A/D/O by MINI | Milan design week 2019

Journal

Installations

Milan: The Design Week Marathon

Lily Saporta Tagiuri explores Milan design week 2019, and finds that the festival still largely prioritizes style over substance.

I have walked a total of 51.5 miles, in and out of Milanese courtyards, into spectacular palazzos, around repurposed factories, through crowds spilling off slender sidewalks, and I am somehow still going. My dedication to continue on and see it all feels like I am searching for prizes on a citywide scavenger hunt, trying to find something unforgettable and profound. This week the city is saturated with creative energy and the standard for amazement becomes high, but in this blur there are a few moments and themes that stand out.

The Fuorisalone in Milan, where I have spent the last five days, is a dizzying series of design showcases that happen in various districts around the city. Impeccable palazzos and chic apartments become the venues, and even if you aren’t stimulated by the work on show, being privy to the architecture is precious. The annual event was born out of the Salone del Mobile, a classical showcase of furniture now hosted in a town-sized expo center northwest of the city. In the past – before I had ever been – this week was strictly about objects and furniture, but now design encompasses more. On the backdrop of global, political and environmental turmoil – or even locally, in the context of the Triennale museum exhibition Broken Nature curated in part by Paola Antonelli – design has a growing responsibility to perform critically and consciously. No longer do chairs designed by major icons sit unquestioned as monuments of culture.  

Material explorations on show at Alcova, located in a Milanese former textile factory

While technically separate from the Fuorisalone, Broken Nature was active with talks and events throughout the week. The show brings 22 designers, material scientists, and creators into conversations around climate change and socio-political futures, to question the anthropocentric focus of design. I left the density of the Triennale, considering the glowing algae micro-filament vessels of Atelier LumaAlexandra Daisy Ginsberg's scent of an ancient flower, images of the submerged Svalbard Global Seed Vault, feeling overwhelmed by the topic but ready to engage in the discourse. This show is not complete in itself, but serves as a jumping-off point for lectures and new work, and is a good example of how design can act as a tool to test new materials, to expose unheard narratives, and to provoke. It has raised the standards, and in comparison, the presentations elsewhere in the city, of classical objects made from toxic materials, have the effect of appearing devoid of an essential outlook, outdated and, even worse, shallow.

In an effort to join or spur a political conversation, Italian design icon Gaetano Pesce was asked by Cristina Tajani to create a piece for the design week. A giant flesh-colored version of his 1970s Up chair, sits in front of the grand Duomo, shaped like a female form bolted to a giant ball and chain. The oversized model is pierced by arrows and surrounded by kitsch wild animal heads on stakes. Designed to symbolize a critique of the patriarchy, instead, it has incited protests by Italian feminist groups and the Gorilla girls, who feel like it upholds the culture of objectification and violence against women. Red paint thrown on by art activist Cristina Donati Meyer streaks the front of the piece like a bolt of menstrual blood. Pesce’s design definitely serves as a conversation starter, but only because it blunders through the political landscape, parading as a thoughtful addition, but exposing the absence of legitimate engagement.

In contrast, much of the work I have seen over the course of the week maintains an almost apolitical stance, serving as a photogenic backdrop for stylish crowds drinking the ubiquitous glowing orange spritzes and in a lot of ways it feels like a giant open party. Time and money is pumped into making the work shown just for this fleeting week, with uncertain payoffs. Some projects achieve a legend-like status, but most just come and go, adding to the urgency of consumption.

Alessandra Roveda knitted the contents of an entire house for Missoni's Home Sweet Home exhibit

Trying to rise above the noise, many companies and studios opt for full immersion, and use their installations and objects as a means to explore new concepts and to experiment. As part of the increasing presence from the tech world, Samsung’s interactive installation Resonance allowed visitors to use their voice, breath, touch, and bodies to trigger the movement of kinetic sculptures – offering a fun playground while showcasing the company’s technology. I witnessed or experienced a charming pre-lunch serenade by a stranger singing into one of the kinetic pieces, one of the best types of unintended outcomes of the piece, while friends I ran into complained about experiencing the same piece as a zoo of selfies. Conversely, Sony’s immersive piece Affinity in Autonomy took a more critical approach and problematized the company’s own technology through questioning the societal role of AI. We walked through a series of rooms filled with robot puppies, eerie motion-sensing spheres, and caged digital objects that react emotionally to the presence of a visitor. Throughout we were prompted to contemplate our relationship to these emotive non-living creatures. I didn’t feel like they were selling me anything, but instead asking me to grapple with a technology that is becoming integrated into our lives. I appreciated the risk to present the nuances of the technology.

