"To visit Milan is to experience
the antithesis of design"

| 38 comments

"To visit Milan is to experience the antithesis of design"

Opinion: Dezeen editor-in-chief Marcus Fairs reports from Milan design week, where he finds a city seemingly determined to make life unbearable for visitors.


Grey skies over grey buildings make for a grey mood. I’m in Milan for the annual design fair and it’s impossible not to be affected by the miserable weather. But the unseasonal chill that has descended on this dour northern Italian city seems to be a metaphor for the fortunes of the world’s biggest design gathering.

The Fuori Salone events around town feel much less busy than in recent years. You can walk down Via Tortona without running the risk of being crushed to death. Exhibition spaces are unfilled. Taxis are plentiful. I’ve met people who’ve found hotel rooms at the last minute - and not been ripped off. All these things would have been unthinkable in previous years.

There’s also little sense of the excitement of past years when Twitter, SMS and Bar Basso would be buzzing with hot tips and must-see recommendations. As one designer said to me the other night: “It must be a bad year – Alice Rawsthorn has hardly tweeted anything”.

It’s not surprising, since Europe – and Italy in particular – is mired in a seemingly endless economic crisis and the Milanese design brands that form the fair’s backbone are suffering. None will admit it openly but I’ve heard talk of four-day weeks, extended summer shut-downs and mothballed research and development centres.

The Milanese are masters of surface confidence – whenever I’ve asked senior figures about their company’s fortunes, the answer has always been a variation of the conspiratorial stock reply: “We’re doing well, but our competitors are finding things very difficult.”

The Salone Internazionale del Mobile (the official fair held in a vast Fiera Milano exhibition centre on the edge of the city) has dealt with the tough conditions by pretending they don’t exist, hilariously plastering Milan in 2009 with banners declaring “Crisis? What crisis? Salone is here!”

But the arrogance and swagger of previous years has finally ebbed, and more than one local has nervously mentioned last September’s article by Julie Lasky in the New York Times, which declared that London had usurped Milan as the world’s design capital.

I don’t (yet) agree with Lasky on this point and nor do any of the senior designers I’ve spoken to in Milan this week. For them, it’s still the paramount get-together of the year and the place where the key product launches take place. They love the city and desperately want it to thrive. Milan’s sheer size and heritage remain unparalleled. The Salone itself gets over 300,000 visitors and citywide an estimated half a million people are involved in the week in one way or another.

Milan practically invented the contemporary furniture industry in the second half of the last century and the Salone, established in 1961, has long been the definitive fair. This dominance stems from the network of family-run companies, prodigious home-grown design talents and highly skilled artisans who collaboratively turned Milan into the furniture design and production capital of the world in the post-war era.

Yet towards the end of the twentieth century the city’s stock of great designers mysteriously began to peter out – Sottsass, Castiglioni and their ilk left few protégés of note – and Milanese companies instead turned to foreign designers to design their products and give them marketing cachet. This has led to the curious situation today where rival Milanese furniture companies work with the same promiscuous pool of international names, resulting in product portfolios that are often indistinguishable. It’s hard to think of another industry where brands would allow their identities to be blurred in this way.

Now the companies themselves seem to be under threat from more adventurous overseas operations that are making the running on their home turf. The most impressive individual show this year is the vast, lavish, recession-defying installation by Dutch brand Moooi. The most innovative new players over the past few years have been the Dutch-run Ventura Lambrate district and the MOST exhibition at the city’s science museum instigated by British designer Tom Dixon (and this year sponsored by US online retailer Fab.com). Unlike his Italian counterparts, Dixon understands the digital forces that are changing the way design is manufactured, marketed and sold.

But the thing that most threatens Milan is Milan itself. The city treats fair visitors with contempt, allowing hotels to more than double their rates during the week, fleecing exhibitors with permits, bamboozling them with red tape (such as the Byzantine impossibility of getting a licence to sell products direct to the public) and doing nothing to help baffled foreigners negotiate the arcane taxi-booking system or the complex public transport network.

There is little evidence of curation across the city, with good shows mixed up with dreadful ones. Cosmit, the company that owns and operates the Salone, has appeared to lose touch with reality in recent years, commissioning lavish cultural spectacles in the city or organising sprawling press trips that had no relevance to the business of selling chairs and lights.

