A visit to this year’s Milan Furniture Fair highlights how architects are using furniture design to complement their building projects, writes Rakesh Ramchurn
It’s a drizzly Tuesday evening in Milan when I find myself seated for a novelty tasting menu in a small studio just outside the fashionable district of Brera. The occasion is the launch of a new dinner table set by Michaelis Boyd Studio, which has decided to allow festival-goers to experience its products ‘in action’.
Although the architecture practice has made bespoke furniture for clients as part of larger building projects, this is the first time they have made furniture for sale.
As Ben Masterson-Smith, associate of the practice and lead designer of the products, says: ‘We were our own clients for the project, so that in itself provides a certain freedom. We came from the starting point of being able to do whatever we wanted.’
Furniture created by architects can be found all over Milan during the fair, both at the official exhibition grounds at Rho, 14km from the city centre, and in pop-up events and curated shows across the city. A notable event sees the launch of an ultra-sleek furniture collection by Rem Koolhaas, including motorised chairs and tables, all height-adjusted at the touch of a sinister red button.
Meanwhile, Daniel Libeskind has created a desk lamp for Artemide that looks just like a skyscraper – in fact, dare I say it? – just like his unrealised proposal for Freedom Tower in New York, with added functionality gained through an ominous collapsible frame.
There are many reasons why architects choose to encompass furniture design into their practices’ work. Financially, the profit margins are better as furniture takes less resources to design and can be mass-produced. There are also the aesthetic arguments: creating objects that complement architects’ buildings; finding new ways of influencing the spaces we use; even the opportunity to create a ‘whole’ product, with less of the compromises inherent in designing buildings. But it’s also clear that excursions into furniture design can harvest new ideas that can later be applied to building projects.
At SaloneSatelite, the part of the fair devoted to emerging designers, I meet Nina Alexandra Gunnell, interior architect and designer at Barberini and Gunnell, who describes how furniture design has helped her and partner Francesco Barberini with their building work.
‘We’re a little bit more playful now, thanks to our experiments with different shapes, sizes and materials in furniture design,’ says Gunnell. ‘We’ve found out a lot more about how to use furniture and how it fits into its context. And as we also design the context of furniture through our buildings and interiors, we are better able to make everything fit together.’
Through their furniture work, Barberini and Gunnell have also discovered techniques that they hope to transfer directly to buildings. Their Origami tables are formed from CNC milled glass elements and – perhaps belying architects’ interest in structure – each of the ‘legs’ is angled off-vertical, unable to stand but for the support of an adjoining and precarious sheet of glass.
‘If we hadn’t made the Origami table, we wouldn’t know how strong the glass was,’ says Gunnell. ‘We plan to take this technique and apply it to a stairway or handrail in a future building.’
Abraham Thomas, curator at the V&A, explains how furniture design gives architects the freedom to explore new avenues in creativity: ‘Furniture on a smaller scale can offer room for experimentation that may not be possible on a larger building scale, especially when it comes to materials, prototyping techniques and fabrication skills.’
Thomas also speaks of how architects can use furniture to relay much of their design ethos to potential clients. ‘Furniture offers this amazing opportunity to present a mission statement for design thinking,’ he says. ‘Many architects use furniture as a kind of calling card to indicate future areas of development and new directions for wider thinking within the studio.’
This is certainly the case with Zaha Hadid, whose furniture products Thomas describes as ‘having a very close connection both visually and texturally’ to her building projects, citing the Aqua Table and the Aquatic Centre as an example of furniture product and building project sharing a distinct design language. ‘The Aqua Table was released a few years before the Aquatic Centre opened, but it was a way of expressing some of the design thinking for the building project.’
Zaha Hadid has a large presence at this year’s fair, centred on a crumbling former bronze foundry in the quiet district of Isola where she unveiled Array, a new theatre seating system, alongside the previously released Zephyr sofa and Liquid Glacial Table.
However, despite a rich tradition of architects indulging in product and furniture design, the separation between the disciplines is far stronger in the UK – aided by an education system that encourages specialisation – than elsewhere on the continent, where design subjects are more intertwined.
Over at Euroluce, the fair’s biennial lighting show, I meet Nigel Coates, who created Crocco and Illuminati, two decorative lighting ranges for Italian manufacturer Slamp. Comparing the UK to Italy, he speaks of the ‘artificial’ division between architecture and furniture design that exists in the UK.
‘All the famous Italian designers are actually architects, while in England, we’ve got this division between the two,’ he says. ‘In the continental education system, until very recently, there wasn’t such a thing as industrial design. Design was part of architecture. There is more crossover [in Italy] and more incentive for crossover, as the opportunities for architectural projects are fewer in Italy, whereas in England, we have a great big service industry that designs hotels and office blocks across the world, but less of a manufacturing base.’
And the next trend to move from furniture making to building projects? The last few years have seen design festivals buzz with new developments in 3D printing and rapid prototyping, pioneered in industrial design and already used to create whole items of furniture.
The techniques are growing in scale to create architectural elements and even whole buildings. In 2009, architect Andrea Morgante created a 3m-high pavilion using the world’s largest 3D printer. This was followed by the announcements in January this year that Dutch practice Universe Architecture was planning to 3D-print the parts to build an entire house, while Foster + Partners, taking the technique to new heights, has designed a space station which would be constructed using 3D-printed lunar soil. It seems furniture making and building design are coming full circle.