The 6 Brands That Got It Right At Milan Design Week

Branded experiences can be cringeworthy marketing stunts. Fortunately, these companies managed to avoid the trap.


The Milan Furniture Fair, Salone del Mobile, started 55 years ago as an industry trade show. It has since morphed into a citywide design festival about consumer products and experimental design. It is also a place for companies to flaunt their design cred–sometimes to their own peril. The great design journalist Alice Rawsthorn wrote last year that some installations have “unintentionally reinforced the popular stereotype of design as a superficial, stylistic tool steeped in consumerism.” This year, however, many companies hit their stride and staged installations that did what good design does: told thoughtful stories. These were the best ones we visited.



This year marks the fourth annual Lexus Design Awards. To complement the awards’ experimental design projects, Japanese automaker enlisted Formafantasma, an Italian design duo based in Amsterdam, to orchestrate installations that spoke to Lexus’s technical and stylistic innovations. Under the theme of “Anticipation,” Formafantasma rigged a machine with colored thread to reveal the silhouette of Lexus’s new concept car as it ascends. The idea brings viewers into the moment a design is conceived. In another section of the installation, the designers built kinetic sculptures powered by the automaker’s hydrogen fuel cell technology. What the brand didn’t do was force-feed statements about being committed to design or show car after car after car. The big-budget execution was elegant, informative, and more about experience than being told a pre-canned design story.


For design week, Toyota played up the emotional attachment people have to their cars rather than an innovation angle. The company commissioned an all-wood roadster dubbed the Setsuna and wanted to convey the idea that cars–to some–are heirlooms. (Though let’s be honest: The reality of getting a hand-me-down car from your grandparents probably means a clunker, not a vintage classic.) The material was unexpected and judging from the long wait to see it, a crowdpleaser.


There wasn’t a single garment of clothing in apparel brand COS’s installation–its fourth annual project for Milan Design Week–but the space communicated what the architecturally inspired brand is all about. Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, a personal inspiration to COS’s designers, built an interactive light forest.

“When we approach the collaborators, we always look to who we admire and who inspires our work but also who we share some values and aesthetics with,” Martin Andersson, head of menswear at COS, says. “It’s easy to give them carte blanche to be themselves and to create.”

The gorgeous installation was composed of motion-activated spotlights that responded to people flowing through a mirrored room.


“We talk a lot about how things feel in our collection,” Karin Gustafsson, COS’s head of womenswear, says. “How they feel to wear, how the fabric is to touch, the sound it makes. We really think so much more about the experience and the function of things than just the garment [itself]. That’s also why we like these types of installations–they really make you feel something.”


A fair celebrating furniture and interior design isn’t the most obvious place for an athletic brand, but Nike managed to pull it off under the theme of “Nature in Motion.” Paying homage to its history of innovation, the brand displayed some of its early 3-D printed shoe prototypes. Nike also invited six designers and design studios to explore the theme of movement. Some of the designers incorporated Nike’s Flyknit material into their pieces, such as Martino Gamper’s drumset and Bertjan Pot’s seating series.


Watching paint dry is boring as hell, so what’s a paint company to do to engage people? Simple: create the perfect backdrop for designers. Jotun, a Norwegian paint company, sponsored Structure, an exhibition of contemporary Norwegian design that included furniture, utensils, lighting, and decorative objects set atop prismatic pedestals painted, naturally, in their product.

Yoox, a luxury fashion e-commerce brand, invited contemporary designers to create works using traditional artisanal techniques such as enameled copper, alabaster carving, and lost-wax bronze casting. In addition to exhibiting the completed work, Yoox also filmed the laborious process behind each one. Does a papercraft house by Michele De Lucchi have much to do with selling a dress? Not directly. But the brands Yoox sells–Givenchy, Chloé, Dolce & Gabbana–are descended from couture fashion houses that are all about delicate handiwork and a sense that something was made by an individual.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.