The most popular sport in April in Milan is stating that you can turn anything into a must-go event during Design Week by means of communication (from military-style newsletter campaigns, to piles of info guides, or the casual abundance of brands featuring not always recognisable products). We wondered whether there is also space to speak about what opposes the blurred mass of people who flock to the Salone del Mobile, namely, the absentees: the ones who won't be present.
We asked designers which and how many of their projects failed to make it to this year's carousel, and why. We asked if it was true that the awkward attempts to show off — with which some companies reacted to the struggling financial situation in recent years — have been followed by a more restrained attitude, and an honest tightening of the production belt. We also sought to discover which of the companies that will be present at the Salone are focusing on quantity, which are focusing on quality, and when will these two factors be combined or pitted against each other.
Had we received sufficient assistance from the designers, this experiment might have produced a catalogue of inexistent objects. However, as could be expected, none of the designers we contacted would confess names nor origin of their unclassified projects, some in self-defence, some out of respect for their partner-companies... (you never know!) And some because, when all is said and done, "I will make more of an impact if I attend but stay on the sidelines". Yet, our survey offers a reflection on the recent past, a strategy for survival in the present, and even a prediction of their fears and hopes for the future. Together, we tried to lift the magician's curtain, but some of the secrets behind the tricks will remain — as they should — undisclosed.
It was when chatting to their partner-companies (Foscarini, Normann Copenhagen, Colombo Design and Kristalia, among others) that design duo Lucidi Pevere developed a piercing view on what they have seen happening over the last year, unlike previous ones: "The second semester of 2011 seems to have gone quite well, and this optimism probably channelled some investment into new, demanding products. Unfortunately, nearly all our clients have seen a reverse trend in the first quarter of 2012. The January-March period seems not to have been very exciting. Generally, companies are still very cautious and, despite the large number of innovations, compared with 2009 and 2010 there have been very limited investments, ones that can be amortised without the need for large volumes."
Alongside quantity, we should perhaps dwell on the technical and production quality of the designs we shall be seeing at the Salone del Mobile. Stefano Giovannoni, a regular and successful presence at the Salone and on the trans-type (from chairs to mobile phones) and transoceanic (from Italy to Japan) design scenes has, along with the faithful companies with which he has been working for years, paid the price of the restraints on the costs dictated by technical supremacy, which have forced them to set aside some of the results of this research in exchange for "easier" and less painful designs. "In terms of investment, producing innovative, quality products imposes costs that many traditional companies in the sector are unable to meet," he says. "The amount of products around during the Salone is increasing, and this attracts an increasing number of companies of all sizes, countries and types, along with the Italian furniture companies".
Apart from the foreign companies that flock to the Salone, quintessential Italian designer Giulio IacchettiCasamania that becomes a point of reference, and every Globo that opens a showroom in Corso Monforte, there are many leaders in the same production sectors that seem to see default around the corner. So the gaps left (sometimes by famous names) are immediately filled by traditional design outsiders, and the whole Salone carnival gets going again."
A different view is expressed by designer Francisco Gomez Paz, who presents only two projects this year. This continues his personal trend of recent years, one of which was temporarily postponed for research and further exploration. Francisco sees no sign of weakness on the companies' part, quite the contrary. "Although it is true that some major brands are making more selective and limiting choices," he says, "I see this as positive and encouraging. Longer times do not necessarily improve the quality of work but the mad rushes dictated by the Salone are certainly enemies of good practice. It is never sure that you are the only one in the world working on a particular idea, and you can find a project at the Salone which anticipates your own project. This can be frustrating and it is the only reason why I accelerate certain projects more than necessary."
The other 2011 Compasso D'Oro winner, Odoardo Fioravanti, presented eight designs in 2011, but this year will focus on another area of his work (more writing, participation and teaching, fewer objects). "I see this as a time of change in my work that coincides with a transformation in the economic scenario," Fioravanti says. "Companies still have extremely variable results, which change from one quarter to another and produce zigzag charts; they are still looking around slightly scared. After the Compasso D'Oro, with my designs, I am trying to push a more complex language with the great names in Italian manufacturing and this necessarily means extending product development from a few months to 18-20 months. It takes the patience of Job."
A seraphic attitude, in terms of vocation and approach, is calmly conveyed by Alberto Meda, who this year is in step with the times and has decided to produce more questions than products. "Does what we are doing make sense? Has it got a space, a future?," he asks. "The only real sustainability that we industrial designers can focus on is an overall one that limits material wastage and extends product life. But this is a splendid and unpredictable alchemy that we must achieve with the companies. This year, I am not taking anything new to the Salone, apart from the Luceplan lamp for Rizzatto and an update of my 2011 chair for Alias. That will do; I do not feel the same anxiety to be there as other designers or younger designers. Assuming, of course, that the Salone is still a worthwhile way of making a name for yourself…"
On the production side, by contrast, other options are being taken, opting for reactions and remedies that range from doing a great deal to doing less, and this must not be ignored when analysing the state of the art. We shall mention at least two.
One is the less than admirable practice by which certain companies exploit the Salone del Mobile to promote a totally hypothetical list of new products. The success of these is tested in virtual catalogues at the Salone, and only later do the companies decide whether or not to proceed with production. These designs have an inverse destiny to those mentioned above. Despite being seen by Salone visitors and printed in design magazines, they might never reach the shelves.
The other is the path taken by projects which deliberately choose to avoid the standard company and distribution channels. This year, with a commotion that, at times, seems slightly desperate, these products inherit the label of "self-production" from various previous experiences. They present themselves in a less casual, more official way, either under the direct guidance of the city of Milan, or directed by curators from the journalism and magazine world — rarely with a design background.
And what about the designers? Betrayed by the companies, crushed by production and cheated by their own designs, either they become provocative products themselves or they stop, observe and go back to the drawing board.
Have a good 2012 Salone del Mobile.