Since 2009, the story of the annual Salone del Mobile, in Milan, has been: Is it safe to go back in the water?
The economic collapse of 2008 so imperiled the global economy that there was serious doubt as to whether the design market, specifically in Europe, could sustain an event at the scale of the 270,000-visitor Salone. Each April brought with it a shiver of fear that the whole enterprise might just break down under its own weight. By the fair's end, the sound heard from most designers and marketers was a sigh of relief.
That story is officially dead. “It’s been really, really good,” says Vera Kleppe, of Norwegian design duo Vera & Kyte. The pair has become, for this journalist at least, a pair of mineshaft canaries. When we first caught up with them in 2014, they were showing their pared-down PoMo wares at Salone’s Satellite show for emerging designers. The following year, they graduated to Italian furniture brand Opinion Ciatti’s booth at the main fair. And this year they’re back at both, plus putting in an appearance at the much-vaunted Wallpaper* Handmade exhibition. They’re doing textiles now, too, and their attitude (like their designs) seems emphatically optimistic.
It was a feeling echoed by British designer Lee Broom, who this year has perhaps taken in more of the scene than any of his contemporaries. He’s been driving around Milan in a van (“a lorry,” as he would have it) that’s been tricked out with a full installation of his mysteriously evocative lighting. “The reception has been great,” he says, though the logistics were sufficiently complex that he’s not likely to repeat it. In any case, it seemed easier this year to let the people come to you—and they did, en masse, from the kitchen-and-bath specialist Boffi’s opening in the city’s Brera Design District to the Zona Tortona space occupied by newcomer Qeeboo, which drew a star-studded crowd including designers Karim Rashid and Marcel Wanders for the debut of the Italian design studio’s playful plastic furniture collections (shown above).
At the Stazione Centrale, attendees came out to celebrate design powerhouse Fabrica at a party sponsored by Veuve Clicquot in the Padiglione Reale—formerly the private waiting room of the Italian royal family at the train station. At the Rotonda della Besana, attendees came out for a dinner party on behalf of British designer Tom Dixon that saw guests rotate around the room through a sequence of themed zones. “Usually you just sit next to one person,” Dixon says. “We wanted to mix that up.”
And afterward—as after every Salone, whether everyone really wants to or not—the teeming horde relocated to the famed Bar Basso, the after-hours spot of choice for the international design set. Even there, were signs of growth: The little shop next door that has long sold beer to the overflow crowd was recently turned into a restaurant, though they still let you take the beers outside.
If anything, Salone might be assuming a position of greater importance than before. One sales representative at a major Northern European brand pointed out that, for their company at least, “Milan used to be seen as a prototype place and not as commercially useful as other fairs.” However, “it’s really changed in the last few years, especially this year,” with the company seeing its largest volume of sales from the event yet.
The eurozone may not be out of the woods; America is flirting with a protectionist presidential candidate; and developments in digital fabrication and virtual reality might soon render the entire design marketplace about as economically relevant as the village blacksmith. Yet at least for now, Milan is feeling festive.