VIEWPOINT

Milan Design Week: A mix of past and present

La Cova (above), a human-sized nest by Italian designer Gianni Ruffi for Poltranova in 1972, was brought back by Italian furniture company Gufram.
La Cova (above), a human-sized nest by Italian designer Gianni Ruffi for Poltranova in 1972, was brought back by Italian furniture company Gufram.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

The graffiti in Milan's historic centre cursed capitalism and urged the smashing of store windows. But it may as well have said "No Parking", for all the impact such anti-materialist sentiments had on this well-dressed city, luxuriating in design during the recent Milan Furniture Fair.

The aura was giddy and for good reason. The mid-April weather was unseasonably warm; Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy had just declared the furniture fair a symbol of his country's much needed economic recovery; and Milan was preparing to host a world's fair devoted to food and nutrition in less than three weeks.

And yet this free-for-all had an edge of desperate energy that was reflected in the aesthetic waywardness of the designs. The 1980s were back, for sure, in cheeky chairs and vases with awkward proportions and strange colour combinations. But so were the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, not to mention guest appearances from the age of Art Deco.

Many objects, including hallucinatory carpets and 3-D-printed lamps, called attention to their lavish materials and seductive forms, manipulated through state-of-the-art technology. But what was often lacking from these statement pieces was coherent thought.

"It resembles what happens in wartime: technology and materials are moving forward and the designers are following them," said Ms Galit Gaon, chief curator of the Design Museum Holon in Israel, who was in Milan scouting for material for exhibitions. "I feel like everything is stalling. We are waiting for something to happen."

Even so, there were many pleasures to be found in the riotous medleys of decorative surfaces and historical references.

A particular high point was Euroluce, a biennial lighting show that revealed progress in the art of turning lamps into lyrical sculpture.

And with Expo Milano 2015 around the corner, food was a certifiable design inspiration. Even before its opening yesterday, the expo was bringing its subject of food into conversations about design.

A vivid point of intersection was the Triennale Design Museum, where the exhibition Arts And Foods: Rituals Since 1851 took up almost every square foot.

The Chandelier Euroluce, a biennial lighting show that runs alongside the furniture fair, was the most visionary of platforms. Filling three halls, it offered technology-driven concepts that often would not see the commercial market for a few years. Particularly fetching was Les Danseuses, a whirling skirted lamp by Atelier Oi for Artemide, whose action is based on the physics of hurricanes.

Designers looking back willy-nilly for inspiration sometimes flatten design history, going so far as to braid historical references together in single objects. India Mahdavi's cement tiles for Bisazza, for instance, combined 1970s motifs with 1950s hues.

The temporal smorgasbord may explain the several homages this year, in products issued by Kartell, Cappellini and others, to Memphis, a short-lived Italian design movement that was all about random historical recycling, lively surfaces and comical exaggerations. It may have been less a trend at the fair than a mascot.

Every year at the fair, there is a tug of war between modernist simplicity and decorative exuberance. The increasing precision of computercontrolled tools allows for greater refinements on both sides.

But this year, the maximalists seemed to pull with particular vigour and highly ornamented surfaces and shapes were everywhere. Textile patterns were adapted to furniture, wallpaper featured super-realistic objects and colours popped in happy explosions.

New York Times