Many are hailing 2011 as the year that the Milan Furniture Fair got real. With 2,700 exhibiting companies, countless associated events, 321,320 visitors and the usual deluge of product launches, the 50th edition of the show last month offered all the usual hustle and bustle. But in among the frenzy, a more honest, human approach to design seemed to be making its way to the fore.
For the UK-based design and innovation company Seymourpowell, the 2011 Milan Furniture Fair, or Salone Internazionale del Mobile, represented a turning point for the industry, as designers began to adopt a more cultural approach to their work. "We believe that the social aspects of design will become increasingly important... No longer are designers just producing pieces, instead they are asking people to contribute and become involved with the process," the company says.
The stories behind a product are becoming as important as the product itself. Hence the Rotterdam-based designer Diederik Schneemann's Flip Flop Story, a collection of vases and lamps made out of old flip-flops found washed up on Kenya's beaches. "They are designed as unique sustainable objects that you will not throw away in a couple of years," says Schneemann, who partnered with UniquEco, a foundation committed to building sustainable livelihoods in impoverished urban and coastal communities.
The foundation has recognised that old, discarded items such as flip-flops are a blight on oceans, towns and rivers, but a readily available resource for local communities. The flip-flops can be cleaned up, broken down and converted into unique handmade items that are then sold locally and internationally.
Discoloured, worn, torn, patched up, thrown away, lost, found, collected, reclaimed and eventually converted into a new autonomous object, each flip-flop has its own story - and Schneemann was enamoured with the idea. He used the flip-flops to create a limited edition collection that is playful but still draws attention to the big issues of environmental degradation and social responsibility.
In a similar vein, for the Story Vases by the Swedish design collective Front, the all-female team worked with the Siyazama Project in South Africa, which seeks to promote design as a way of affirming indigenous knowledge and skills, and as a means of disseminating information to rural women, the most marginalised and vulnerable people in South Africa.
The resultant collection of vases tells the personal stories of five women living in remote villages in post-apartheid South Africa, using glass beads threaded on to wire. The vases act as a recorded testimony of stories that too often go untold.
"This project is a fantastic example of how designers can take on a more cultural role by raising social awareness and empowering local communities," says Seymourpowell. "Designers are giving them the tools to help themselves."
This ties in with what the company has dubbed the "new mythology" trend. In an age of austerity, folklore and mythology offer a welcome escape from the constraints of human existence, as well as an opportunity to reconnect with the planet. The design duo Klaus Haapaniemi and Mia Wallenius offered an interesting take on this trend with their Mammoth tapestry for Established & Sons. The tapestry was made using a 15th-century craft technique and took inspiration from Finnish folklore, history and nature, with one very modern reference: an erupting volcano motif that alluded to the ash cloud chaos that beset last year's Milan Furniture Fair.
"Designers are going back to the early origins of man and are reviving forgotten customs, skills and narratives," says Seymourpowell. "Old traditions are reappropriated for our modern times in a bid to imbue products with character and soul that respond to our need for storytelling and narrative."
As part of this movement, furniture brands are revisiting their roots says Gianni Sharrouf, the director of Purity, a Dubai-based distributor of high-end Italian brands such as Artemide, Living Divani, Boffi, Porro and Paola Lenti, which all launched new products last month. "Many high-end brands are showcasing their links to their roots and their artisan know-how," Sharrouf points out. The draw of mass-volume production is waning.
Sense and tactility were other key features of this year's crop of new products. As a natural reaction to an increasingly digitalised world, people are looking for comfort and reassurance in the products they surround themselves with. The Cloud Stool by Joon & Jung perfectly encapsulates this trend by mimicking the flexibility and softness of the cloudscape. Irregularity of texture and tone create a seating option that cries out to be touched.
Patricia Urquiola was another propagator of this trend. Her Biknit chair for Moroso is composed of an oversized knitted weave, while her Husk armchair for B&B Italia, a series of soft cushions that create an all-enveloping quilt-like effect, is the ultimate celebration of softness. "Qualities such as volume and materiality are more important than ever, giving a calming and grounded feel to our living environments," says Seymourpowell.
The pursuit of calming, tranquil environments also manifested itself in a continuation of the ethereal trend so popular during the 2010 Milan Furniture Fair. The prevalence of fluid, transparent objects marked a move towards uncluttered, serene spaces. Tokujin Yoshioka's Twilight installation for Moroso was a prime example of this trend, according to Seymourpowell. "Variations of his Moon chair were presented in a white, atmospheric environment, only revealing the subtle differences in texture through reflection of the light."
Kartell presented the Invisibles Light Collection, a new, more versatile version of the Invisibles Collection of consoles, benches, tables and armchairs that was unveiled in 2010. The Japanese design house Nendo launched the light and airy Transparent Chair, which is made from polyurethane film, a shockproof material more commonly used for packing delicate objects. Nendo further explored the idea of transparency in a series of see-through tables, frames and light fixtures.
Experimentation with new materials was another notable trend this year and often involved the exploration of more sustainable options. Mieke Meijer and Vij5 showcased KrantHout, a wood created from old newspapers, while the Anglo-Indian design duo Doshi Levien presented Impossible Wood, a new synthetic fibre that, Seymourpowell explains, is "an eco-compatible compound which can replace the usual plastics while maintaining its characteristics of pliability and strength".
Meanwhile, Omer Arbel partnered with Bocci to create Series 19, in which the Canadian designer experimented with sand-casting techniques to create a selection of copper bowls. With each bowl, a shape was pressed into sand to create a void and then a molten metal was roughly poured into it. The metal oxidises after it is poured, creating a series of items that are entirely unique. Series 19 is made out of 100 per cent recycled copper, sourced from the oldest foundry on the west coast of Canada.
Grandiose as it may sound, the Milan Furniture Fair is where design trends are born. And of all the trends that made their mark last month, one hopes that it is this more sensitive, explorative, socially aware approach that will stand the test of time.