On the chilly eve of the opening of the Milan furniture fair this week, the normally buzzing furniture fashionistas snapped their cell phones shut as they were ushered into a hushed party at a darkened 18th-century basilica. Inside, at Tuesday night's celebration of 35 years of design by the venerable Italian firm Driade, clouds of white smoke swirled around the installation of chairs, tables and bookcases as photographers tried to catch the pieces by Philippe Starck and Tokujin Yoshioka and others in their best light. Guests wandered silently through the soaring space listening to haunting music and squinting as they tried to make out the celebs and sofas.
It was a fitting prelude that set the subdued tone for the 42nd annual Salone Internazionale del Mobile, the most influential international contemporary design show and schmoozefest. The event, which runs until Monday, is set in a vast trade show center as well as in galleries and palazzi all over town. Although attendance was touted to be 185,000, there were empty plane seats and hotel rooms as a result of cancellations from war-jittery Middle Eastern countries and SARS-stricken Asian nations. Signs of the world situation were everywhere: a handful of black-clad attendees sported surgical masks along with their dark glasses; toy vendors in front of Milan's central Duomo demonstrated how their metal camouflage-clad GI action figures could crawl on the cobblestones with guns at the ready; fluttering from shuttered windows and high-rise balconies were rainbow Pace (peace) banners, which are sold at kiosks all over Milan.
Those who did come were concerned about the fragile global economy, yet ready to get the first glimpse of what would be the design statement of the moment. So what was the buzz? At the fairgrounds, big signs above the booth of Kartell, maker of designer plastic furniture, proclaimed "Be Happy," and the lines were three deep to see Starck's latest cheap-chic design, the Mademoiselle. The chair combines see-through plastic legs with a comfortable foam top available in floral fabrics and matte colors. The new cool and classic B&B Italia store on fashionable Via Durini showed the Lazy, a low poolside black or white chaise of folded-over mesh designed by Patricia Urquiola.
At Sawaya & Moroni's front window on Via Manzoni, crowds ogled London architect Zaha Hadid's sensational Iceberg, a soaring icy white bench made of wood and aluminum sheeting coated with polished lacquer. "Old World Europe is at a moment of crisis, but we have new customers in all the new economies like Russia and China," said Paolo Moroni, whose company is known for show-stopping designs coveted by global collectors of high-end modern furniture. "This is a good moment because it's time to reshuffle the deck."
A 15-minute cab ride away, Cappellini presented its new line, which was described as "less dramatic and more sober in style." "There are a lot of huge problems in the world and we cannot stop them," said Giulio Cappellini, head of the company. "We have to go ahead and invest in innovation and products, and bring something interesting to the market, because people are waiting for something to be excited about."
Store buyers like Deborah Kalkstein, who owns Bethesda's three-year-old modern design shop Contemporaria, said she came to Milan despite a lot of uncertainty in the Washington economy. "Sales in the past few months are taking longer to materialize. I can't put my finger on exactly why," Kalkstein said, perched on a low-slung chocolate-brown sofa at Minotti, one of the Italian manufacturers she carries. "It's not going to be a wild year here in Milan, but you have to come. . . . It's a treat for the eye."
One of the most intriguing concepts presented in Milan was a new collection that joins high design and technology. The collaboration brings together Cappellini furniture and Philips technology for the production of beds, wall units, screens and sofas with built-in home entertainment systems, audio components and surround sound. Called Flowing Landscapes, the pieces will be available in the United States later this year. "We wanted to give a new form to our technology and integrate it with furniture," said Stefano Marzano, CEO of Philips Design, as he lounged on a massive, round, black Vesuvio couch outfitted off-center with an LCD ceiling projector and DVD. The day's flick: "Easy Rider." "We want our objects to connect people, not polarize them," he added. "They should play a discreet role, not dominate the house. The couch of today is an island where we can lay down and rest."
The furniture introduced in Milan generally falls into two categories: that which is comfortable and chic and coveted by modern furniture lovers, and that which is so avant-garde, and expensive, that it ends up in museums and the homes of collectors. At Moooi, the company started by Dutch upstart Marcel Wanders, there were both types. A tall, thin wood magazine stand called Oblique seems like a great place to display kids artworks and the latest issue of Vanity Fair. But another Moooi introduction, this one by 25-year-old Maarten Baas, might not be for everyone's living room. The Smoke chair lives up to its name. The wood frame of a period French-style armchair is burned and charred and then covered in clear epoxy; the seat and back are upholstered in black leather. There is also a matching singed chandelier.
"It makes it look like it is from an old castle," said the rumpled Wanders as he fielded calls on his cell phone and bear hugs from visiting pals. "It shows the material is real wood, not plastic." It also could be a leftover chair looted from one of Saddam Hussein's bombed palaces.
A sneaker-clad Giorgio Armani held a news conference about the additions to his Armani Casa collection. Like several other designers this year, Armani took inspiration from Asia. Think modernist mandarin, like Armani's wood and brushed-steel Oriental-style chairs and polished dark wenge wood storage boxes. In the darkened room where the collection was presented by candlelight, it was difficult to make out the details on the designs, but they sure looked chic.
While the French, the Germans, the Americans and the Italians attending the show all tried politely to keep politics out of business, it didn't always happen. At Cassina, French designer Patrick Jouin showed a line of sensuous upholstery and tables that included a chair called Mabelle that he created for celebrity chef Alain Ducasse. The chair, a simple design that looks as if it had a blanket folded over it, was designed for Ducasse's upcoming New York restaurant, Mix, which had been scheduled to open in the next few months. Jouin is doing the interiors for the bistro, which will serve French and American cuisine. But because of the current situation, he says, it seemed better to put off the American-French Mix until September. Said Jouin, "We're waiting for things to get back to normal."