In Milan, Salone del Mobile Turns Up the Wit in the Face of Italy's Gloom

In Milan, Salone del Mobile Turns Up the Wit in the Face of Italy's Gloom
Kartell's booth at the 2013 Salone del Mobile

MILAN — Before heading to Milan for the first time to cover the annual Salone del Mobile trade show, categorically the largest event in the industrial design world, my understanding was that the overall sentiment of the Italian design community bordered on panic. Popular discourse from the past several years dwelled on the potential damage done to Italian design by counterfeiting and mass production in China — an obsession that is subtly reflected in the theme of this year’s FuoriSalone (city-wide programming directed by Interni magazine, now in collaboration with creative think tank Be Open), which frames itself as a response to the “cultural uniformity,” or homogenizing effects, of globalization. Obviously, Italy’s current financial meltdown exacerbates the anxiety hovering over the design world: “Everybody was scared that nobody would come [to Salone] because of the crisis,” Milan-based designer Ferruccio Laviani told ARTINFO. “It’s a situation where people don’t understand where the market is going.”

Given the seemingly dour mood, one would expect this year’s fair to keep a low profile — but it may have actually gone in the opposite direction. Laviani, for example, designed Kartell’s Salone booth (he does so every year) as a stylized facsimile of Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, a strip of luxury shops in Milan (akin to Rodeo Drive in L.A.) Where a shop window of say, Cartier, would be, he showcased a Kartell designer’s new products, reinterpreting his or her name into a fashion house’s logo. It’s an in-joke for fans of branded typographies: Nendo had just the right number of letters to take on the font of KENZO; Piero Lissoni’s initials replace the overlapping LV of Louis Vuitton; and newcomer Christophe Pillet got the Cartier crown. 


While the current moment of global austerity seems like the least opportune time to tout luxury, Laviani’s punning installation was aimed to inspire laughter as a respite from the gloom. It also serves a greater purpose that reflects the great national pride here that is palpable immediately upon arrival. “I thought it was very important to make people realize that Salone del Mobile is in Milan because 99 percent of the best design companies in the world come from Milan,” said Laviani, who referred to the Galleria as the “living room of the city.” As Kartell itself pushes into areas of the Middle East (and ironically also China), his gesture also helps to align the company with luxury brands better recognized throughout the world. While even ordinary Italians partake in Salone’s festivities this time of year (“It’s bigger than fashion week,” one Milan native told me yesterday at a party), global buyers may be “more interested in Louis Vuitton than Patricia Urquiola,” Laviani said. 

This pride in the nation’s historical excellence in “furniture, fashion, food, and Ferrari” (I’d propose adding “funniness” as the fifth F — just look at the classic ironic designs of Gaetano Pesce, Ettore Sottsass, and Laviani himself) resounded throughout the week. Interni and Be Open’s Monday press conference proposed the four F’s as the solution to the ongoing national crisis. “Any time the market is tough for companies, it obliges us to investigate the value and recipe of our city's and country's success in the past and what made us competitive in the golden times, said city fashion and design councilor Cristina Tajani

As for designers’ fears that the crisis would ruin this year’s Salone, they’ve been assuaged. Local and international spectators crowded the showroom floor (it was difficult to walk at any reasonable pace) and, indeed, the city itself (it was really hard to find a vacant room in any hotel). Despite criticism in recent years that designers had been “playing it safe,” Laviani insisted this was one of the best Salones of the past 20 years. “There’s an incredible energy here. I think that the crisis pushed people,” he said. “You know when you are scared, you use your brain in different ways. Ideas come out stronger than before.” 

To see Laviani’s visual puns, click the slideshow