Decoding Design

At the Milan Furniture Fair, high design mixes with big business

At the Milan Furniture Fair, high design mixes with big business

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In Milan, from April 17-22, corporate brands such as Mercedes-Benz, DuPont, and Samsung will unveil imaginative new projects alongside chic designers at the Salone Internazionale del Mobile.

From April 17-22 in Milan, some of the world's best-known brands, from Samsung to Mercedes-Benz, will showcase adventurous new products alongside playful products by young, unknown designers, chic furniture makers, and glamorous artists. The occasion? The fifty-first edition of the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, also known as the Milan Furniture Fair. Throughout the duration of the trade show, satellite events also take place around the industrial Italian city. To many in attendance, the time is also considered to be Milan's "Design Week."

More than 300,000 visitors are expected to attend the Furniture Fair, including the general public. If you've ever been to this sprawling event, you'll notice that it's much more than a design convention: families of all backgrounds who live in Milan, as well as tourists who aren't design experts themselves make the trek to Milan's fair grounds, on the outskirts of the city. There, they witness elaborate, gallery-style booths set up by 2,500 exhibitors (this number includes the official "satellite" fairs of the Salone). Last year, 32,000 people attended on the fair's first day open to the public, when the doors were opened for those who may not be in the furniture business. This year, for the first time, the organizers are adding another day for general viewing because of the fair's popularity among those not in the design trade.

TOUCH-SCREEN KITCHENS AND CAR-INSPIRED CHAIRS

Some of the most anticipated products to be revealed are from big-name corporations. Samsung, for instance, will showcase its touch-screen technology within a futuristic kitchen environment designed by Italy's Toncelli Kitchens by Experientia, an "experiential design" firm. The Prisma kitchen will feature Samsung's table-top computing tech--meaning home chefs can pull up their favorite recipe texts, photos, and videos directly on a counter-top surface. The Prisma kitchen also has a tablet-computer dock, too--just in case cooks need yet another computer screen to consult.

Chairs from Mercedes-Benz Style, to be unveiled in Milan

Mercedes-Benz, a division of Daimler Group, is scheduled to unveil its first line of furniture for homes, not the interiors of vehicles, at this year's fair. These include elegant tables and chairs that reflect the clean lines of Mercedes-Benz sedans and sports cars. They will be marketed under the label of Mercedes-Benz Style and were created in collaboration with the Formitalia Luxury Group, an Italian manufacturer. Some of the shapes reference seats in current Mercedes-Benz research vehicles, according to the company.

DuPont will present a new line of colors for its Corian material, used for countertops, via an exhibition of sculptural design objects using Corian in unusual ways. It's a creative marketing exercise that required the designers that DuPont recruited for the project to push the material into innovative shapes. Not to mention possible new commercial contexts.

Revealing fresh product lines and collaborations in Milan during the Salone Internazionale del Mobile makes sense for big businesses looking to appeal to "taste makers," from style journalists to wealthy globe-trotting design fans, from retailers to trend researchers. The fair is an internationally recognized destination event that's widely considered the place to witness new design ideas first. In fact, many of the pieces you'll see at other global design exhibits throughout the rest of 2012, such as the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York next month, will likely have made their debuts in April in Milan, judging from years past.

INSPIRATION FOR FUTURE PRODUCTS

In Italy this week, smart business people will pay attention to what lesser-known designers and companies might present in Milan, too, both at the official Furniture Fair as well as in art galleries, museums, and other venues. Doing so would be a wise move to get a sense of (and even recruit) cutting-edge talent, as well as to scope out new trends in product design and materials research.

Some must-see presentations in Milan are likely to be a pop-up manufacturing site and restaurant at Milan's National Museum of Science and Technology, created by popular industrial designer Tom Dixon; and a display by the hip design company Laikingland, which creates art objects that move. The exhibition in Milan will feature kinetic sculptures by sought-after designers such as Maarten Baas (who has shown at New York's Museum of Modern Art) and Tord Boontje (who created a limited-edition PC for Hewlett-Packard during the company's successful years in the late 2000s when Mark Hurd was CEO).

There are of course hundreds of other imaginative projects that are likely to capture the eyes and minds of visitors to Milan during the Furniture Fair. They're relevant to the worlds of business and innovation, as they will likely influence other, more mass-market chairs, kitchen environments, and a variety of other products in months and years to come.

[Via Core77, WallpaperCosmit, Daimler.com, and others]

Images: 2011 Milan Furniture Fair shots, Saverio Lombardi Vallauri; Mercedes-Benz Style chairs, Daimler

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure