“Thanks Starck,” read one such message, scrawled in the neighborhood of Ventura Lambrate, where for the third consecutive year emerging designers have shown work and staged Oedipal battles with the masters. The words accompanied a drawing of Philippe Starck’s Juicy Salif lemon squeezer from 1990, an aluminum teardrop on spidery legs with a knob intended for mauling citrus — but the artist had substituted a toilet paper roll for the lemon.
Such an irreverent treatment of a classic object suggests that Mr. Starck may have lost his mojo in today’s design world, but he shows no sign of receding from the scene. On the contrary, his notoriously paradoxical nature defined this year’s fair, which was marked by the contradictory pursuits of social consciousness and unrestrained luxury.
Mr. Starck may be best known for a whimsical $100 sculpture that does nothing more than extract juice. But he also is — or claims to be — as idealistic as any young designer.
He alternately caters to lovers of luxury and slaps them on the wrist. This year, he collaborated with Lenny Kravitz on upholstered versions of his Mademoiselle chair for the high-end Italian company Kartell, but he also touted his Broom chair for the American company Emeco, made of 90 percent recycled post-industrial factory waste and 10 percent glass. “With this new chair, I start to feel happy,” he said in a promotional film for the product, “because it is made of nothing.”
A decade ago, socially conscious design was a sideshow at the fair, but now it’s in the center ring. A number of companies boasted of earth-friendly materials and showed off efficient packing methods that reduced their carbon footprints. The Swedish company Offecct went so far as to display Luca Nichetto’s Robo chair from 2010 along with its box to show how compactly it can be taken apart and shipped.
Food was a popular medium for commentary. In Lambrate, Rui Pereira and Ryosuke Fukusada baked tiny cakes shaped like chairs, lamps and vases to protest the hyperabundance of new furniture and the inability of consumers to “digest” it. And in the Tortona district, Marleen Jansen presented her Seesaw Table, which requires two diners to sit down to meals and depart from the table at precisely the same time — or else risk sending one of the pair flying.
“It’s a courtesy table,” Ms. Jansen said. “I want to manipulate behavior, and it’s rude to leave the table while eating.”
On the frontiers of experimentation, the “Open Design Archipelago” exhibition organized by Domus magazine and Audi demonstrated methods for harnessing the desert sun to melt sand and produce glass objects; for manufacturing inexpensive chairs with a robotic arm (no human hands needed); and for training crows to pick up bottle caps littering the landscape.
And yet, while there were plenty of designers trying to redirect human habits and prepare for a world with scarce resources, many conventional products seemed to have gotten bigger and softer, assuming a standard of padded comfort one might even call American.
Furniture came with names like Soft Box, the Swiss designer Alfred Häberli’s cushy sofa for Moroso. And the body-cradling Bunny armchair by Iskos-Berlin, for the Danish company Normann Copenhagen, was all but infantilizing.
But nothing conveyed the sensuality of textiles (or their facsimile) this year so much as the flowing tablecloth carved into the wood of Ferruccio Laviani’s Twaya table for Emmemobili. A representative of the Italian company Emmemobili noted that, by the end of the fair, the number of hands rubbing the table’s surface had left “the left side smoother than the right.”
ACTS of aesthetic indulgence seemed to compensate for the fact that Southern Europe’s economy was in tatters. Several onlookers suggested that Italy’s recent austerity measures had whetted the appetite for comfort. Others attributed bigger furniture to an obesity epidemic. Beyond dispute is that European producers are catering to the tastes of prosperous foreigners in South America, Russia, India and East Asia, many of whom value the look and feel of luxury.
FederlegnoArredo, an Italian furniture industry association that is a sponsor of the Milan Furniture Fair, reported a decrease of 9.7 percent in local purchases between 2010 and 2011, but an increase of 4.3 percent in exports. And Claudio Luti, president of Kartell, noted that “last year was the worst for the industry, but we profited,” citing the company’s 127 stores throughout the world, including seven in China.
“Business is very difficult, very bumpy,” said Rossana Orlandi, whose sprawling Milanese design gallery was filled with such marvels as the Surface Tension Lamp, a continually inflating and popping soap bubble surrounding an LED designed by Front for Booo Studio in the Netherlands. “We are lucky because we have plenty of foreign customers, but the mood is very depressing.”
Still, given the crowds stuffed into booths and the lavish displays by international furniture producers and materials suppliers, it took a discerning eye to detect adversity.
Superstudio Più, an exhibition space in Tortona, for instance, presented nine massive sculptures created by prominent designers at the invitation of the Turkish stone industry. Mr. Häberli, who was a participant, said he was given few constraints in fashioning a pavilion built from several varieties of marble and that the cost was about $100,000 for materials and construction alone, forget shipping.
Far from wearing its charms openly, Milan usually hides its treasures behind blistered, mustard-colored walls. But this fair was notable for penetrating a number of eye-popping sites that would have been off-limits or simply invisible to the casual visitor.
The clothing labels Blumarine and Roberto Cavalli both introduced home collections, and Cavalli’s was displayed in an ornate old home on Corso Venezia. (No photographs, visitors were warned, lest the flash bulbs disturb the Canaletto paintings.) Intricate parquet floors and coffered ceilings set off a bed upholstered in buttery leather and covered with a velvet-lined fur throw. Glittering Murano glass balls lacked any discernible function other than to look impressive heaped on a dining table.
And Meissen furnished the 16th-century Casa Carcola-Grandi on Via Montenapelone with a sumptuous assortment of furniture, lighting, textiles and jewelry — brave new territory for the 300-year-old German porcelain company. There, a proffered bed was displayed under a fresco painted by Raphael’s students. Meissen even produced the mattress.
Most likely, fairgoers would not have set foot in the National Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo da Vinci either, were it not for the British designer Tom Dixon. Mr. Dixon organized several exhibitions in the museum complex — which is housed in a former monastery and a train station — with displays placed around an immense courtyard and among antique locomotives and planes. Another path led to “The Secret Garden,” an installation designed by Paola Navone and Zaha Hadid that featured Barovier & Toso glass chandeliers suspended in twiggy blue yurts in the botanical gardens of the Brera neighborhood.
But even attendees who chose not to seek out obscure corners of Milan could walk down a corridor and see the world. The fair has never stretched so far internationally or represented so many transcontinental partnerships. A few examples: INCH, a furniture company that showed refined wood shelving and tables, works in close collaboration with Indonesian designers, although its founders are based in Switzerland. Paola C. presented wood tabletop objects designed by Aldo Cibic, of Italy, and Bijoy Jain, of India, carved in Mr. Jain’s workshop near Mumbai.
By JULIE LASKY NY Times