I never made it through the hours of queue to Google, but after reading reports like Dezeen’s that said “Google offers ‘scientific proof that design is important’ with A Space for Being,” and seeing images of stark nordic-inspired furniture paired with the company’s hardware products, I didn’t feel like I’d missed out. Instead, less-hyped shows like the sound installations for Yamaha’s Pulse simply encouraged visitors to have intimate and quirky moments, such as caressing a cello in a cozy nest-like bed. This wasn’t pretentious, and warmly illustrated relationships between musicians and their instruments. Many installations, such as Wang and Söderström and Kwangho Lee’s installation Tides for NOROO, used projected images, ambient music, and gaping spaces to try and grab attention amongst the crowds, but lacked an interactive element. There were many spaces that I would just walk into, clock, and then wander on unless they provoked some sort of conversation. Many projects try to strike a balance between photogenic – and therefore exportable – to the URL audience, and an experience that is enjoyable for the IRL visitor.

Yamaha's Pulse installation demonstrates the relationships between musicians and their instruments

Rather than the grand super gestures, it is the more intimate work that really resonates long term. For example, the Water Vase by Jolan van der Wiel, exhibited as part of Dutch Invertuals, is a vessel made of flowing water that creates the illusion of a solid form. The simplicity of the concept, and the modest use of material somehow pleased me. Another that I am still thinking about is the Sharp Collection by Royal College of Art students Rocco Giovannoni and Carlo Scanfertato, which used metal offcuts and old pieces from a Japanese knife-maker to create simple clean objects. These projects felt modest and interesting – a subtle break from the onslaught of overproduction found all over Milan this week.

Artisanal items displayed in a stone maze as part of Hermès, Spotlight On Materials

A need for calm thoughtful refuge made the exhibits designed by architecture and design studio Space Caviar some of top picks. At Nilufar Depot, giant inflatable rooms paid homage to 1960s performance architects Haus-Rucker-Co, designed for experiencing one by one. Among the other shows Space Caviar worked on, my favorite was the studio’s exhibit at Alcova. The day I went was rainy, and water flowed from the ceiling onto the works below. The venue is an old panettone factory where, like industrial lace, cracked ceilings are open to the elements, and rain dropped onto plants living amongst the work. There, the material exploration showcased was provocative. Among other beautiful and thoughtful presentations, Qwiston displayed Shelter – made from an outdoor fabric sewn from Bananatex, made with woven banana fibers. Also showing ingenuity, the New Material Award finalists included Basse Stigen’s objects that turned blood waste from the meat industry into dark moody objects, and Inge Slus’ Plasma Rock – a dark glass-like substance made from industrial waste broken down to its atomic elements and then fused together.

Laila Gohar creates food sculptures for Samsung's 24-hour kitchen

Other exhibits that elegantly stretched the use of materials are Nendo’s Shape of Gravity glass chairs for Wonderglass, which used gravity to generate graceful shapes out of thick glass slabs. Note Design Studio’s Formations show for Tarkett was hosted in the old Circolo Filologico Milanese library, where giant columns covered in recyclable rubber stood as totems to demonstrate the material’s potential. Meanwhile, Alessandra Roveda covered an entire house and all its objects with a rainbow knit for Missoni, as part of an exhibit called Home Sweet Home.

Overall, there was definitely a lot more content than substance, but I am leaving tired, inspired, and full of food for thought. Next year, I hope to see more work from the southern hemisphere in general, more experimental and engaging projects, and more confrontations between the old guard of traditional industrial design and the questioning, conscious designs that are emerging as the zeitgeist. But now, it’s time to rest my feet.

Text and photography by Lily Saporta Tagiuri.