Through greed and mismanagement, the Tortona district managed to turn the most vibrant core of the fair into an overpriced, over-branded and overcrowded hell. The other districts and the Salone itself seemingly refuse to communicate with each other. There is no overarching organisation linking everything together, no decent free guidebook (the ubiquitous Interni guide is a navigational disaster) or map  (although our digital one is pretty darned good) and – astonishingly - no agreed brand name for the week. Is it Milan Design Week? Milan Furniture Fair? I Saloni? The Fiera? Nobody knows.

Milan’s hotels and exhibition venues appear to treat the internet as a nuisance, making it as difficult as possible for visitors to get online. Its design brands don't seem to be capable of printing enough press packs to last beyond the first day or setting up a functional and up-to-date online presence. "How can they produce such beautiful furniture yet do everything else so badly?" exclaimed an exasperated American architect over dinner earlier this week.

Most incredibly of all, the Salone doesn’t even have a website, but rather piggybacks on the domain of its Cosmit parent, which provides little useful information beyond the dates of the fair. How can the world’s biggest design fair not have its own website?

In short, to visit Milan during the Salone is to experience the antithesis of design. Given the sheer hassle and expense of attending, it’s little wonder people are staying away. Compare that to London, which has brought all its sprawling September design events under the London Design Festival banner with a clear identity, website, guide and purpose. London is ten times the size of Milan but the London Design Festival is ten times easier to comprehend. If I were a rookie foreign design journalist trying to choose between the two cities, I know which I’d go for.

Another fair that understands the importance of the visitor experience is Kortrijk's Interieur design biennale, which last year made huge strides towards treating that experience as a design task. "I sometimes get a bit frustrated coming back from Milan and feeling that even though I travelled a lot, I missed a lot," its curator Lowie Vermeersch told me, pointing out the paradox that as a design fair, it "is not designed." But Milan doesn't seem to be listening.

The one glimmer of light in Milan this year seems to be the Salone itself, which has been packed with visitors after several years in which it felt like an increasingly optional sideshow to the events in the city. Besides being under a roof and therefore offering one of the few warm and dry experiences in town, this was surely helped by the common-sense decision to at last present a high-profile and relevant design-related exhibition – Jean Nouvel’s Project: Office for Living show – at the fair itself, rather than in a remote palazzo.

Last December, Cosmit appointed Claudio Luti - the savvy chairman and owner of thriving Milanese design brand Kartell - as its president and the word is that further long-overdue changes are afoot. Perhaps the next thing Luti should do is put together a high-powered Milanese design delegation, and visit London.

Top: photograph by Nicole Marnati at Ventura Lambrate 2013

Update 25/05/2013: Salone del Mobile president Claudio Luti responds to this article and promises to tackle issues that "damage Milan"

  • http://twitter.com/soltolina @soltolina

    Not sure I entirely agree with this. Yes, Milan could do more to make the stay more enticing (hotel rates, the most notorious plague, do tend to skyrocket). This would require serious planning and a bit of partnering between key operators, things unfortunately Italy isn’t very good at. Red tape is also a nightmare, true enough.

    On the other hand, the Salone still provides the kind of experience London can frankly only dream about. The sheer amount of “things” going on is impressive, the city is easy to navigate, being 10 times smaller than London (public transportation is getting better too), and the food and drinks scene, well, it’s pretty excellent.

    One common complaint is that the “Salone” is becoming less and less a design event and more a food-cum-corporate sponsorship one. I guess this is partly the result of its success (attracting lots of money from players such as Mini, Heineken, etc) although intelligent companies should probably find a way to better fit with the design theme (one example being Tom Dixon’s capsule collection for Adidas).

  • Tommy

    “To LIVE in Milano is to experience the antithesis of design”

    Yet Milano is more cool than London.

  • udo

    Oh sour grapes! London cannot even dream of usurping Milan’s design fair. Not to mention London is a sloppy mess when it comes to navigation due to its sheer size and the nightmarish, filthy public transportation.

