Milano Design Week

Maria Porro, Salone del Mobile: “In September we’ll be warming up our engines”

Interview with the newly elected President of the Salone del Mobile, born in 1983 with an eclectic background in design, theater and business, who tells us about the Salone to come.

Triennale di Milano, presentazione del Supersalone 2021. Foto Gianluca DiIoia

Less than two weeks are left until the long-awaited Salone in September 2021 will take place. Awaited because it is not yet clear what form it will take. For three months now, new and historic companies have been inviting the press to the launches of new products, while the most popular districts of the Fuorisalone, from the 5Vie to Brera, have presented the programs of their events. We also know that Rho Fiera will be transformed into the Supersalone led by Stefano Boeri. International attendance will probably be at an all-time low due to difficulties in transcontinental travel, but we will verify this once the event is underway, which we remind you will officially take place from September 5 to 10, 2021. At the end of July, then, for the first time in its history, the Board of Directors of the Salone del Mobile di Milano appointed as President the young entrepreneur Maria Porro (born in 1983) who took the place of Claudio Luti and is now at the head of the most important design event in the world. We interviewed her to find out what shape it will take.

Salone after summer holidays?
We’ll come back from the sea tanned, we’ll look great.

What awaits us in September?
The fact that we’ll be able to meet again in person and return to that meeting that we’ve missed so much, even if not in the grandeur of the Salone we knew. Then there will be an overview that we haven’t had for two years: we’ll have a glimpse of what companies have been up to over the past year. The Salone puts everything together and the Supersalone will do it even more. Then we will see the international schools of design and architecture that will finally have the chance to discuss their theses in front of an international stage, a revenge on the lost opportunity of the in-person degree. This will allow us to observe where the world of schooling and projects of younger people is going. We will also have a section dedicated to the Compasso d’Oro to put past and future side by side. You can find the rest in the program.

How does the September 2021 edition tie in with the April 2022 edition, which marks the 60th anniversary of the Salone del Mobile?
September keeps the flame burning for the April 2022 edition that all sectors are waiting for. Let’s start working from today to have a major April 2022.

Maria Porro, photo Giovanni Gastel
Maria Porro, photo Giovanni Gastel

More than your gender, what strikes the most is your young age in a “mature” system like Salone. Is anything really changing or are you a meteor?
Let me preface this by saying that I am a dwarf on the shoulders of giants. My age is obvious, as is the history of Salone del Mobile, which is six decades old and represents the history of Italian design. A young person is called upon to represent something very rooted in history. Personally, I’ve always been ahead of my time, it’s not the first time I’ve been “the youngest”. It’s an aspect that I really like. Meteor? It depends on the people of my generation and on their desire, our desire, to get involved, to take risks and to make our voices heard in a crucial moment of great change. I would like to thank those who decided to give me this trust, first in Assoarredo and then at the Salone del Mobile.

We have read the official motivations given by Gianfranco Marinelli (President of Federlegno Arredo Eventi) regarding your appointment, who defines you as a young and motivated person: why do you think you were chosen?
I am President of Assoarredo, I come from an associative experience and I have a certain amount of training that I want to put to use in order to listen to the needs of a multifaceted world like that of design that starts from the small supplier up to the large group - this is a first point. After that, I have a family company behind me (Porro S.p.A., founded in 1925, ed.) with many years of experience that has always participated in the Salone del Mobile: I have a life-long relationship with the Salone. I used to wear my Sunday best to visit my grandfather at the Fiera pavilions. Then the family business has always been rooted internationally, a dimension and openness that is also that of my generation and this plays an important role in an event that has a very strong international slant. The Salone del Mobile, then, is characterized by a great energy: that week expresses a great strength. I think it’s important in this critical moment to rediscover that energy and the generation of entrepreneurs of my age, who represent the new generation, is fundamental in this. Finally, we are in a moment of generational transition and therefore the Salone, like many companies, is going through this phase which also includes the digital aspect on which I can make a contribution, given my age.

Triennale Design Museum, photo Gabriele Zanon
Triennale Design Museum, photo Gabriele Zanon

What will be the relationship with the digital world?
It’s a very important aspect that needs to be worked on, it’s a fundamental ingredient for dealing with this type of subject that requires a trained eye. I’m not a digital native because I’m still a Millennial, so I straddle an analogue and a digital dimension.

Are you already a tiktoker?
Not at the moment, I’m not a tiktoker (laughs), I’m too old to be one!

So you still use laughing emoticons...?

