Jul 1, 2016

'Future on Demand', Platea #2 Summer 2016

Publisher: Platea Media GmbH, Ismaning
ISSN: 2365-9297

Branding, desire, and design combine each year at Salone del Mobile in Milan. Started in 1961, the ‘furniture’ trade fair turned into something of a spectacle in the mid-2000’s, as scores of companies, designers, and manufacturers competed for the attention of those who descend upon the city for this annual event. Ranging in taste from the ostentatious to the refined, the presentation offers up the new to those eternally searching for that quality in pieces of furniture, or other products for the home and office–as essentially, this event seems to be nothing more than a delicious cacophony of consumerism; a temple for those designers whose eponymously christened companies churn out one product after the other. Or is it? While true that the event was dominated by flash-and-bling in the prior decade–perhaps most notably by Dutch designer Marcel Wanders, his Amsterdam-based studio, and his firm Moooi–the Great Recession changed all that as the pendulum of focus in the world of design shifted toward the use of natural materials, local production, and a renewed appreciation for handcraft, often interwoven with increasing amounts of technology. While the one-name designers who have dominated this fair remain a presence, a crescendoing cascade of young designers are pushing against them, and their values–which has had the effect of forcing manufacturers to adapt to their new production processes, and reconsider the marketing tools for their newest of wares.

So much of what fuels human desire, are the narratives created within our minds, of our individual, idealized worlds, as they could one day be–often embodied by the domestic; such as the perfect house, with its perfect kitchen, Viking range included. Yet the world of products and consumerism is only one piece of the equation when considering ‘Salone’–as those who’ve come for years fondly refer to this Milanese gathering. SaloneSatellite was started in 1998 to showcase the work of emerging designers–specifically those under the age of 35–and was this year, held at the city’s fairground. And it’s within this corner of the event, where some of the most new and inspiring creations, are to be found. Immersion, experience, and intimacy have in the last few years steadily increased in importance at trade-shows such as these; and Salone de Mobile 2016 is no exception. David Chipperfield, Daniel Libeskind, Nendo, and Mario Trimarchi all showed their faces, products, and sometimes spaces. Yet fashion is getting into the mix too; ‘Don't miss the Fondazione Prada,’ says Jeannette Altherr of Barcelona-based Lievore Altherr Molina. Having been coming to Salone for the past 25 years, the designer is hyper-aware of the changes that have taken place within it, and within the world of design itself. ‘All areas are blurring, and there are no longer clear boundaries between home and office, in and out, formal and relaxed, industry and craft, refined and popular.’ Presenting an array of products in collaboration with numerous companies, the studio’s work also extends to creative direction and presentation design; ‘the full circle,’ she explains. Though, how has technology changed the nature of the studio’s work, and the fair itself? ‘More than injection molds and other industrial production tools, working with clients and other creative teams around the globe wouldn’t be possible without computers and the internet.’ Yet not all studios are as established, and not all are so holistic in their outlook. Chipperfleld and Libeskind are among the growing number of architects whose work has steadily crept into the fair’s stands, alongside veteran interior designers.

‘I have been coming to Salone on and off for many years’, remarks Libeskind. ‘It was about four years ago, with the creation of the product design division within our Milan office, that I starting coming regularly.’ Originally based in New York City, and now firmly established in Europe–which is also his continent of birth–the architect and designer last summer celebrated a soft opening of his Milan ‘City Life’ housing complex, which is set to be complete in 2017. The rigid yet fluidly formed project epitomizes the angular forms for which his firm is known. ‘Technology has made it possible for us to realize complex forms using age-old methods while working with master craftsmen in Italy, Germany, and beyond. And it gives us the freedom to experiment and test materials in ways that were never possible before,’ he explains. Working along side and array of brands such as Alessi, Antrax, Citco, Moroso, Loloey, and Swarovski, Libeskind this year presented products that ranged from, respectively, ‘a labyrinthine, stainless steel Alessi clock; a sculptural, origami-like radiator; a dynamic marble shelving system; a gemstone-inspired seating collection; a collection of sumptuously patterned silk rugs; and a playful, crystal chess set.’ And all allow those for whom his Milan housing complex is out of reach, to ‘take home’ a piece of the Libeskind brand; much in the way perfumes and sunglasses allow those who could only dream of a Chanel suit, to claim a piece of that brand as their own.

