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05.06.2011
Editorial> Design Currency
Julie Iovine finds inspiration at Milan's International Furniture Fair.
Tord Boontje for Moroso

The International Furniture Fair in Milan is a huge affair, attracting design talents, design makers, design dreamers, schemers, and trackers from all corners of the world who believe it is essential to their professions to be in the know about the most current matters of design. Few American architects seem to attend, which is curious given what an inquisitive and competitive bunch they usually are.

Even in a year when the slow economy has taken its toll on one of Italy’s largest and most profitable industries—furniture manufacturing is several times larger than the fashion business — innovations were on display. From the almost affordably engineer-able (organic LEDs) to the fringe of discovery (proto-plastics from insect resin), the fair thrives on possibilities made relevant. Fair newcomers 3M Architectural Markets showed off their research in developing a new delivery system that collects natural light from rooftops and then channels it to the deepest interior spaces. Stay tuned. Italcementi was there, too, touting a new formula for its smog-eating cement that’s even whiter than before—Richard Meier briefly appeared almost ecstatic.

There are always eye-opening things to see. And what’s equally impressive, the audience is whole-heartedly appreciative.

Crowds throng the fairgrounds by the thousands to check out market-ready and prototype pieces. At outside events known for agenda-setting concepts, hundreds more seek out the chance to see, for instance, German designer Werner Aisslinger’s installation of “the first monobloc chair made of natural fibers,” a sculpted throne of felt arranged alongside a ram chomping on hay. There was the great innovator Ingo Mauer’s towering moss and living coral chandelier for a client’s private chapel cum banquet hall and Shigeru Ban’s meticulously-wrought paper house, created to show off a new collection of determined-to-be classics from Hermes—with assorted Jean Michel Frank reproductions mixed in to guarantee the highest level.

No doubt about it, many Italian furnishings are a luxury and not likely to show up in the average conference room or corporate lobby, spaces in America that are both more budget-conscious and conservative about image. 

Still, seeing so much inventive design and the vast sea of people who cannot get enough of it raises a disturbing awareness of what we can expect back home—a confidence gap between the aggressive shaping and resourceful materials that American architects put into their buildings and the banal, two-dimensional furnishings with which they fill them.

Italy is enamored of good design and to spend a week there breathing in that devotion is a visceral reminder of how much design can do. There’s no need to assume that because the furniture may be too avant-garde for most practical purposes that the fair has nothing to offer. If creativity, quality, and innovation matter to an architect, there’s no place better to find it in abundance.

Julie Iovine