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It looks as though there will be fewer big Italian players at this year’s Salone (22–27 April) than in recent years, but many see that as a good thing. It allows those who want to put on a good show more space to do so. And leaves room for newcomers.

“There is a growing feeling among visitors that it was getting too much, too dense,” says Milan-based architect Ico Migliore, a 2008 winner of the Italian design award Compasso d’oro.

“We have been offered 1,200 sq m instead of the 400 we had last year,” says Detlef Mika, managing director for marketing and export at German brand Interlübke. So Interlübke is making the most of the extra space and showing its new 40S system for living rooms.

While other sectors are suffering, a lot of lovers of great design seem blissfully oblivious to the credit crunch. The best designers even feel it might be working in their favour. “We see a lot of well-to-do clients beyond 50,” says Mika. “Now they are tearing down a wall or two in their homes and going for the walk-in-closet or the white leather lounger they always craved.”

Interlübke finished last year with sales of €43.2m and the second best export earnings in the history of the brand. Success in this market is all about service and catering to individual tastes, Mika explains. Buyers are much more interested in quality and the originality of the design than the price. “They don’t care so much whether they spend €5,000 or €10,000. But if we can’t offer the walnut surface they want, they might as well walk out of the door,” he says.

“Service, competence and more and more tailor-made solutions are paramount,” says Alexander Garbe, managing director of Stilwerk, an upscale retailer with stores in Hamburg, Düsseldorf, Stuttgart and Berlin – the next opening will be in Vienna in 2010. “The brands who offer this are most likely to flourish in this recession.”

Markus Stehle at Dedon agrees. Customers are increasingly looking for responsible manufacturing, he says, and are being drawn by the idea of a classic with a personal twist. “The object is supposed to be recognisable as a Dedon original but one that’s customised in an individual way.”

Last year’s Salone with its record 348,000 visitors already saw a significant surge of buyers and press from Latin America. Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela are important new markets for brands such as Interlübke. Italian sofa magnate Roberto Minotti adds, “Eastern European countries, the Middle East and South America are markets with a great potential.”

It is not just about buyers from South America. This Salone marks the debut of Claudia and Harry Washington, aka Due, the design couple from El Salvador at the US manufacturer Bernhardt Design (see page 112). The Washingtons’ mission is to combine traditional Salvadoran saddlers’ skills and their own passion for the current. In Milan, they will show their Calibra sofa collection.

The launch of the new design brand Skitsch and the opening of its shop (by architect Luca Bombassei, co-owner of famed Milan Studio Blast) in Milan’s Via Monte di Pietà is also set to create a buzz. Skitsch is owned by the investor Renato Preti together with a high profile group of Italian businessmen.

The German stalwart of classic contemporary design ClassiCon will present its re-editions of Sergio Rodrigues’s tables and chairs in Milan, including our favourites, the Diz and Mole lounge chairs made from eucalyptus. ClassiCon’s CEO Oliver Holy has secured worldwide distribution outside the Americas from manufacturer LinBrasil. Born in 1927, Sergio Rodrigues will make the trip from Brazil to Milan, where his Mole chair won the Concorso Internazionale del Mobile in 1961.

But a new wave of meticulously handcrafted wood is also expected to lure in clients who now want to invest in heirlooms instead of Ponzi schemes and more remakes of great mid-century designs. This year’s Salone will be the great test of the old saying that the best ideas are born out of crises. So far, it’s looking hopeful.

Roberto Minotti, Founder

Minotti, Italy

Minotti, a household name at the Salone del Mobile, has been in expansion mode for the better part of the past 10 years and now counts 800 dealers in 61 countries. A flagship store in London opened in February. Bangkok and New York will follow suit in 2009.The new Minotti home collection, by Rodolfo Dordoni, will be introduced at the Salone with more products on display than a year ago because they have more display space.

Minotti says clients are buying with more care and the company is feeling the difference. In his view, only long-standing companies who are sober in their book-keeping but passionate in their creativity will stay strong. More than ever, success comes with a strong and coherent brand message. “The products, the communication, the interiors we create – nothing should be coincidental or insecure,” he says. And more than ever, he adds, it helps now to be “made in Italy”.

Markus Stehle, President and CEO

Dedon, Lüneburg, Germany

For Markus Stehle of Dedon, the manufacturer of hand-woven outdoor furniture, this year’s Salone offers an unprecedented opportunity “to surprise our clients with an entirely new concept. The space we occupy will be three times bigger than in 2008, including an outdoor area. We want to communicate what our brand is about: to relax, lounge, extend the living room into the open air and have a great time with friends and the family.”

Stehle refuses to join the ranks of pessimists, despite the difficult market. “The big issue here is obviously a lack of growth opportunities in the US market. But this is the moment to press forward with restructuring our organisation. We are now in the process of founding our US subsidiary in Texas.”

Dedon will take all its current collections including Slim Line and Summer Cloud to Salone (first shown at Maison et Objet in September 2008) and will introduce Dedon Dress Code, a new show edition of the Slim Line collection.

Once again, Dedon chose to show at Milan but not in Köln this year because of concerns that there are too many copyists lurking at the German show.

Mirkku Kullberg, Managing director

Artek, Finland

The Finnish storage brand founded by Alvar Aalto is bringing its new L-Unit system designed by Shigeru Ban to Milan. It is made of a paper-plastic composite, which combines the best wood fibres and plastic. Using surplus materials is part of the ethical and ecological reasoning in Artek’s product development. The L-Unit System is all about “standard thinking, which can evolve to chairs, tables and benches”, says Mirkku Kullberg.

Combining art and technology is the core ideology of Artek, most famous for its bent plywood armchair Paimio and Stool 60 (see Monocle shop page 115), both from the 1930s. Kullberg says the design industry needs to slim down to adjust to the current times as more people are asking themselves – for economic or environmental reasons – why the world needs more stuff. “There are far too many design objects. Consumers now want products with investment quality; they will buy less but spend on things that last,” says Kullberg. “A seemingly old fashioned guarantee of quality can be quite a statement today. We have to be more creative and ambitious than ever. So slow down and focus.”

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