However, it’s perhaps the youngest designers, at SaloneSatellite, whose work is the least exposed–how are designers under 35 to compete with Prada’s budgets?–yet for that reason, are perhaps also the most interesting of note, at least at this year’s fair. The ‘digital-natives’ of the world, that is, those who have grown up using computers and the internet as an integral part of their everyday life, are now at most, about 35. And it’s this generation, who so often lack the financial support of larger brands and manufacturers, who seem to be leading the way toward the future of product design. Jiwon Kim, based in South Korea, Antti Tuomi and Anna Lampinen, both of Finland, Ini Archibong of the USA, Muca Design Lab–which consists of Laxmi Nazabal and Lucas Abajo–of Spain, Nadja Stäubli’s Schönstaub, who exhibited with Daniel Wehrli, both of Switzerland, and German Maximilian Moosleitner–are all fresh faces on the SaloneSatellite scene. Some have been coming for years, and others are fledgling first time stars; either way, all have one thing in common: they’ve been christened by the event’s organizers. Meaning that they and their works are all but destined for instantaneous fame. Though in an age where designers’ names have now replaced once personal, intimate relationships which, even a century earlier, occurred between artisan and purchaser–consuming today is rarely about such symbiotic relationships. Today’s consumer is not driven by an urge to establish a relationship between them self and an artisan; rather, the act of consuming is turning toward the display of social status, as the accumulation of material goods reflecting refinement, luxury, timeless craft–even increased privacy.

But where is the future of the event heading, and where exactly will those who choose to purchase the products on display be located? And which region of the globe is leading the way, in terms of the market, as well as new ideas? ‘I think design is heading in two different directions,’ explains Kim. ‘One is fast, cheap, and pretty, while the other is toward the slow and exquisite.’ Her Satellite debut entails a series of wool rugs–‘Salamandrian’–all depicting little-encountered creatures. Mounted to the wall, they resemble paintings more than carpets; the better to confront fair-goers, while immersing them within the textiles. ‘In my case, technology has been helpful in the marketing and presentation of works. Digital documents and emails enable prompt interaction wherever I am, and a website is a key portal to promote work while connecting with people around the world. Digital content is also rising in importance, in terms of presentation, because it is both fast and effective. On the other hand,’ she continues, ‘slow and exquisite design has also been growing everywhere, and I think a focus on each individual region’s rationality will be also important, in order to understand exclusive design.’ Further praising the internet’s importance for global exposure is Muka Design Lab, who, also inaugurally exhibiting at Satellite, presented a collection of ‘slow design furniture’. Even though emotion is rarely discussed within design, it’s involved in nearly every aspect of it–and most certainly its marketing. How else does one create desire? Nazabal and Abajo’s studio acknowledge just that. ‘Nowadays, and in the future, design will revolve around privacy, and how people differentiate themselves from others. People will crave spaces where there is no mobile signal, or oppositely, spaces where we can interact with those on the other side of the world,’ they explain. ‘It’s a paradox in itself: we need to isolate ourselves from others close to us, in order to communicate with those from the other side of the world. We try to work between technology and tradition, using all new technologies available; we create warm products that make people feel comfortable, such as with textiles–colorful, though without being garish.’

‘This was my first time at Salone del Mobile,’ remarks Tuomi, ‘whereas Lampinen presented her work at the SaloneSatellite last year, together with Aalto University. This year I had my own stand, where I presented two seats, a table, a pendant lamp, and a bench. I designed the bench with Tuomi, as well as the stand’s design.’ Both designers were recipients of a 2013 grant from the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, and are currently researching the contrasts between materials and technology, ‘in an efficiency driven world’, they explain. ‘We use a combination of handcraft, industrial methods, and materials; something we have been studying for some time.’ They expound further that, ‘in our opinion, the most important aspect of technology is to use it in a responsible way. Which for us means trying to investigate long-term impacts and applications of new technologies, from an environmental and social point of view–before rushing toward short-term economic gain. New inventions should in our view, be carefully blended with existing techniques and traditions.’ They’re representative of a small set of designers straddling academia and design; meaning that the full extent of their research, relating to their work, is yet to come. While certainly European in focus, even as the reach of its participants is truly global, Salone and its Satellite extension have, in recent years, seen a steady trickle of designers originating from beyond Europe’s borders. Sou Fujimoto, for instance, is a Japanese architect, who this year directed columns of light to pierce Cos’ installation, creating a ‘forest of light’ rays, fronted by drapery–and little more.

