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Money Talks in Milan

Small spaces rent for thousands of euros making Milan an impossibility for most. Young Dutch designers, however, are using their creativity to get there thus ensuring their work is seen where it still matters most.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 22-04-2010

Cancelled flights due to Icelandic volcanic ash prevented arrivals and delayed departures.  Despite the resulting chaos, this year’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile proved to be the same fertile ground as always – the most productive fair for designers to meet and maximize their contacts and opportunities.

For young designers trying to launch or solidify their design careers, presenting in Milan is still a must.  

“It really is,” says Gijs Bakker.  “Miami and Basel have a buzz, but Milan is still the most important place to show.  It's like how fashion has become big in London, but at the end of the day, Paris is always going to be what matters most.”

Victor le Noble from Tuttobene agrees: “I'm not just saying it because it is my business” he says, “but Milan remains the most important furniture fair in the world.  The world press, as well as all the big name designers and producers are there.  It's also got that extra vibe that is hard to put into words.”

The catch though is working out how to make Milan happen given the prohibitively expensive participation rates.  Renting a small space alone can set a designer back thousands and as most of Holland's funding options have dried up, designers are having to get creative.  And it’s not just space rental - producing the pieces, transport, PR and accommodation can all end up costing around the 10 000 euro mark.

To get around this, a lot of Dutch designers have opted to join collectives and present in groups. Tuttobene, for example, has been presenting in Milan since 2004 and this year showcased eleven designers in the Zona Tortona.  Tuttobene is funded through the Ministry of Economic Affairs, which commissions work from the design collective for international events.

“We get around 125 000 euros annually,” says Le Noble, “and that pays for about 45% of the whole Milan project.  “The rest comes from the designers themselves, from selling advertising and from small sponsorships.”

Le Noble cannot specify exactly how much the space he rents costs.  “It’s all about strategy,” he says.  “It’s a game and if you aren't good at it, you end up paying more.”  His strategy, therefore, remains a secret.

On top of paying for the space though, Le Noble also pays for Tuttobene’s inclusion in Interni, the guide that visitors use to get around the fair.  “That alone costs about 2 500 euros,” he says.  “The Italians are very very good at making money out of all of this.”

Bo Reudler, a Tuttobene participant, was in Milan this year for the third time.  When the event ended, he flew straight to Tokyo for Li Edelkoort’s Post Fossil exhibition at 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT.

Reudler says he spent 2 400 euros renting a 15 square meter space with Tuttobene.  “But when you add on photography, transport and accommodation, I would have spent more like 5000,” he admits.

Like all the designers design.nl spoke to about the financial burden of getting to Milan, Reudler sees participation as an investment.  “You don't sell actual pieces there so you can’t calculate what the investment is worth in the short term,” he says.  “One of my colleagues said it best: it’s like throwing a stone into a pond.  You can’t control the ripples, but you are setting something in motion.”

Frederike Top
also exhibited with Tuttobene and even with the reduced rental costs, she still had to borrow money from her parents to get there.  “There is no way I could have made it without Tuttobene,” she says. “They really make it possible and they offer more than just the space at a reduced rate.  There are other benefits like their match-making system, which enables us to meet up with gallerists and producers who might be of interest.”

Another group, Dutch Invertuals, presented for the second time in Milan after already attracting a lot of positive press during Dutch Design Week. Run and curated by Wendy Plomp, Invertuals is in the enviable position of having free space in Milan thanks to a collaboration with Italian fashion brand Verger.

“We have our permanent space in Eindhoven and Verger has its own space in Milan so we work together and promote each other,” Plomp says. “It is ridiculously expensive to participate down there and I don't even want to get involved in that sort of thing.  Maybe when you are a really big name and don’t have to worry about money anymore, but for younger designers it’s impossible.”

Jo Meesters, one of the Invertual designers, has presented in Milan four times and says his studio has made invaluable contacts as a result.  “I’ve had media exposure and been invited to exhibit in galleries like Tools in Paris because of it,” he says.  

Meesters also talks about the importance of giving the design media a hands-on view of his work.  “All year they see images, but this is the one opportunity where you can show them your work in real life and it makes a big difference,” he says.

One of the most impressive and committed ways to participate in Salone Internazionale del Mobile but to avoid the costs is to base yourself outside the most popular haunts and work to earn that location some attention.

“I don’t want to sound arrogant,” says Jack Brandsma, but if it weren’t for us, the Lambrate Zone would never have taken off.”

This year Ventura Lambrate (promoted and arranged by the Utrecht-based Organization in Design) really hit the headlines with more than thirty designers, but Brandsma started exhibiting there in 2008 and was there again in 2009 with only ten other designers.

“The first year I was there it was for free and the second I had a bargain price,” he says.  “It was the best way to get into Milan given the crazy rents – to develop a new zone.  We took the risk and we were patient, and now we can benefit from that.”

But best of all for Brandsma is that this year not only was he located in a hot location, but he got his space for free.  He puts that down to good networking.  “I travel to Milan four or five times a year to keep my networks warm,” he says,  “and I have been doing some workshops in a design school.  It was through that connection that I managed to secure a place for free this year … I see being entrepreneurial as another way of using my creativity.”


 Images: main Brandsma's group exhibit space, Victor la Noble, Frederike Top, Bo Reudler (2), Dutch Invertuals, Wendy Plomp, Jo Meesters, Jack Brandsma

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