Event poster at International Furniture Fair in Milan, 2009
When the Italian design gallerist Rossana Orlandi serves sit-down dinner for ninety during the International Furniture Fair in Milan, she doesn’t mess around. Her table stretches the length of a baronial hall that would make Beowulf feel comfortable. Running down the middle of the table is a trail of raw vegetables: fat leeks, juicy radishes, rotund red cabbages and bushy branches of rosemary. Guests forage for foie gras and antipasto tucked under the leaves, and some even munch on the centerpiece. These are resourceful times, green times, surprising times, Orlandi’s table reminds us. Our dull, bovine economy can yet make room for the occasional spot of indulgence. I spoon ham-and-potato salad from a little clamshell near my plate and look across the table at the reassuring sight of the Dutch designer Marcel Wanders. He's wearing pearls.
“We can’t do much more at a fair like this than graze,” wisely points out Barbara Bloemink, a New York-based art and design curator, who’s sitting on my left and eating radishes. The furniture fair, an annual rumpus that stretches over six days and millions of square feet of exhibition space, attracts visitors hungry for innovation yet leaves them feeling unsatisfied. It’s impossible to see everything. You dart in and out of showrooms, snap photographs where permitted, compare notes with colleagues and competitors and nevertheless lament your inadequacy. Am I imagining that organic is huge this year? Not what we used to call organic — smooth, blobby shapes by the likes of Ross Lovegrove and Greg Lynn — but what we now call organic: green, leafy things spilling out of dirt? I’m talking about herb gardens in outdoor cafes and planters trailing vines in showrooms and tree branches used in lieu of shelving to display interior products such as lamps. I’m talking about the designer Tord Boontje continuing in his popular woodland style even as he takes scary forays into the art world. (For a forthcoming exhibition in Denmark, he and his wife, Emma Woffenden, have photographed gowns on crucifixes and called it — yes — “cross dressing.”) Here, Boontje pressed flowers into the plywood top of the world’s most prosaic worktable and created something so dreamily romantic for the Italian company Moroso that I wanted to change into a frilly white dress in its honor.
Vegetal chair installation at Vitra's booth in Milan
Gardens are domesticated wildernesses. Any organic-themed design project by definition seams together nature and culture. So there is no paradox in a temporary vegetable patch/outdoor café sprouting in the shabby chic Milanese warehouse district known as Zona Tortona, just as there is no paradox in a die-cut fiber-reinforced polyamide chair called Vegetal with stalky legs flowing into a seat shaped like woven vines. The brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec were thinking about pruned arbors — the very embodiment of wilderness-in-chains — when they designed Vegetal. And as it happened, the labor-intensive process of training tree branches found a corollary in the unusually long development time for this plastic chair: four years, according to Vitra, which produces it. Meanwhile, Timorous Beasties, a Scottish textile and wallpaper company best known for toile patterns with giant moths, homeless people, or heads of Satan has gone natural with fabrics digitally printed on unbleached linen. These include Fieldfare, silhouettes of birds, butterflies, and leafing branches, and Nice Legs, blown-up illustrations of what appear to be hairy flea appendages. And am I reading too much into Olafur Eliasson and William Sawaya’s lighting fixture for Zumtobel, whose modules, when clustered, have the kaleidoscopic, lime-specked appeal of a fly’s eye?
Lighting fixture by Olafur Eliasson and William Sawaya
This year’s embrace of basics of course involved more than Tuscan farmhouse-style food displays and nonspecific vegetation and insect worship. Deceptively rough craft marked the Offcut stool by Tom Dixon, made, like it intimates, of trashed bits of lumber, and the Brave New World lamp by Fresh West for Moooi, an Anglepoise lighting fixture interpreted in wood scaffolding with iron counterweights. Similarly rough and woody was Established & Sons’ display, which contrasted nailed together piles of planks with the refined objects they sheltered. One such product, notable for a degree of perfection that approached pathology, was Roy McMakin’s limited-edition wood chest of drawers. The Shaker-like piece had eccentric knobs and pointless openings, which only made the flawlessness of the workmanship more obvious.
Roy McMakin's bureau for Established & Sons
In an odd way, trompe l’oeil, as interpreted by the Swedish design quartet Front for Moroso, also expressed a fundamental-minded mentality by collapsing three dimensions into two and exploiting the surprise that comes from that economy. In this collection, a sofa was covered in what looked like (but wasn’t) a wrinkled sheet, a rug appeared to be (but wasn’t) casually creased into a non-rectilinear form, and side tables seemed (but weren’t) dappled with shadows, at least not with every shadow that appeared on the surfaces.
Front's trompe l'oeil Highlight Table for Moroso
As ever, modularity was prized as a key to efficient, inexpensive production. Shigeru Ban’s 10-Unit System, with chairs based on a wavy, L-shaped component in a wood-plastic composite, was a surprising design for Artek, the Finnish company built around the birch wood furnishings of Alvar Aalto. Or not so surprising, the company proposed, because of the simplicity and purity (not to mention the L-shaped pieces) driving the new collection.
“Are you going to mention how silly all of this design is in the middle of an economic meltdown?” my husband asked. He had not been to the fair. He was reading a draft of this report over my shoulder, and I could hear his stomach growling at the description of Rossana Orlandi’s dinner, though I hadn’t said anything about the tuna mousse garnished with fresh currants. Or the rigatoni. Yes, I saw much that was frivolous, but that’s a given in Milan, a hotbed of creative ideas badly in need of editing. This year, maybe because the crowds were thinner and the experimentation mania had cooled to mere ardor, I also found a great deal that had the bracing, herbal whiff of spring.