The Milan Furniture Fair, or simply “Salone”, has become one of the biggest industrial design events in the world and brings together brand owners, industrial designers, architects, buyers, the press and clients for five days of intense business – and networking.
Milan plays host to many a trade fair but none pulls as diverse a crowd as April’s Salone del Mobile. From Basel come industrial designers on private jets who have to juggle between engagements at the Swiss watch fair and with Italian furniture brands they’re also designing for. From Sweden come young designers exhibiting their wares for the first time on an international stage. From Germany come the well-financed buyers who will end up placing orders worth millions of euros with a single brand. And from Guangzhou come the copy artists who will in seconds rip-off entire collections – right down to the style of photography in a company’s catalogue.
With nearly 2,500 companies exhibiting this year, Monocle offers up this mini-preview of what will be on show.
Monocle: What are you looking forward to?
Rosario Messina: Success. We already know that all the hotels are booked up. We have a large number of companies from Russia, China, Japan, South America and the Mediterranean attending this year, which is exciting.
M: How would you like to see the fair evolve?
RM: We need another, bigger pavilion. To accommodate our waiting list we need an additional 40,000 sq m of space.
M: How do you see the market developing?
RM: Brands are becoming stronger and have to respond to globalisation. Companies should make that choice to invest in technologies to differentiate themselves from Asian production techniques, which are paralysing originality.
Todd Snyderman, general manager at the 500 sq m House of European Design store in San Francisco, is hoping to buy an Italian sofa collection at this year’s fair. “I could walk away with seven different designs. You just never really know until you see it all. Everyone knows Milan is hot. It still influences the whole market,” he says. His store opened last July and sales grew 75 per cent in the first six months of opening. “The ultra high-end sector is surviving because people have the income to spend on products,” says Snyderman.
“In Asia around 95 per cent of overall sales come from the smaller, more regional companies,” says Magdalena Kondej, retail analyst at Euromonitor International. In China sales by furniture and homeware retailers will grow 89 per cent between 2006 and 2011, reaching €52bn. India is set to grow 161 per cent to €11bn. The affluent middle classes in these countries are growing rapidly. “Imports will increase as people seek to show their status through fashionable products and Western-style trends,” says Kondej.
“The US residential furniture market is experiencing a cyclical slowdown as housing sales decrease and rates rise. This downturn is unlikely to pick up before autumn,” says Susan Maklari, analyst at UBS in New York. In the first half of January, furniture sales declined on average of 7 per cent. Home prices are predicted to fall 10 per cent in 2007. In anticipation of future falling sales, smaller furniture retailers have cut back on expenditure. “There is poor demand and fewer people are taking on board home renovation projects,” says Maklari. Meanwhile, the hunger for best-value products is driving a shift toward more imports. Asian manufacturers are keen to work with US retailers directly, cutting out the US manufacturers altogether.
No matter how hard brand consultants try to shift furniture businesses into lifestyle brands, they’re missing an essential point: it’s not the sofas, chairs and tables that need help. Rather than trying to rethink the product mix of some of the world’s leading furniture companies or improve margins by moving production, the real work needs to be done on the shop floor.
Spin the globe in the world of fashion and every season tosses up a host of new stores in major retail cities. Do the same in the home sector and you’re lucky if there’s a major retail breakthrough across an entire year. While the likes of Poltrona Frau and B&B Italia have worked hard to position themselves in similar territory as fashion brands, the premium furniture sector is missing a fresh generation of multi-brand retailers to inspire the consumer.
Where a respected fashion buyer knows how to dress a shop floor as much as his core customer, the same is not happening in furniture. A survey of most contemporary furniture stores reveals shops that behave more like galleries than spaces concerned with shifting stock. Ask the consumer what they want and they’ll say less white space and more context. To the retailer, this means more room sets and finished environments rather than sofas complimented by little more than co-ordinated throws and pillows.
The right mix – what our perfect design shop would look and feel like:
1. 25% Svenskt Tenn (Stockholm) for its luxurious room sets.
2. 20% De Padova (Milan) for its clarity and strong window displays.
3. 15% cent Illums Bolighus (Copenhagen) for product mix.
4. 12% cent Karf (Tokyo) because it makes you want to move in.
5. 10% Wohnbedarf (Zürich) for modernity.
6. 8% Conran Shop (Tokyo branch) for service.
7. 5% Truck Works (Osaka) for cosiness.
8. 2% Moss (New York) for a perfectly curated, eclectic mix.
9. 2% Ruud Rasmussen (Copenhagen) for having the workshop out back.
10. 1% Paustian (Copenhagen) for the volume and sense of space.
The company is launching the plywood 404 chair by Stefan Diez, his first “commercial” chair, and it is destined to be another classic for the German manufacturer. The design is inspired by Thonet’s 14 Chair model designed in 1859 and the 209 created in 1900. “The chair has a logical, architectural form to it and draws on Thonet’s heritage,” says Diez. Peter Thonet, director of sales and marketing, is looking forward to all the networking in Milan. “It’s great for making international contacts,” he says. He cites Eastern Europe, Japan and Australia as growing markets for the company.
“Our stand will be a real surprise this year. It will have quite a crazy design,” says a Zanotta spokesman. Debut items include new collaborations with designers Arik Levy, Ora Ito, Karim Rashid and Alessandro Dubini. The bold Wire collection by Levy is a series of tables made from coloured steel with glass tops. He also designed Level, a Cubist-style bookcase. The Koochy sofa by Rashid features an organic form sculpted from a steel frame with a removable fabric or leather cover. Christophe Pillet has designed a retro-inspired armchair, Hillroad, available with a leather or fabric cover.
