• A view through the Light Space venue in Ventura Lambrate, a 15,070-square-foot section of the warehouse that hosted the Designersblock exhibition. verydesignersblock.com

    Credit: Noah Kalina

    A view through the Light Space venue in Ventura Lambrate, a 15,070-square-foot section of the warehouse that hosted the Designersblock exhibition. verydesignersblock.com
At this year’s Milan Furniture Fair, architect Gaetano Pesce nailed Italy to a cross. Like most of his work, the 24.6-foot-high “L’Italia in Croce” installation at the Triennale di Milano design museum was as exceedingly ugly as it was articulate, and had a relevance far beyond the city or country in which it stood, bleeding beads of resin from the nation’s boot onto a pile of rubbish and rubble at its foot. With it, Pesce was remaking a censored 1970s work by artist Ugo la Pietra that was a round condemnation of complacency and conservatism, self-righteousness and selfishness, of the tendency to talk a lot and then do nothing. In short, it was a call to arms for political and cultural Italy that the design world would do well to heed, too.

Pesce’s critical mood was reflected in pockets elsewhere. Although Zona Tortona, once fertile ground for experimentation, is now irrevocably a carnival midway of branding and an exercise in marketing instead of design, at the Fiera and dispersed (widely) throughout the city there was a certain amount of risk-taking that made this fair all the more interesting for those willing to look hard and long.

In a sense it was a year of the ugly–beautiful with shifts of, breaks with, and sacrificing of aesthetics to materials and ideas. Even Konstantin Grcic’s Avus club chair for Plank proved supremely unattractive, and how many unattractive products has Grcic ever made? Avus consists of a fairly comfortable leather-upholstered seat armored with an ABS, twin-sheet-moulded, polyurethane-reinforced shell, the product of another prolonged collaborative investigation into new production technologies with the same hugely talented engineers that helped Grcic bring us the lovely Myto.

Although the 30th anniversary of the Memphis design movement passed quietly, its spirit seemed to echo in some almost bizarrely dissonant collections such as Plank’s and Casamania’s. This made for a show of extremes that swung between thought-provoking and, at the very least, highly entertaining. This casting about seemed to not just indicate confusion, but, much better, a turning away from complacency in many quarters and a questioning of what is to come. The boldest brands and designers, a handful of whom are mentioned in the accompanying articles and shown in the accompanying slide shows, are looking for a new zeitgeist and values that will help to clear a path forward, if not always finding one.

Rest assured, however, they are looking. The products prove it.

Follow the links in the sidebar above for more of our coverage of the 2011 Milan Furniture Fair—furniture, installations and exhibits, lighting, and objects and materials. There, you'll find more descriptions of some of the items that caught our eye, as well as slide shows with dozens of images.