Milan Report: The Hand Strikes Back

At this year’s furniture fair, the stitched and artisanal rally against mass production.

When the Milan Furniture Fair opens next week in the preposterously grand fairgrounds on the city outskirts, 200,000 designers, editors and buyers with iPhones at the ready will prowl in buddy-system teams among half a dozen exhibition halls crammed with polycarbonate chairs, laser cut tables and other mass-produced furniture. Northern Italy prides itself on its furniture industry, and selling it is what this fair is largely about.

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But in the absence of a driving design movement, visitors will see a conspicuous increase in stitching, embroidery and other hand-crafted items as designers react against mass-market globalism and tune into a new appreciation for homespun virtues. Tiring of stylistic tricks with a glossy sheen, the design community is gravitating to simpler qualities with a personal touch, like the traditionally woven poufs (above) by Donna Wilson.

cookware by tord boontje

The trend has been quietly building for some time, as designers’ passports indicate. Over the last two years Patty Johnson made papier-mâché vases out of tobacco with Haitian women; Tord Boontje designed cookware (above) made in Colombia, Guatemala and Brazil; and Stephen Burks, an African-American designer, helped develop hand-production methods with craftsmen in South America and Africa. He will get a coveted spot to show off some off his findings next week when his installation of African objects and furnishings opens in the Moroso showroom on Milan’s via Pontaccio. More about that later.


I spotted an inkling of the craft revival at the Milan fair two years ago where newcomers Nipa Doshi and Jonathan Levien, an Anglo-Indian couple based in London, showed an Indian daybed (above), known as a charpoy. It was made by Moroso, an old-line Italian furniture firm, and embroidered by Indian seamstresses.

hella tapestry

Earlier this year Hella Jongerius, the Dutch designer, made three textile wall hanging designs for Ikea depicting animals drawn from Swedish fairytales. The hangings are woolen felt, printed cotton and polyester stitched together in India under the auspices of Unicef.


Lastly, Patricia Urquiola, a Spanish designer who has been among the fair’s foremost stars over the last five years or so, clearly anticipated the fashion for handiwork and worked up her own rendition, a modular sofa called Fergana with fabrics woven in the ancient weaving techniques from Uzbekistan.

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