The Memphis Group, a postmodern design movement that launched at the Milan Furniture Fair in 1981, was back to permeate this year's fair, not just with its acid colors and fanciful squiggles but with its pervasive search for clarity between the artistic and commercial.
The movement's debut back then took the design world by surprise; its colorful optimism was expressed in fabrics, objects and furniture that represented a loud counterpoint to the commercial activity inside the fairgrounds.
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"There was a dominant idea, an anti-fair activity. It was the freshest idea I had seen at a time when one idea could take over the whole city," said Knoll CEO Andrew Cogan, who attended the fair that year as a student in his 20s. "It was one contrasting idea, and it broke the rules about what good design and tastes were."
The furniture fair has long since spread out of the sprawling convention center on the edge of Milan into clearly defined design quarters throughout the city, its very form reflecting the conflict between commercial and artistic pursuits that the Memphis Group, founded by Ettore Sottsass, instantly epitomized.
The annual April gathering is no longer just about furniture, but about design as an exploration of how people live and work. Specific trends get lost in a flurry of openings, cocktails and showroom presentations, which add an avant-garde feel to a once purely commercial event. New players arrive every year, often using new technologies — from Internet apps to 3-D printers — that expand the definition of designer.
Whether the focus is on furniture or pure design is immaterial to architect and designer Mario Bellini, a furniture-fair star for decades.
"To design is to put forward projects," said Bellini. "Humankind, since appearing on the planet, has always designed what it needed to survive. And they have modified the landscape, built their houses, designed their objects, their tools, whatever they needed to eat and to live. That is design."
With the expanding Italian furniture industry providing the anchor, the anything-goes fair and its side events, which closes Sunday, drew some 400,000 visitors this year. It gave the city an infusion of energy ahead of the Milan Expo 2015 world's fair, which opens May 1 and lasts six months.
Many try but few succeed at designing a chair that can be called a masterpiece.
French designer Philippe Starcke, who has designed more chairs than he cares to count, called it an "equation of harmony."
Knoll marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Italian-born designer Harry Bertoia with an anniversary edition of the classic Side Chair and an exhibit of Bertoia's work.
Bellini, who recently turned 80, has marked the half-million sales mark of his leather-saddle Cab chair for Cassina with the launch of a Cab lounge (there's also a Cab bed). The Cab lounge uses the same design language as its predecessor, launched in 1977: a sort of double-leather jacket that zips over a slight, interior-steel frame. The lounge is on a swivel base, and fitted with foam- and feather-padded cushions upholstered in leather.
"Very few nice chairs in existence are really masterpieces. I am proud to have done at least one," Bellini said, sitting back in his lounge at the Cassina fairgrounds stand. "Time will say if it is another masterpiece. It is for sure comfortable."
KARTEL'S MEMPHIS REVIVAL
This year, Kartell paid tribute to Memphis with a series of chairs clad in the movement's bright textiles. The brand also launched a series of objects designed for Kartell by Sottsass in 2004 but never before produced. The designer died in 2007.
Kartell CEO Claudio Luti says new technology has allowed his company to realize the modulating shapes of the post-futuristic vases and stools in a way that wouldn't have been possible a decade ago. Luti's team is still working out which of the prototypes will go into production, but they fit Kartell's push into the lifestyle-brand space. The brand famed for transparent seats and tables presented a new line of fragrances for the home, and round wall hangers that look like decorative plates and are almost too pretty to cover with a coat.
The Memphis Group has been in the Milan air recently, with a retrospective last year and design references in Iceberg's fashion collection for next fall.
Tog has seen the future, and it is customization.
Starck, one of the founding designers of the enterprise launched at the fair last year, said the era of democratic design — accessible goods for the masses — is over. Now, it's all about the unique and personalized.
His latest creation for Tog is a rough-cut wooden armchair called "Maria Maria" with a customizable plastic backrest. Buyers can insert a photograph or design that they print themselves at home, a process that Starck said "takes 12 seconds."
Realizing his design was another matter.
"The 'Maria Maria' looks so simple. It is the most difficult chair I have ever designed," he said. He described the difficulty of connecting the plastic back with wood and finding artisans to create the wooden base.
Tog, backed by a Brazilian investor, is still in the launch phase. There are plans to open a flagship store in Brazil this year; products can be ordered in some retail locations in Europe and on-line in some countries. Talks are under way for a U.S. distributor.
Airbnb took the furniture fair by storm. The mobile application that hooks travelers up with people renting out property for overnight stays has seen a surge in usage, with nearly twice as many guests booking their Milan stay with Airbnb as last year.
It celebrated with an interactive art installation at the 18th-century, privately owned Crespi Palace, which rarely opens to the public.
Nineteen artists from around the world presented interactive installations exploring national notions of hospitality. Giorgia Zanellato of Venice, for example, created frames for mirrors out of paper pastry trays that she lined with colorful Venetian paper.
Advancing technology of the LED bulb is allowing designers new freedom. German lighting designer Ingo Mauer presented a lamp that consists of a bare halogen bulb with angel wings, dubbed "Lucellino," and also in an LED version that uses less energy but mimics the yellowish fade of a traditional light bulb (without the heat). Mauer's creations are about 30 percent LED, but the trend is toward 100 percent as technology improves the light quality.
Over at Wonderglass, Japanese designer Nao Tamura had Venetian glass blowers create the shape of a drop of water as it is about to fall, at the moment, she says, that "it is full of light."