Real and conceptual design from Salone del Mobile Milan

Milan once again transformed into a city-wide celebration of visual culture for the Salone Internazionale del Mobile (12 to 17 April). In its 55th year, some 300,000 people arrived here last week with a shared passion for visual culture and ready to soak in the creative spirit. The main buzz is increasingly outside the main exhibition hall at Fuorisalone, which sees boutiques, smaller galleries, crumbling old palazzos around pockets of this vibrant city exhibit work with a more conceptual focus and by less established designers.

We love the extra layer Milan’s dynamic architectural backdrop offers too. Few urban settings have such a collage of architecture – decorative courtyards, charming palazzos, confident narcissistic fascists architecture, gritty post war brutalism, and contemporary builds all seem to co-habit peacefully.

There is a lot to take in, yet certain themes stood out. For instance, many designers used the occasion of Milan to respond to our ever decreasing living spaces in the urban sprawl. There were ideas presented on modular furniture, flexible spaces work/living environments, and ways of connecting for new communities to evolve.

Vitra and Italian architect Carlo Ratti collaborated on Lift-Bit, an adaptable sofa made of a series of stools that can be changed into an armchair, a bed, a sitting room or auditorium via a simple app.

Elsewhere, Mini explored current and future urban life, with some simple yet intriguing ideas on affordable and attractive compact housing that offers a balanced private/communal living arrangement. The carmaker worked with Yokohama architect ON Design, experts in micro-housing and collaborative living, and engineering firm Arup to create the Mini Living – Do Disturb installation in the Tortona design district.

The four 30-square-metre apartments are housed on single a floor of a residential building to form a micro-neighbourhood of likeminded residents. The living spaces are kept private whilst basic assets – kitchen, laundry room, utilities – are shared through a clever wall mechanism of rotating shelves that push out into a communal space.

Other overriding themes included exploring other realities and the unexpected. We came across an intriguing exhibition in the Brera district by students at the Swiss school ECAL. When Objects Dream challenges our common perceptions of everyday objects so a book, a toaster, even a simple broom offer another virtual world through headsets that transport us to a completely unexpected place for perhaps a way of understanding other perspectives, other views.

Lexus also addressed notions of anticipation in Milan. The Japanese car marque commissioned Amsterdam design studio Formafantasma for an inspiring trio of installations in a converted Tortona metal factory. The Lexus LF-FC fuel-cell car was the muse here, as the designer worked with Michelin star chef Yoji Tokuyoshi to explore the fusion of machine, craft and tradition in the context of this sustainable hydrogen powered fuel-cell car.

One installation sees a large metal frame hold 7,200 delicate flowing transparent threads, referencing early Japanese mechanised textile making. As the loom-like machine pulls and releases the threads, once stretched, they subtly reveal the three-dimensional outline of the LF-FC vehicle. It is meditative standing here observing the dance of machine, technology and craft.

In another room Formafantasma explores the scope of hydrogen technology to power a kinetic light installation. The four semi circular stainless steel sculptures, which resemble off-centre clocks, are mounted on a reflective pink platform that hides the power source. They too move mindfully to to a choreographed dance of sorts.

The sense of otherness is enhanced with an unexpected tasting menu offered by Yoji Tokuyoshi that is centred on clear water, a symbolic gesture to the only material emitted by hydrogen fuel cell technology.

The entries at the Lexus Design Awards also looked into the idea of the unexpected. The ambitious annual project supports emerging international talent and attracts young designers from all the around the world offering the chance for the winning designs to be made into prototypes.

Ideas offered by the finalists included packaging material made from seaweed, an instinctive children’s toy set, modular clothing that changes shape according to fashion, and a clock that visualises the present by marking the passing of time. We will be reporting more on these in detail later.

Other designers in Milan took on the challenge of working with natural forms as a reaction to digitalisation. Touch Base by Design Academy Eindhoven looked at tactile interactions working with a range of unusual natural materials like nettle textile, pine needles, and ceramics made from leftover dairy produce.

In Tortona, Toyota presented Setsuna, a functioning roadster made entirely of wood, conceptualised to explore our relationship with our cars, our memories, history, and the physical ageing process of the vehicle.

Made of 86 handmade wooden panels chosen for to their weight, durability and stiffness, Setsuna was assembled using the traditional okuriari Japanese wood joinery method. Japanese Cedar makes up the exterior for the refinement of its wood grain and its flexibility, whilst the chassis is made of Birch, strong Japanese Zelkova constitutes the floor, and the seats are made of smooth Castor Aralia.

There are ecological benefits here too since the modular panels can be exchanged when needed rather than having to replace the whole body. The idea is that the wood will evolve through history, change colour and texture with time, perhaps each generation will leave their mark by carving their signature in the wood. Time, therefore, adds value; makes the car into a living object.

Nargess Banks

Watch this gentle animation on the concept behind Sestuna here.

See highlights from the Salone in picture as published in Wallpaper* here.

Find out more about the Salone Internazionale del Mobile for 2017 here.

Read out previous Salone reports here.

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