For the design set, the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, aka the Milan Furniture Fair, is this week's place to see and be seen. But this year some of Italy's best known designers are showing less, attending only as spectators, or skipping the Salone all together. In an op-ed for Domus, Chiara Alessi talked shop with designers who won't be at the fair. The list of absentees includes past Compasso D'Oro (Italy's most prestigious design prize) winners and well established designers who collaborate with big name design houses. Alessi's survey offers reflections on the relationship between economic trends and the practice of design.
Getting products ready for the annual Salone takes a considerable amount of time, energy, and speed. The trend among this year's absentee designers is a return to figuring out what matters in design and searching for innovation, things that take time.
The renowned design team of Lucidi Pevere offer insights on the market over the last year:
"The second semester of 2011 seems to have gone quite well, and this optimism probably channelled some investment into new, demanding products. Unfortunately, nearly all our clients have seen a reverse trend in the first quarter of 2012. The January-March period seems not to have been very exciting. Generally, companies are still very cautious and, despite the large number of innovations, compared with 2009 and 2010 there have been very limited investments, ones that can be amortised without the need for large volumes."
In other words, companies are being pickier and also manufacturing smaller runs of products.
Other designers who refuse to give up technical and production quality miss deadlines for the Salone. The audience the Salone offers isn't worth the compromises the designers would have to make in order to get their projects made in time.
Designer Francisco Gomez Paz comments on the speed required to show at the fair and the possibility of someone else with products similar to his launching before him.
"Although it is true that some major brands are making more selective and limiting choices," he says, "I see this as positive and encouraging. Longer times do not necessarily improve the quality of work but the mad rushes dictated by the Salone are certainly enemies of good practice. It is never sure that you are the only one in the world working on a particular idea, and you can find a project at the Salone which anticipates your own project. This can be frustrating and it is the only reason why I accelerate certain projects more than necessary."
2011 Compasso D'Oro winner Odoardo Fioravanti chose to step back and concentrate on his writing and teaching instead of pushing projects to the Salone.
"I see this as a time of change in my work that coincides with a transformation in the economic scenario. Companies still have extremely variable results, which change from one quarter to another and produce zigzag charts; they are still looking around slightly scared. After the Compasso D'Oro, with my designs, I am trying to push a more complex language with the great names in Italian manufacturing and this necessarily means extending product development from a few months to 18-20 months. It takes the patience of Job."
Instead of responding to the economy with desperate attempts for exposure, the designers are stepping back and matching the slower speed. Of course, the luxury of taking time to think about design usually comes with experience and success, and most of the designers sitting out are more established, leaving the carnival of the fair to younger, emerging talent.
Designer Alberto Meda asks,
"Does what we are doing make sense? Has it got a space, a future?," he asks. "The only real sustainability that we industrial designers can focus on is an overall one that limits material wastage and extends product life. But this is a splendid and unpredictable alchemy that we must achieve with the companies. This year, I am not taking anything new to the Salone, apart from the Luceplan lamp for Rizzatto and an update of my 2011 chair for Alias. That will do; I do not feel the same anxiety to be there as other designers or younger designers. Assuming, of course, that the Salone is still a worthwhile way of making a name for yourself…"
Related on SmartPlanet: At the Milan Furniture Fair, high design mixes with big business
Design Week Absentees [Domus]