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The spirit of Milan is alive; the spirits, sadly, have gone

Paul Finch’s letter from London: Thirsty journalists had to leave the Salone to find the heart of the Milan furniture fair

I visited the Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan last week and mostly enjoyed the frenzy that overtakes the city each year when the designers come to town. This year’s event was the 50th anniversary of the furniture fair, which started life as an export initiative for Italian furniture and furnishing industries.

My first visit to the fair in the mid-1980s was not dissimilar to what one would have experienced in the 1961 launch year, when two large pavilions staged the show at the old city centre fairs site, La Campionaria.

Journalists were treated as very welcome guests and the press centre included a magnificent canteen, serving good-quality Italian food all day. The associated coffee bar had a unique feature, welcome to many of the press accustomed to lunchtime refreshment: a well-stocked spirits collection to help the espressos down. And all complimentary. Those were the days.

It is rather different now. The new-ish exhibition venue is 30 minutes by underground from the city centre. The press centre is efficient, but food and alcohol-free. There isn’t quite the same camaraderie.

Moreover, Rafael Viñoly’s centre design has one major disadvantage compared with the old site: it is relentlessly linear, and truly exhausting to navigate. Endless signage betrays that the layout of the halls, and even their numbering, are confusing (not the architect’s fault). One day was enough.

Happily, the fair comprises much more than the official halls and fast-food outlets. Parts of the city are taken over by designers and manufacturers during the week, this year’s hot area being Ventura Lambrate, an experimental idea from 2010 that has now taken root. Longer-established is Zona Tortona, a pleasant combination of streets, courtyards, shows, showrooms and temporary exhibition spaces, which provided welcome and civilised relief to the necessarily utilitarian Salone halls.

The spirit of the show is alive and well: wonderful and varied designs, as ever, sitting alongside the usual bread-and-butter semi-traditional offering; plenty of architects in evidence, with new chairs and other products to show – Ben van Berkel, David Chipperfield, Zaha Hadid, Nigel Coates, and so on. All the big-name designers were on show (or at least their products were): Campana Brothers, Yves Behar, Philippe Starck, Patricia Urquiola, Fabio Novembre, Marcel Wanders.

Tom Dixon converted a warehouse space into a temporary exhibition and restaurant called Parlement for the event. The chef was Stevie Parle, recreating their Dock Kitchen partnership in London’s Portobello Dock. This was a splendid venue for the launch of Inside, spinning off the interiors element from the World Architecture Festival.

Inside will take place on 2 and 3 November in the same venue as WAF, and tickets to either will give admission to both. However, Inside will have its own space and identity, its own distinct awards programme and its own super-jury, to be headed by Ilse Crawford, who joined us for the launch. Other super-jurors include Ross Lovegrove and Andre Fu.

Milan was the perfect place for the launch. If interiors are your thing, find out more at www.insidefestival.com. The awards programme, like WAF’s, is open for entries. The more the merrier!

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