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(e)Business as Usual in Milan

There may have been fewer new products at this year’s Milan Furniture Fair, but there was a great deal of creativity and conceptual thought to be seen. Many manufacturers turned their attention to more affordable product ranges and to the potential of e-commerce. 

By No author /asdf 02-05-2010

It is at times like these that creativity is fundamental. Making designer products that are more affordable, and more available is also key.

It only closed a few weeks ago but the Milan Furniture Fair already seems eons away. Perhaps it was the erupting of the Icelandic volcano, which took over as the topic du jour about midway through the fair, but things were overall more low-key this year, slower to start, quicker to finish and with fewer companies showing at the Salone del Mobile itself (2,499 compared with 2,723 in 2009) and less new, technically ambitious or unrealistic products. Oversized products anyone? That’s so last year!

This year most manufacturers were happy just to be at the fair, even if it wasn’t in their usual venue. It was the second year running that the almost centenary Dutch furniture firm Pastoe (showing a new and sleek cabinet system by Belgian architect Vincent Van Duysen) showed as part of the Fuori Salone and not at the trade fair in an attempt to try and cut costs. But as Director Remco van der Voort admitted they were not unhappy at all to be off-site. “It’s harder to get people here,” he said, “but the people that come are more committed, and stay longer.”

Dutch furniture-makers Arco and Montis continued business as usual by showing at the Fiera venue in the Rho district north-west of Milan’s city centre, but Marcel Wanders’ Moooi and Linteloo both opened new permanent showrooms in the Zona Tortona area, albeit a long way down inside the now too-busy-for-its-own-good design enclave. Moooi claimed it had chosen the area because of its buzzing vibe but the results were underwhelming. The space was far smaller than expected and the space rather plain and conventional, strangely out of sync with a brand that has made its name for its fantastical and whimsical take on design. This year’s new product offerings (as detailed in the clever paper doll cut-out catalogue) were a more inspiring story however. Wanders’ black leather quilted Monster Chair with a face on its backrest was mischievous, Neri and Hu’s woven bamboo lamps were the epitome of rustic elegance, Nika Zupanc’s 50s-style ‘5 O’Clock’ Table and Chair with its giant traditional pink rose motif was seriously eye-catching and bound for great sales, and Bertjan Pot’s revolving chandelier was a twinkling and ingenious piece.

Like Moooi, another company not to be underestimated, is Skitsch. Founded during the 2009 Fair by former private-equity executive and design aficionado and investor Renato Preti, it is doing well against all the gloomy economic odds. The concept behind Skitsch is design that can be bought off the rack, so to speak, design that is accessible and available. “It’s precisely in moments of crisis that one needs to invest, especially if you want to innovate,” says the ultra-entrepreneurial Preti. As a project Skitsch is in touch with the current economic crisis and zeitgeist he says offering products that “make people happy and at affordable prices.”

In times of crisis Preti is adamant that you can get more attention from others and more opportunities, such as “lower costs and greater willingness on the part of designers, suppliers, consultants as well as availability of commercial spaces”. The Italian miracle company launched over 30 new products this year by the likes of Stefano Giovannoni, Jean Marie Massaud, Luca Nichetto, Bertjan Pot, Marc Sadler and Marcel Wanders, and threw one of the most frequented parties. When asked how Skitsch was able to open a second store in London last month, his reply is quick off the mark. “When you start something it is fundamental to see it through, up to the finest detail, otherwise it remains incomplete as a project and cannot reach critical mass. Moreover, London is a global capital filled with opinion leaders, so it is strategic, not only in terms of the English market but to get us known throughout the world and promote our e-commerce activities.”

Another man entering the online sphere is the dapper CEO of English super-brand Established & Sons, Alasdhair Willis. A brand not usually known for its affordability, this year sees the launch of its own-label collection of furniture and accessories titled ‘Estd’ and already available online at www.yoox.com, along with a selection of other pieces by the firm’s stable of superstar and emerging designers. When asked about how the recession has affected the brand he says sales were up 9% at the end of 2009 despite the crisis, but that the best markets were Australia, South America and the Middle East. Europe is not doing so well he admits: another reason for the company making its foray into the online world.

This year’s contribution by Dutch conceptual design company Droog was perhaps the most telling of all in terms of the still-lingering recession. It acquired exactly 5,135 random items (19 products such as folding chairs, wallets, dog baskets, handkerchiefs and safety vests) from auction sites and leftover stock from companies that had gone bankrupt. They then asked 14 known and emerging designers (whom they called ‘revivers’) to make their own mark on the objects - decorate them or turn them into something else - and laid them out in lots on an elevated stage in Milan.

The installation was a work-in-progress with local manicurists coming in daily to adorn the 80 folding chairs throughout design week and people buying up items. Central Museum in Utrecht bought one of each items for its Modern Design Collection and many more were making orders. ‘Saved by Droog’ summed up the current mood and need for a reconsidering in the industry. If 500 companies in the Netherlands go bankrupt every month, where do all the products go asked Droog? The show provided one possible answer.  Save the items, buy them up from liquidation sales and give them a new lease of life. It makes economic and sustainable sense as new products and materials do not need to be developed or produced. As product developer Martijn Schönfeld said, “you cannot invest in big orders if you’re not sure you can sell things.” The amounts of products at play here are smaller there’s less risk and less money involved, but the results are in some ways interesting. And can be replicated throughout the world using local liquidation sales and local designers. And sold online. The possibilities are endless.

Main image: Proud new owners of 'Saved by Droog' items. Photography: Stephanie Grätz
Image 1: Pastoe
Images 2&3: Moooi
Images 4&5: Skitsch London store
Images 6&7: Estd by Established and Sons
Images 8-10: 'Saved by Droog', Photography: Stephanie Grätz


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