Those attending this year’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile, the annual orgy of the designer furniture market in Milan, might easily have expected slim pickings. Italian furniture exports to the United States in 2008 were down over the same period in 2007 by some 23 percent. In spite of these sobering numbers, however, there were plenty of savories on view, as well as light at the end of the tunnel from some brilliant fixtures at Euroluce, the lighting fair that takes place biannually alongside the Salone.
While many designers and manufacturers had the rhetoric of a new seriousness of purpose down pat, there really hasn’t been enough time to know for sure what impact grim economics might have on the shape of furnishings to come—the most ambitious pieces, after all, went into the works years ago. Designer Ross Lovegrove’s bamboo bicycle took Biomega three years to figure out how to produce, and Patricia Urquiola spent five years ironing out the technical complexities for Axor Hansgrohe, which cut openings into an ultrathin porcelain sink and spa tub that are wide enough for a towel, but also strong enough, incredibly, to sit on.
Derring-do furniture takes time—and investment money—to develop, and quite probably there is going to be less of it in the years ahead. Italian manufacturers were blunt about the new realities. Edra’s Massimo Morozzi told a crowd of Italian journalists that, to his mind, the current situation offered two options: suicide or shine. The creative director of Edra, known for its splashy furnishings, has naturally opted for the latter, showing crazy-colored, artificial-fur-covered couches designed by Edra’s discovery the Campana Brothers, who were inspired by cats hanging around their studio. In spite of the piece’s lumpy look, it was deeply comfortable, as reassuring as a cat in the lap. Over at Moooi there was a sparkly light designed by 70-year-old newcomer Raimond Puts, an inventor based in Amsterdam, along with Moooi founder Marcel Wanders’ own porcelain piggy bank with a none-too-subtle porcelain hammer stabbed in its back.
Along with the mordant humor, there was a palpable sense of longing for furniture to be plainer, simpler, and possibly even clunky. Four-by-fours are in, along with just about anything made of cheap wood. (Or even fake wood. For Moroso, the Swedish design group Front made an upholstered couch that only looks like a hardwood bench thanks to a new photo-print technique.) Brit designer Tom Dixon made his three-legged Offcut Stool out of wood remnants scavenged from a furniture factory, even leaving on the rough bits to show their authenticity as trash. For his part, Tord Boontje did a one-of-a-kind dining table with a compressed wood-chip surface covered in paint splatters that look like violets, mixed with real pressed flowers. And for Artek, Shigeru Ban’s Ten Unit System ingeniously solved the global paper manufacturer Upim’s problem by using leftover, plastic-coated paper that is fabricated in two identical, L-shaped pieces that lock into a chair without waste. Rather than pop-psychologizing about wood and warmth, Murray Moss of the Moss design empire pinpointed why wood now feels so right: “Production-wise, there are lower initial costs to using more basic materials like wood as compared to, say, the cost of injection-molded polycarbonates. I think we’ll also start seeing a lot of techno-crafts where high-tech materials are handled in a more craftsmanlike way, or imperfect materials are put into high-tech production. I call it ‘random serial production’ where the materials themselves are not stable, and so every piece comes out differently, and unique.”
Still, a hankering for familiar forms of the past was much in evidence. Philippe Starck, ever the divining rod for new trends, came swanning into the Kartell booth in pajama bottoms—a swirl of pretty girls in his wake—to pose for photographs of his latest piece, Masters, an homage to midcentury pragmatism. A simple red plastic chair, its back is a mash-up of three iconic chairs by Arne Jacobsen, Hans Wegner, and Charles and Ray Eames. For Established & Sons, Sam Hecht of Industrial Facility designed a bent-wood chair-bench-table, basically an extended wood slab with table legs and a chair back echoing shapes by the Shakers, Ming dynasty thrones, and midcentury Wegner. “We wanted it to be deliberately low tech and dependent more on the hand than the machine, even though we usually deal with machines and mass production,” said Hecht, the creative director for Muji, and more recently a consultant for Herman Miller. “Lower numbers mean less risk. It just seemed more relevant that way.”
And so went the message this year at the furniture fair: Straight on until we are out of the woods. Some designers seemed well suited to the task. The Campana Brothers, whose inspiration has long been rooted in the slums of Sao Paulo, were perfectly at home in the moment. “A sense of crisis is nothing new for us,” said Fernando Campana at a press conference introducing the furry sofa, Cipria. “We were inoculated by Brazil, so we can bring some positive vibes to the situation. For us, the cure for crisis is always creativity.”
That sentiment was seconded by Jeffrey Bernett, an American designer based in Milan and creative director for a dicey new enterprise, called Skitsch, a manufacturer-store and retailer-internet catalog that hopes to close the gap between producers and consumers with a collection of exclusive products by both well-known and newly discovered design talents, from the Campanas to Todd Bracher working out of Brooklyn’s Navy Yard. “Right now, everyone is trying to deal with the change and still work in interesting ways,” said Bernett at the opening party for the first Skitsch flagship store. “It’s easy to do great work when the resources are plentiful. It will be interesting to see what designers can do with just a little. It’s a benchmark time.”