Milan Report: What’s the Future for Design?

On the eve of the furniture fair, attendees wet a finger to the wind. Will it sizzle or fizzle?

The first wave of buyers, bloggers and flacks stepped off their all-night Alitalia flights a few hours ago in preparation for the 48th Milan Furniture Fair which opens Wednesday. These early birds will have time to settle in with espresso and speculate over how severely the global downturn might sour the week ahead. The design field’s stocktaking is upon us.


The fair started in 1961 as a trade event to promote the venerable Italian furniture industry, but in recent years it has grown into a high-blown designapalooza with hundreds of parties and marketing spectacles for all manner of products from Turin to Tokyo–prefab homes, textiles, and the new genre of design-art. Elegance and daring could be found seemingly in every palazzo courtyard, and crowds thronged the cobblestone streets of the Zona Tortona looking for the next free Pironi.


But the giddy fascination with design that fueled the fair for so many years may be dissipating. Much of the world’s furniture is made in Asia, and the global slowdown threatens to return the fair its roots as a conventional trade show. “The years 2008 and 2009 will go down in the history books as one of the worst selling periods of all time for the furniture industry,” Warren Shoulberg, editor of the trade magazine HFN wrote earlier this month. As an indication of how bad things may be, Cappellini, Poltrona Frau and Cassina, three of the biggest names in Italian furniture, opted out of the fair’s official venue, confining themselves instead to their downtown showrooms.


On the other hand, Milan is still the premier showcase for new design. Hotel rooms are reportedly all but sold out and Cosmit, the organizer, says every square foot of booth space is rented out to 1,500 exhibitors, with a waiting list of almost 300 companies. Other design capitals have cultivated their own shows, most notably 100% Design in London and ICFF in New York, but Milan is still where important new work debuts. For bloggers and editors it’s the best place to look for tipping points and one-upmanship.

Last year, amidst the recessionary onset, I asked a designer if she expected the fair’s mood to darken. She looked at me as if I were crazy. “The show must go on,” she said.

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