As we hit our fourth hour in the queue at Milan Central train station, another Volcano ash stranded passenger, declared ‘There’s no trains to Paris till Saturday, so I’m buying an old car instead’. An escape in an original Fiat 500 through the Swiss alps came to mind.

There are many reasons why I will remember this year’s Salone, but, now the dust has settled, two come to the fore. First, the Italian brand ‘Ex-t’ launched my own furniture range in the Zona Tortona and, second, it was my first ever visit.  As a trends analyst, I couldn’t wait to see all that was on show.

Of course, the global recession has made it tough for manufacturers and designers alike. But to what extent would it effect the work on show? The fall in exhibitor numbers on last year, down from 2,723 to 2,499, was an early barometer of the state of play. The absence of young names among the big brands was also noted, who choose instead to place their trust (and money) in safe bets, like Patricia Urquiola and Marcel Wanders, who both launched a number of new pieces this year.

 

Visual trends

The fair was bursting at the seams with visual trends. Pastel palettes were one of the most prominent, exemplified by Bodum’s Pavina glasses and their reissue of Ettore Sottsass’s kettle (designed 1988) and most notably in furniture with Ligne Roset. The use of tonal hues was clear, lending well to application in modular pieces as illustrated by Target furniture. Combinations of wood and black joined the now-established mix of wood and white, utilised by Casamania for the ‘Philippe’ collection of small tables and by Simon Pengelly’s new sideboard for Modus. More fluid minimal forms were also evident, creating a pleasing visual junction between geometric and organic executions, with Zanotta offering products working in all these visual territories.

However, beyond the obvious trends in colour and form, a couple of more deep-rooted and significant themes also emerged.

 

Furniture as electronics comes of age

There have been many attempts to fuse furniture with consumer electronics over the years, generally to the detriment of the final product’s integrity. Sony’s collaboration with furniture designers Barber Osgerby provided a welcome exception to this rule (pictured above).

Expectations were high as I walked toward the old factory site off via Tortona, announced by the banner ‘Sony: Contemplating Monolithic Design’. As you walked into the show, a pathway guided you through the sound-proofed space to each concept, most notably the range of ‘speakers’, each utilising a solenoid – a component that can be attached to different materials to make a speaker. Each material had been carefully selected and crafted to enhance its acoustic properties. However, this was not to the detriment of the designs, with the crisp delivery of sound matched by exquisitely designed objects in their own right. ‘It’s all about paring down the design to the necessities’ according to Kaz Ichikawa, the Project leader and the General Manger of product design at Sony, who was kind enough to talk me through the concepts.

Another ‘Furniture as Electronics’ concept was ‘Shine’ by Electrolux: a washing machine capable of being, floor-and wall-mounted. When viewed in its wall-mounted position, a visual parallel could be drawn with a bathroom furniture unit.  But when placed on the floor its ‘Hi, I’m an appliance’ light spreading the width of the front seemed even more prominent and nothing particularly new.

 

Design for Distribution

Developments in manufacturing and e-commerce have streamlined the chain between designers’ paper or pixels, and customers’ hands. Two of the furniture world’s big players made use of these advances.

British manufacturer Established & Sons built on its ‘who’s who’ list of signature designers again this year. But, conversely, it was the anonymously-created smaller objects that stood out, with the company now leveraging its profile to create an own-label collection called ‘Estd’, which featured products such as ‘Dip’, a series of tabletop vessels and ‘Hold’ hooks. Embracing the potential of e-commerce, this range is available exclusively online through retailer ‘Yoox’ at far more accessible prices than you would expect, with the ‘Butt’ stool selling for £121 for example (compared to products in the ‘Principle collection, such as the ‘Delta table’, which retails for £910).  These relatively low price points were a key production objective from the outset . To further promote the new e-commerce partnership with Yoox, an intriguing installation was also created at the show. With touchscreens set up displaying the products in 3D (when viewed with glasses), visitors could touch, flick and spin your way around the new products onscreen. With the added option to buy the products directly, then and there, this was a first for the Salone.

Another distribution-led collection could be seen in Tortona’s Superstudio Piu: the Tom Dixon ‘Industry’ range, aiming to illustrate how designers can design, produce and sell. At the heart of this was the ‘Flash Factory’, a mini production line of overall-clad ‘factory workers’, (around 10 at a time) assembling digitally-manufactured ‘Etch’ brass lamps and candle holders on demand for customers, enabling them to walk away with a product literally straight off the production line.

Arguably a sign off the current economic climate with designers trying to take more control of distribution this is a theme that will surely become more and more prominent with the advance of digital manufacture and the growth of design-led e-commerce.

In the end my dreams of a Fiat 500 were replaced by a 24-hour bus journey back to London. But the ride did provide some stunning views of the mountains to contrast the slightly surreal perspective from 40,000 feet that normally greets a traveller from the aeroplane window. Milan 2011?  I’ll start planning the road trip now…