Crisis is supposed to kill irony, but irony nonetheless endures at the Milan Furniture Fair even as the industry slides into a low-grade panic over the downturn. The fair, which opened today, has been divided in recent years between rationalists like Konstantin Grcic, who view furniture as a straight engineering challenge, and an ironic faction, which includes just about every designer with a Dutch name.
Team Irony appears to have selected the Bible for special attention this year. Religion in all its iconic variety may now be in the mix because, for obvious reasons, design's sardonic streak is getting darker. Or it may simply be a shrewd maneuver for notice, like rock stars who deliberately cause scandals for their own promotional benefit. Whatever the case, Job Smeets and Nynke Tynagel, the Dutch design duo known as Studio Job, have put aside their droll treatment of luxury goods from previous years and produced stained-glass windows with explicit Christian imagery, including a baby and Virgin Mary, mixed with extraneous objects, like rocket ships, lobsters and soap bubbles.
They're also showing enormous rusty cast-iron services with a vaguely ancient Aramaic posture that will be produced by Royal Tichelaar Makkum, the Dutch porcelain manufacturer. To top it all off, the collection, called Gospel, is shown at the Chiostri di San Simpliciano, a cloister attached to one of Milan's oldest churches.
Not far away, at the ancient Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio, is an exhibition called Prophets & Penitents: Confessions of a Chair. Sponsored by Damn, an art and design magazine published in Brussels, the show contains no religious imagery. The notion of confession is just a set-up, like a party theme, for exhibiting 30 prototypes for chairs, some of which are in production. Though most of them, including the Identity Disorder chair by Arik Levy (above), will never be seen by the public outside the Basicila. What unites them in the show is the organizer's conceit that sharing prototypes is like baring one's soul in the confession booth. Beneath those layers of irony may lie a kernel of sincerity as design begs for forgiveness for past excess.