Japanese design store, Bals Tokyo, is making its debut at this year’s fair as it gears up for an international roll-out. From a booth designed by Yasumichi Morita, the company will present a host of new items by international designers Francesco Rota, Christophe Pillet, Matti Klenell, Gabriele Pezzini, as well as Yasumichi Morita. Look out for the sweet Fade light by Klenell. Bals Tokyo aims to grow to 30 stores worldwide; it opened one in Ginza on 19 April.
Bruno Fattorini, art director, designer and owner, cuts a dramatic figure. His hands twist into abstract forms as he draws air-silhouettes of products. “People are always searching for something new, moving from idea to idea. We must meet these needs with innovation,” he says. The RR01 sofa, with a Le Corbusier-inspired silhouette, is designed by Robin Rizzini. With its white plastic shell and metal support frame, the design marks a new style for MDF and is Rizzini’s first collection for the company. MDF will also unveil the S Table designed by Xavier Lust. The clever white, twisting base supports a glass or white lacquered wood-fibre top. The new seating collection, Nest, by Piergiorgio Cazzaniga, is a suite of chairs with a shell in three different finishes: wood, polyethylene and sheet aluminium. “Form, function and personality is all important when creating new products,” says Fattorini, leaning back to ponder the significance of this holy trinity.
Vitra is in no rush to churn out new collaborative designs every year. “We believe in long-standing relationships and don’t pick out new designers to work with just for the sake of it,” says Eckart Maise, managing director of Vitra’s home division. In fact, one of Vitra’s major launches this year is not an item of furniture, but a maple elephant toy originally designed (but not produced) by Charles and Ray Eames in 1945. Vitra is also unveiling the Slow Chair designed by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec. With a translucent, knitted sling fabric cover stretched over a tubular steel frame, the chair is a cheeky take on design classics such as Hans Wegner’s Flag Halyard lounge chair and Eero Saarinen’s Womb Chair. It features four cast-aluminium legs and an inlayed seat cushion with a U-shaped back-rest padding. Germany is Vitra’s biggest market, but sales are increasing in Asia and the US. “We are doing well in those countries that have a long tradition in design. In Italy they are highly educated in design and we have good dealerships out there,” says Maise.
From its five-storey 2,000 sq m showroom in Milan, De Padova will exhibit its new products. These include an upholstered seating system by Patricia Urquiola, who has also created the showroom’s Art Deco-inspired window display. There is also a variation on last year’s Spring chair by Damian Williamson – the Spring Low armchair features armrests and a lower seating positioning. Available in wood with the option of a leather seat in brown or black, the design is suitable for both the home and office. “Consumers always need to be stimulated with new and interesting projects. Today, the office has to become a warmer place, more domestic, in contrast with the frenetic rhythms of our life. Public spaces such as restaurants, offices and hotels need the same attention as houses when they are furnished,” says founder Maddalena De Padova.
The Poltrona Frau group’s office, with its soaring atrium and airy, light-filled rooms is remarkably calm. But behind the scenes, one of the world’s leading high-end furniture groups has been frantically busy gearing up to the launch of the fair. At this year’s event, the group will show its latest designs from brands Poltrona Frau, Cassina, Cappellini, Alias, Gebrüeder Thonet Vienna and Gufram. On the stand each brand will be distinguished by its own unique zone; Piero Lissoni has designed the Cassina area, for example. Philippe Starck’s fairly solemn Privé upholstered seating collection for Cassina sees him at his most subtle. While the set of overlapping small tables, Island, designed by Nendo for Cappellini, is a brilliant take on entertaining with its bent, thin, metal plates painted in white, anthracite, cherry red, yellow and turquoise. Delicacy rules in the Poltrona Frau ottoman, Esedra, by Monica Förster. Its design draws on the tradition of Scandinavian handicraft and features a hand-sewn pleated cover, reminiscent of onion skins. “As the world’s wealth grows so does the desire for design,” says Giuliano Mosconi, chairman and president of Cassina.
Tetsu Konagaya, president of furniture and lighting business Yamagiwa in Tokyo, says he does not necessarily buy lots of products at Milan. Instead, he is on the look out for emerging talent, taking sample orders of anything that particularly catches his eye. “We are always in search of talented designers and the Milan fair can be a good opportunity for us to learn about their activity,” he says. Yamagiwa runs contract, retail and wholesale business divisions, but also manufactures its own lighting products. It is presenting a collection of lamps by Makio Hasuike, Toyo Ito, Ross Lovegrove, Pablo Reinoso and Tokujin Yoshioka at this year’s fair. Around 50 per cent of the company’s imported furniture is Italian, which includes brands such as Moroso, Driade, Poliform and Zanotta. Twenty per cent of the company’s lighting stock is Italian. Konagaya believes Italian furniture is growing in popularity in Japan due to a growing awareness of interior design.
The Finnish manufacturer, with Tom Dixon as its creative director, is providing a masterclass in environmentally conscious design at this year’s fair. From an undulating, temple-like pavilion made from a wood-plastic composite designed by Shigeru Ban, to its Bambu range made from bamboo and designed by Henrik Tjaerby, through to its Second Cycle range of vintage products, Artek is hoping to inspire. “It’s important to be local in a global world. Products should have a transparency and our theme for this year is sustainability,” says managing director Mirkku Kullberg. Artek sells 85 per cent of its products to Scandinavia and around 10 per cent to Japan and the US.