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Not much green in Milan

Milan may be the place to see the latest in product design, but eco-awareness is surprisingly thin

It’s been a gruelling few days at the Milan Furniture Fair. From the official expo at Rho fairground on the outskirts of the city to the countless exhibitions, events, pop-up stands and shops across the city.

The major brands tend to gather at Rho where the exhibition is divided into various halls or ‘saloni’, such as Salone Internazionale Del Mobile, (the eponymous furniture fair), Salone Internazionale del Bagno (International Bathroom Exhibition) and SaloneSatelite, for emerging designers. Galleries across the city provide exposure to smaller companies, while larger brands often choose to complement their presence at Rho with more personalised events in the city centre.

A stand at the Milan Furniture Fair

As the world’s most important design festival, I had expected to see a host of innovative products that used sustainable processes or materials, but I was disappointed by the lack of green products on show. More often than not, when I asked the representatives of major brands at the fair if they had any sustainable products at their stands, I was told: ‘Yes, all our products can be recycled’, as opposed to: ‘Our products were made from recycled materials’. One trade rep was even offended when I asked if her products used recycled materials, insisting that all the materials she used were new.

Milan Furniture Fair

Of course, it was impossible to visit every stand or meet every designer at the fair, but if the products I encountered on my trip can be taken as a sample, then sustainability was not a priority for designers out to impress.

However, a few products did stand out in terms of green innovation.

‘The Future in the Making’, curated by Domus and Audi, was an exhibition of products and ideas at the cutting edge of design. The Solar Sinter, a machine conceived by designer Markus Kayser, uses the natural resources of deserts – solar power and sand – to create products such as vases. So far only small products have been made, and not on an industrial scale, but it is an intriguing approach to how to make use of the vast amount of solar power that falls on our deserts.

Solar Sinter - designed by Markus Kayser

Solar Sinter - designed by Markus Kayser

Also included in the exhibition was Botanicalls, a company which seeks to ‘promote successful interspecies understanding’ between humans and vegetation by allowing plants to send text messages to their owners when they need watering. The tongue-in-cheek system even allows plants to send their thanks after being fed. Obviously reliant on sensors and a digital connection, the system is designed to help people who are not naturally green-fingered to care for their plants.

Plant enabled to text its owner - Botanicalls (Photo: pablocomotion)

Plant enabled to text its owner - Botanicalls (Photo: pablocomotion)

Across town at the Museum of Science and Technology, British designer Tom Dixon had an installation of new lighting products. The walls and surfaces of the installation used materials by UPM, a company which recycles plastic by-products from sticky label manufacturing to create a outdoor decking for garden patios and terraces. The proportion of recycled material depends on the product, but is always at least 50%, with the only added plastic being polypropylene. All these materials are non-toxic to the environment and no PVC is used.

Tom Dixon's installation at MOST, which used UPM decking for walls and surfaces

Tom Dixon’s installation at MOST, which used UPM decking for walls and surfaces

At SaloneSatelite I saw a product called The Moss Table, a prototype of a biophotovoltaic lamp that could become commonplace in the future. Designer Alex Driver worked with professors at the University of Cambridge and the University of Bath to create a lamp that could be powered by vegetation. Although the electricity produced was not enough to power the lamp (the product is there to show future possibilities rather than a finished design), a functional digital clock powered by four small pots of moss showed that the technology does work. Scientists are thinking of biophotovoltaic technology on a bigger scale – of platforms of algae powering whole communities.

Moss Table - designed by Alex Driver

Moss Table - designed by Alex Driver

Also exhibiting at SaloneSatelite was a Venezuelan company called Maximaduda, which used natural fibres from the Moriche palm tree to make furniture products. The company helps to support indigenous skills while making use of a plant that comes from sustainable sources and is already harvested for fruit.

Chair made from Moriche fibres - Maximaduda

Chair made from Moriche fibres - Maximaduda

Finally, Italian design firm Casamania exhibited a set of chairs and tables that are formed out of recycled clothes set in place with resin and a steel frame. The clothes are sourced from unwanted stock from some of Italy’s department stores, although buyers can ask for furniture made from their own discarded clothing for a more personalised touch. Similarly, GT Design has a range of textile designs which uses old Indian saris or Turkish rugs as the base for new products.

Chairs made from recycled clothes, resin and a steel frame - by Casamania

Chairs made from recycled clothes, resin and a steel frame - by Casamania

These were the most innovative sustainable products I encountered during the fair. But they were dwarfed by the thousands of products which focused on aesthetics only with no attention to sustainable materials ormanufacturing.

EU directives and sustainabilty targets may encourage manufacturers and designers to use green products and processes, but design festivals should do more to reward sustainable innovation. Perhaps Cosmit should think about a Salone‘Verde’ for next year’s fair?

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