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Italian Execs to Wall St.: Make Something Useful Already!

By turns testy, reproachful, defensive and self-congratulatory, Italian executives took the stage at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design last night to insure America that, despite the wilting economy, in Milan, the furniture show will still go on.

i Saloni

By turns testy, reproachful, defensive and self-congratulatory, Italian executives took the stage at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design last night to insure America that, despite the wilting economy, in Milan, the furniture show will still go on. Along the way, they couldn’t resist throwing brickbats at Wall Street, pointing out that if the U.S.’s profligate and irresponsible bankers would stop just futzing with money and do something useful — like make a chair or sofa, like they do — we wouldn’t all be in this predicament.

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Taking aim at both real estate flippers and those who enabled them, Carlo Guglielmi, president of Cosmit, the organization that puts on the Milan Furniture Fair, the world’s biggest, said, “Our country prefers industry to finance, work to speculation. Life depends on the ability to create something. No one can prove to me that a piece of paper or a check can give you the same satisfaction as a beautiful garment or a chair.”

While noting that the recession had certainly reached even their little corner of northern Italy, the three took pains to insist that Saloni Internationale del Mobile 2009 would be as big and glamorous as ever. More than 2,500 exhibitors are expected to show some 12,000 products over the vast 220K square meters of the Milan Fairgrounds. The event kicks off on April 22 and runs through the 27th. Still, despite the happy talk, there were signs that even I Saloni (“The Event”) wasn’t immune to the larger forces affecting the global economy. Asked about reports that three big Italian manufacturers, Cassina, Cappellini, and Poltrona Frau had pulled out of the fair, Guglielmi (below, at right), speaking via a simultaneous translation, sputtered a bit, flailing for the right words to frame this striking defection.

Milan Furniture Fair

“Those companies prefer savings to passion,” Guglielmi said, noting that the three companies, which are held by the Charme Group, an Italian luxury goods manufacturer, had hoped to land a deal to supply a new hotel in the UAE. When that failed, they pulled out of the fair. Then he added: “Poltrona Frau’s global sales lately were made mostly of seats for cars. Since this sector is feeling the crisis, the company is undergoing a difficult period. They thought it was more important to invest in other things.” It was not, he added, how the Italians like to respond to such things, noting that in the past, some great design has emerged during hard times. “You need to be willing to get down and dirty,” he said. “But not dirty like in finance.” (zing!) And, he said, there are waiting lists for booths, and the hotels are full, with people having to book rooms outside the city. “If we had more space, we could host even more,” he said.

The group also revealed this year’s special artist, Cerith Wyn Evans, whose work melds light and sculpture. Evans is most famous for his chandeliers which blink out poetry in Morse code. Bloomberg headquarters in New York has a large black glass Evans chandelier that sputters poetry over the flashing terminals. For this show, Evans has created a 7 meter wide neon sculpture (see below) that forms a kind of luminescent cloud. It was, he said, inspired by “the trajectory of a firework, the scan of a mobile telephone, the vapours of a jet stream,” and the “bafflingly chaotic ways” of a firefly.

Cerith Wyn Evans

About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.

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