, heightened by the stand’s enclosed environment.

With a series of intimate spaces, Arper’s stand directed the gazes of fairgoers. Photo Marco Covi

Outside the fairgrounds, the difference between narrative and presentation was clear at Tom Dixon’s Multiplex. His project for Ikea – a bed-slash-sofa that aims to rethink the typology – isn’t a wow piece by any means. It was only when the designer actually spoke about the concept and told the story behind it that things got interesting. Designers need to realize that the general public aren’t mind readers. It’s fine to walk away from an art exhibition thinking to yourself, hmm, I don’t really get it, but with design it can be frustrating. Often there’s an innovative material or process at play that’s worthy of attention, but it’s either hidden behind layers of excess or left completely to the imagination. And that’s when curation comes in again. How can we clearly and concisely – and even, dare I say it, visually – tell these stories? That’s what we’ll be looking out for at Milan 2018.


Header image of Envisions' work photographed by Delfino Sisto Legnani

Leaderboard CIFF
Leaderboard CIFF

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