The Milan Moment

A hopeful sign of change appears from Japan, via Finland, as 21st-century furniture designers wait in the wings.

For a few days every April, design editors, writers, retailers, and designers—thousands of us, from all over the world—make our annual pilgrimage to the Milan furniture fair. Though much of the action takes place in a futuristic fairground designed by Massimiliano Fuksas, located on the outskirts of the city, Milan itself brims with activity. Former palazzos, industrial buildings, showrooms, and even the streets overflow with furniture and furnishings. Though the blasé press complains about not seeing anything new (and then writes voluminous articles about all the new things they saw), the fair is a feast of inspiration, from museum-quality shows to flashy displays of everything from Italian flatware to Japanese textiles.

This year, with the economy tanking at home and equally dire news circulating around the globe, I was relieved to feel the same upbeat mood that has brought me back to Milan for three decades. But even here, in this hotbed of creativity, I saw too much head-in-the-sand work. Colorful African-pattern upholstery, plastic forms with decorative flourishes, and parametric designs in light fixtures were great to look at but left me wanting more. I was hoping to see less elaboration and more innovation.

Though the “green” trend, which began to show up in Milan some years ago, has continued to evolve into sophisticated and elegant products such as Valcucine’s recyclable glass-and-aluminum kit­chens, I saw little evidence of the systems thinking that truly sustainable design requires. Most of the green design was reminiscent of the first, awkward attempts to be earth-friendly 20 years ago.

I did find one exception that gave me hope, and it came from Japan, via Finland. The architect Shigeru Ban—who used a composite material called ProFi (plastic and recycled paper from UPM, a paper company) two years ago at the fair in his memorable building for Artek—now showed off the same material on a much smaller scale. He designed an elegant L-shaped bracket that ships flat (at minimal cost) and is easily assembled into chairs, tables, and benches. The composite material also makes attractive, high-performance floor tiles.

Ban’s experiments in architecture, now brought to furniture, were reminiscent of Alvar Aalto’s work, which revealed a humanistic approach, whatever the scale: grand concert halls, elegant chairs, beautifully conceived vases. In fact, the Ban furniture reminded me of Aalto’s stool, among the many bent-plywood and laminated pieces the Fin­nish architect designed decades ago for the company he helped fund. The historic continuity that Ban saw at Artek made me appreciate his new design even more.

His thoughtful work connects us to the manufacturer’s tradition of innovation and represents the kind of approach I’m yearning to see more of today: research into new, environmentally sensitive materials; updated manufacturing techniques; energy-saving strategies for fabrication and shipping; and clever marketing that tells a great story without the hype. So I must ask the nagging question: When will we see more brilliantly simple products, designs that begin to look like the 21st century?

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