In your statements you talk about future challenges that are declined in sustainability, digitalization, research, innovation and inclusion. These concepts are effective when associated with individual cases, family businesses, and generally a small project scale. How will they materialize in a larger, interconnected system involving an entire industry?
That’s the real challenge, which is to be able to systemize these issues that companies and designers already deal with on an individual level. I think it can be done by sharing a path. Let me give you an example: as Federlegno, we have started a path on sustainability by mapping the current status of design companies - not only furniture producers but also collateral companies, such as panel producers, wood extractors and processors - working on the entire supply chain. Associations and federations are fundamental for this purpose. If we really want to do a radical job, for example on sustainability, we need to work from the point of view of the supply chain and not only of individual companies. This is why we have written a manifesto that we will share during COP26 in Glasgow (the United Nations conference on climate change to be held from October 31 to November 12, 2021, ed.), precisely because the Federation’s commitment is to set goals and give companies the tools to achieve them. Not only to large companies that already have excellent tools, but especially to small ones that are the fertile ground on which we need to work. The Salone is the most important moment of the entire sector because it represents the ground for comparison. New brands are identified here, the entire design community meets, and so it must be a virtuous example.

How does the Salone relate to the urban and social fabric of Milan and how do you deal with the issue of security?
It is very important to work as a team, looking for mutual points of contact, working on common themes. At the moment, one of the most important themes is that of safety linked to the pandemic and the organization of such a large event. Through the Prefecture we have set up a permanent working table with all the city realities to help us in a continuous confrontation with the organization of this week of September. This is just one example of how we can work together. Then, we must remember the role that the Salone has always had in relation to the city: an engine that activates countless events and moments of cultural exchange; a real economic engine. It can then be an opportunity to rethink the spaces of the community.

Have you already outlined a vision or an action plan for the coming years? What will be your first steps?
I believe in teamwork. The Board of Directors of which I am a part is made up of many entrepreneurs who are the mirror of a multifaceted fabric of companies: I don’t believe in a single man in charge. There is a structure made up of great professionals to work with. The challenges are those I mentioned earlier and one of them is digital. We have recently launched a new platform that is slowly taking shape. Then I think that the Salone needs to improve its communication, it needs to be more contemporary and fresh. The magic that happens during those days must be able to reverberate online 365 days a year. After that, the Salone must be the place where issues related to the living of private and public spaces are discussed.

How has the role of design changed since the pandemic began?
We have rediscovered living and the value of the objects we surround ourselves with. As a sector, we have the responsibility to seize this moment in which the quality of furniture becomes important once again and we must convey this to the new generations.

Your study path is out of the box, especially if we think of your role as marketing and communication director in Porro, the family company. You didn’t choose Business Administration at Bocconi or Design at Politecnico of Milan but Scenography at the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera. How will this artistic background influence your tenure?
Theater for me was a great ground on which to learn teamwork, where information always had to be shared, where the work of everyone, from the seamstress to the Viennese singer, was fundamental and no one could do without the other. The same thing happens at the Salone del Mobile, with great architects working side by side with artisans and technicians to create installations of the highest quality. The whole world comes to see not only the product but also the setting because it is an experience of the highest level. April 2022 will be an unmissable opportunity to raise the bar even higher.

Supersalone, la parete attrezzata di Andrea Caputo che sostituisce i tradizionali stand
Supersalone, la parete attrezzata di Andrea Caputo che sostituisce i tradizionali stand

How will you respond to the inevitable controversy on the unsustainability of set production that come to life and is discarded after just 5 days?
The Supersalone will give a strong signal in this sense because all the wood that will be used will be 100% recycled. Aluminium structures by their very nature enter into a circular economy flow. The entire area linked to the schools is set up with concrete blocks that can then be reused. We want to give other set-up structures a second life as well. It is clear that this transition is much more feasible within a reduced edition such as the Supersalone, but a more complex issue concerns the real Salone del Mobile in full force: it will be a transition that will require time and the intelligence of all. It has to be said, then, that the fact that a setting is able to give an added value, that is, that of space, adds value and when something produces value (even intangible value) it should not be questioned. There is a definition by the philosopher Silvano Petrosino according to which "to inhabit is to cultivate and to guard": one cannot only be a guardian but also a cultivator! When we talk about sustainability, we must do so by making profound changes that, however, take into account what exists and do not discard a priori what is there. It takes time to do this because it’s not a makeup job.

Do you have a dream that you would like to realize as President?
I’ll think about it and get back to you (laughing). It’s already a dream to be able to work and give added value to such an important event that has so much history.

Opening image:
Triennale di Milano, presentation of the Supersalone 2021. Photo Gianluca DiIoia

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