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Reporting from Milan Furniture Fair

Fringe events throughout the city beat the official Milan Furniture Fair for new designers keen to make their mark, but the centre of these activities changes from year to year, writes Rakesh Ramchurn

Salone Internazionale del Mobile – the Milan International Furniture Fair – is the world’s biggest design festival, and for one week each year hoards of designers and design enthusiasts, trade representatives and journalists descend on the city to catch the latest in product design.

The trade fair, an evolution of the original salone that started in 1961, takes place at Rho Fiera, an end-of-the-line stop in Milan’s suburbs where a huge exhibition complex hosts more than 2,000 top brands at attention-grabbing stands. Highlights included ‘Raviolo’; a new chair designed by Ron Arad and made out of moulded polyethylene for Magis, ‘Grand Repos’, Vitra’s new office chair, designed by Antonio Citterio, and a range of colourful furnishings from Missioni.

But more important for emerging designers or those trying to make a name for themselves is Fuorisalone (literally: ‘outside the fair’), the name for the design events that take place in districts across Milan, which heave with pop-up exhibitions, art installations and events. Fuorisalone has always had an independent, bohemian feel to them and are where design enthusiasts go to see more curated, slightly less commercial work from artisans and new designers.

As Fuorisalone has grown in importance, many larger brands have tried to complement their stands at Rho with events in town, and as areas of Milan begin to feel over-crowded, new artistic districts have popped up, leading to a cat and mouse chase as emerging designers try to carve new niches for themselves where the larger brands follow.

Tortona, an old industrial area just south of the city centre, has witnessed fringe events since the late 80s; the first district to become a permanent part of Fuorisalone and an important stop on the festival route. I visited the area and was met with a lively carnival atmosphere – beer stalls, dance music and a street packed with a predominantly young crowd.

However, it’s possible Tortona has become a victim of its early success. Andrea Cuman, a researcher at the Catholic University of Milan, is exploring the effects of the Furniture Fair on the city. He says, although Tortona started off as an area where manufacturers could exhibit their wares while avoiding the official fair, it has since attracted many of the bigger brands. ‘Many mainstream brands prefer to exhibit in Tortona than in Salone del Mobile, or to have a presence in both.’

Some aspects of the area err on cliché, indulging itself in its cool and youthful image. One crowded studio had been virtually emptied of its products and instead offered visitors marker pens so that they could scrawl graffiti on the walls. Later, I found out the studio had designed a piece of furniture that allowed a room to function as kitchen, living room and office all in one. A pretty nifty piece of kit, relegated to the sidelines so that the shop could focus on the ‘experience’.

Lambrate, a district further to the east that has been part of Fuorisalone since 2009, has been billed as ‘the new Tortona’ and has a similarly artisanal atmosphere but with a bigger emphasis on art than design. The streets are more open than at Tortona, with less of a street festival atmosphere.

This year, the Royal College of Arts’ exhibition in a former school building in the area included the innovative ‘Fan Table’ by Mauricio Affonso, which can be reformed into a variety of shapes and sizes to suit its space, and ‘Halcyon’, a lightweight, clean and ultra-sleek car.

Over in Brera, the most central Fuorisalone district, venues are scattered, so the area does not feel as ‘invaded’ as Tortona or Lambrate when the fair is in town. This allows designers to create installations in unique spaces without being crowded out by other works. Both Zaha Hadid and David Adjaye had work on display in Brera this year; Hadid had designed a pavilion with marble manufacturer Citco that stood in the Botanical Garden, while Adjaye had worked with Swarovski to create a collection of vases, on display at Swarovski’s boutique nearby.

For the last 10 years, Nigel Coates has exhibited at Rho, often as part of collections for other manufacturers. But this year he chose to forego a presence at the main fair in order to exhibit solely in Fuorisalone. Coates made use of Casa Reale, a small, derelict-looking building on the grounds of Entratalibera, a private gallery in east Milan that he fitted out with lighting products and furnishings.

‘At Rho you are guaranteed a huge audience, but Fuorisalone has a different tilt; it tends towards installations and is more artistic,’ says Coates. ‘Casa Reale suited our needs as we could have our own identity.’

His ‘Angel Falls’ chandelier, made out of handmade glass figures, provided a striking entrance piece, while upstairs his ‘Jolly’ collection of crystal lighting pieces illuminated the darkened rooms. In effect, he transformed the space into an installation, rather than exhibition.

Across town at the Museum of Science and Technology, Tom Dixon created MOST – a week-long event that hosted designers such as David Weeks and TUMI and offered ice cream-making lessons, bike tours of the festival, and a free chair giveaway at the end of the week. Not only did Dixon find a to exhibit his lighting products, he also created a hub of activities that rivalled many of the other centres in Fuorisalone.

‘I have always found trade fairs slightly soulless and restricted,’ Dixon says. ‘We are not allowed to sell retail, set up a restaurant or show lighting and furniture together. It’s impossible to express ourselves in a unique way.’

Dixon says he didn’t even feel the need to attend the main fair at Rho. ‘Whatever happens I am always more engaged by unique displays in new spaces that I have never seen before’

Although other important design festivals such as London Design Week or Maison Objet in Paris show firms doing their best to be noticed, none quite matches Milan for the curious dynamic of districts falling in and out of fashion.

There is already evidence of a new design district developing. ‘Each area fights for visitors by placing their maps in strategic parts of Fuorisalone,’ says Cuman. ‘I found maps distributed in Tortona and Lambrate publicising Isola, an area outside the usual circuit of Fuorisalone’. Seems like the elusive festival is on the move again.

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