Milan's Salone Internazionale del Mobile: it's the world's most important furniture fair, a week every April when the Italian city swarms with everyone who is anyone in the world of home furnishing as the giants of design show their latest collections. Last week, once again, all the big names were there: B&B Italia, Zanotta, Poltrona Frau, Walter Knoll, BMW, Audi. BMW? Audi? In an elegant courtyard in the centre of the city, the former unveiled The Dwelling Lab, an installation that was as much a work of conceptual art as a car - a collaboration with the renowned fabric house Kvadrat, the fabric designer Giulio Ridolfo and the hotter-than-hot architect and furniture designer Patricia Urquiola. Across town, in the hip design district of Zona Tortona, Audi showed its newest models, the A8 and A1 in the midst of Lucid Flux, a spectacular lighting installation conceived by Moritz Waldemeyer, who has done ground-breaking lighting designs for Bono of U2, with the couturier Hussein Chalayan and for Swarovski's Crystal Palace collection.
Mini came to the party, too: following last year's collaboration with Airstream and the Danish furniture company Fritz Hansen on a conceptual Clubman-and-caravan combo, it was all over town this year with the new Countryman. On the opening night of the fair, in scenes reminiscent of the entrance to the coolest nightclub in town, mobs of people tried in vain to talk their way in to an invitation-only party where four designers, Maarten Baas (furniture), D-Squared (also furniture), Margherita Missoni (fashion) and Delfina Delettrez Fendi (jewellery), revealed their interpretations of the Countryman; there was a giant static display in the Renaissance courtyard of Aula Magna, part of Milan University, marking Mini's co-sponsorship of Think Tank, one of the week's most thought-provoking exhibits; and, sandwiched between collections of furniture from new Taiwanese talents and young Polish designers at the Triennale design museum, was an installation showing the Countryman's design genesis.
Also in Zona Tortona, a limited-edition smart car by the furniture and product designer Rolf Sachs cruised the streets, and Nissan chose the moment to unveil the results of a design competition for parking solutions of the future. The presence of car brands at the Milan Salone is not new: Lexus pioneered it in 2005 with the first of five critically acclaimed collaborations with leading Japanese artists, furniture designers and architects (although it was absent this year "due to the uncertain economic climate" and is yet to decide about next year, according to a company spokesman).
However, it appears to be a growing trend. And it's one that makes sense on many levels, say the car makers. Audi, which began its association with the design and art world as a sponsor of Art Basel Miami in 2006 and collaborated with the British furniture designer Tom Dixon on an exhibit there last year, has seen significant growth of awareness among its target clients in the American market, according to Larissa Braun, head of communications with Audi's lifestyle division. "This event is so different from when you go to a normal auto show. People are here who wouldn't go there - people who are interested in intellectual things, architecture, design - and they are now aware of what we are doing. This is the payback."
Adrian van Hooydonk, the director of design at BMW, says getting a feel for other areas of design outside of the car industry is important for growth. "We see cars as a product to sell but also part of modern, popular culture. That means we have to enter a discussion; it can't be one way traffic - 'I want to sell you my car' - we need to be in touch with society, culture as a whole." The design community, a target audience that Anders Byriel, the chief executive of Kvadrat, describes as the "creative class", is key for high-end car brands, according to those present in Milan last week.
"A car used to be a very purposeful object that allowed you to travel," explains van Hooydonk. "but now it's part of a bigger picture - and that's especially true of premium products. Customers expect them to work well, be safe, last a long time - but these are not the reasons they buy one. Nobody really needs a BMW but a lot of people want one - and that's because it's emotional. That's the value of doing this project in Milan, with a designer like Patricia Urquiola, whose products really speak to the emotions."
The association between the car designers themselves and the furniture fair is not as unlikely as it may appear, says Stefan Sielaff, Audi's head of design. "I've been coming to the Salone for 20 years and going to other art events. I always send my team members to exhibitions that have nothing to do with cars because we need influences from different art and design disciplines. Next week, I'll be in London to kick off Urban Futures, our new collaboration with architects. The principle behind that project is interaction with the environment because our cars are moving in the environment, they don't exist alone."
For Waldemeyer, the transition from rock 'n' roll and fashion to cars felt very natural. "Although those other projects might be more poetic, I don't see a big difference in approach. It's about bringing an interesting new packaging to the object somehow, be it couture, rock and roll or cars." Much depends on the chemistry between those involved, says Waldemeyer, who describes his experience with Audi as "amazing". "They are really forward-thinking, curious, innovative, happy to take risks - turning this project around in such a short time is a massive risk, especially right now that everybody is so tight with cash."
The result has been a valuable cross-fertilisation of ideas, say both Sielaff and van Hooydonk. "We held workshops with Moritz and the lighting experts in my team," says Sielaff. "What has come out of it, beyond this week's project, may emerge only in the next three to four years since our development cycle is quite long. There's definitely an element of long-term thinking involved." BMW and Kvadrat's approach to their Milan project was different insofar as design development was at the heart of the project. Since meeting in Milan a couple of years ago, Byriel and van Hooydonk continued to exchange ideas "We have our design culture at Kvadrat and they have theirs," says Byriel. "We realised that there is a lot of overlap." The result was that Kvadrat developed a woollen upholstery product for a concept car BMW showed at Frankfurt last year, followed by this year's "full-blown collaboration" - a re-examination of car interiors, which would introduce new materials and greater warmth and tactility, bridging what Byriel describes as a "gap in the whole automotive industry between nice, conservative premium and very anonymous".
"With car interiors you traditionally see a lot of leather," explains van Hooydonk. "We felt that cloth offered the potential for endless colour, endless texture, feeling." The designers, Urquiola and Ridolfi, took that concept - and many, many metres of Kvadrat's finest fabrics - and created what Ridolfi calls an "inside-out car", with the interiors of a 5 Series GT deconstructed through a series of external, prism-like structures.
You hardly see the body of the car - and, while that may be anathema to traditionalists in the marketing department, van Hooydonk says it's the object of the exercise: "It's hardly even showing a logo or a badge and it's not about engines and horsepower. The design allows people - almost forces people - to view the car in a different way. The whole street outside is filled with cars but people are coming here to see this one." firstname.lastname@example.org