Another non-European designer is Ini Archibong. Hailing from California, and of a Nigerian background by way of his parents, Archibong made his debut at this year’s Satellite. ‘I really wanted my debut to fully represent me, without restraint, and was lucky to find a patron named Terry Crews, who just started a label called Amen&Amen. With his support, I had the funds to really reach for the stars, and worked with the best Swiss craftsmen to create a collection of handcrafted products in colored glass and sculpted marble. I met the craftsmen, Matteo Gonet and Vincent Dubois, while I was studying at ÉCAL in Lausanne, and now feel I can be seen as more than a furniture designer for commerce, and more as a designer with a clear artistic perspective and philosophy,’ he explains. This global citizen, and digital native, has ‘always relied on technology heavily to achieve my visions. I thrive on utilizing the most advanced programs and production methods and see technology as a necessary means for optimizing workflow and production.’ Perhaps going against the grain, technology wise, he continues, ‘for my Satellite collection this year, I made it a point to minimize the influence of technology. Instead it was all about learning from the generations of craftsmen’s knowledge, and “feeling” my way to the right solutions. Even in the production process, I opted to execute some aspects by hand, which may have been done more “perfectly” and efficiently by machines; it gave the pieces a certain character and soul, which could only have come from the “imperfections” of the handmade.’ Where does he consider design to be headed? ‘There’s been a huge rise from the Central and South America recently, and a lot of attention directing back toward West Africa,’ he states. One only hopes that those designers are invited next year.

Among those who’ve passed their ‘Salone’ initiation, and are now exhibiting for a second time, are Stäubli and Wehrli, who shared a booth at last year’s Satellite, and who this year teamed up to collaborate on the design of their stand, with both showing their own work. ‘I’m exhibiting my recent furniture prototypes, in a shared exhibition with the carpets by Schönstaub. A collaboration which takes advantage of the rather different businesses we run,’ says Wehrli. ‘Her rich carpets are a great environment for my reflecting side tables. A concept of furniture that interacts with its surrounding. I also run a second exhibition with the Swiss furniture brand "Zoom by Mobimex”, where I launched a wooden, upholstered dinning bench.’ However, some cynicism was also evident in the event, he explains. ‘There was a tendency to celebrate a certain kind of luxury. In this field progress is not much of a topic, as opposed to collaging luxurious connotated material, as gold, brass and marble.’ Chiming in, Stäubli adds, ‘there was a lot of luxury themed design. And I think design should head toward pieces people really love to live with, for many years, instead of those that are exchanged every year. The biggest thing missing for me, is the link between the young designers looking for producers, and the huge labels exhibiting.’ Schönstaub is presenting, ‘a new collections of designs of woven carpets,’ states Stäubli, who with Wehrli, ‘built a rack in the back of the booth so we could hang six carpets, moving them back and forth, so that we could have a different set up, every day.’ Sometimes stand design innovations, really can be so simple. And yet, it’s the opposite approach of Kim. What about technology in terms of her work? ‘It makes our products possible; as we weave with over 1.6 million knots per square meter, on the most advanced weaving machines. A product’s entire design is transformed with a special carpet weaving preparation system so it can be translated to the machine where it will be weaved with rich colors. Regarding marketing and presentation, I’m really incredibly grateful for social media, as without it our label would not exist.’ It is yet another trend among these digital natives. Even Archibong, ‘recently learned how to use Instagram, to be able to document and share my design processes. And I think it’s going to become an even more important tool to master, in order to stay relevant as a designer.’ Social media, the internet, websites, and new production processes, now and in the future, in whatever form, are here to stay, in terms of their relative importance. It’s this generation who uses these digital tools the best.

While lacking the glitter and deep pockets of the big brands that dominated this year’s Salone–such as Nike, B&B Italia, Nendo, Cos, and Prada–SaloneSatellite will keep presenting design’s younger generation, for years to come. As its participants age with the passing of time, there is no doubt that those who make careful use of the latest material research, advances in production processes, and the connectivity of the internet to further expose their ideas, works, and selves to the world, will move into the main arena of Salone itself, bypassing its ‘Satellite’ sister. All of the above designers are so clearly on their way up, that it would surprise few editors of the world’s print and digital, design-centered publications, if some were appointed creative directors of the big brands that they’re now competing with, or working for.