    Even for an “opinion” blog post, this is way too biased. Are you seriously going to type that “nobody knows” what’s the brand name for the week is? You can’t make the difference between an Italian name and it’s translation in English and a couple of location designations? You don’t see the value of cultural events and spreading out the 300,000 visitors throughout the city instead of forcing them into the same showroom located on the outskirts?

    And what a surprise, Tom Dixon’s is among the best shows at the Salone. Oh, wait, it must be because he’s British.

    • mr deeds

      Oops, looks like the article struck a nerve somewhere :)

      • tom wick

        Thank you for this nonsense reply, Mr Deeds!

        • mr deeds

          Not at all, any time. Psychoanalysis is just a pastime of mine. :)

  • Design lighting

    Milan is not perfect, no city is, but don’t be silly and try to compare London to Milan. London Design Week is dying on its feet and 100% Design is only about 5% of the size of Salone so they can’t be compared.

    London hotels are a rip off 12 months of the year, not only for one week in September, and London is hardly California in the sunshine stakes. To compare travelling in Milan to London is crazy due to size. Milan for a small city has everything and more over London. For most Europeans, Sterling is a hassle and as for Tom Dixon, in my opinion, products overpriced and manufactured many miles from London bring varying degrees of standard. Unusual for a designer to be so heavily involved in manufacturing and sales.

    A bit one dimensional to say the least. Yes Italy has it’s challenges on the economic front and I’m sure all design companies are feeling the pinch that London turns a blind eye to. London will never be associated with design and culture, it’s a bit like comparing Italian cuisine with bangers and mash.

    • d.r.

      Milano can be compared with London without problems considering its size. Milano is not what everybody knows from reading Wikipedia, Milano is bigger than people know. You have to not just consider the municipality, the city goes far over it. You will see that when in 2014 it becomes a metropolitan city like London.

    • E.M

      “London will never be associated with design and culture” – how did you come to that conclusion? Absolute nonsense saying that.

  • milkk

    I realize this is wildly off topic, but I was in Milan recently and found disturbing the sheer amount of people trying to scrape a living, for example by guarding the underground ticketing machines and “helping you” get a ticket in exchange for a tip. This kind of of thing would never happen in London.

    • Dood

      True, in London you get your identity stolen via RFID.

  • dromberg

    ”If I were a rookie foreign design journalist trying to choose between the two cities, I know which I’d go for.“
    … and you would be a jobless design journalist in no time.

    Come on, there are lots of justified complaints about Milan and the Salone del Mobile/Fuori Salone events, but the comparison to the London Design Festival just makes you look silly.

    Most of the annoyances of the Milan design week are connected to its success: too many people stuck on the bridge to zona Tortona, too many sponsors, shitty hotels costing a fortune etc.

    But if you feel like zona Tortona resembles a fun fair more than a design event (you are probably right there) then move on to Ventura Lambrate or Brera.

    If you end up in a cheap overpriced hotel, just get your act together and book earlier (and as others noted rip-off hotels are an all year constant in London).

    Obviously there is a lot room for improvement, but in the meantime just enjoy the excellent food, cheap and actually quite efficient public transport and the fact that there is no second place in the world where so many people and companies related to design meet.

    On a final note. Mentioning Jean Nouvel’s Office for Living as “a glimmer of hope” is just plain madness – this show must have been the most ridiculous, laughable exhibition in years. “Office in old apartment, office at home, in a converted warehouse” – really?

  • Redo

    Nice try Marcus Fairs, you did your job. Next time, please, double check the weather… Keep enjoying your fish and chips!

  • teresa

    I agree, this year the Salone/Fuori Salone was low profile. I don’t agree about Milan being hard to enjoy.

    It is easy to go always by stereotypes; in Italy we have to face many difficulties right now but that will never change our inborn aestethical sense which certainly does not belong to other European country! Maybe you’re a little envious that De Lucchi, Mari, Pininfarina, Zanuso, Castiglioni, Sottsass, Rossi etc were not born in another country?

    Design was born in Italy and a temporary better organization of the fair in another city will not change the fact that history made the Salone the most important fair in the world, and not the way it has been organized.

    • dromberg

      “Design was born in Italy”. I suggest you educate yourself in design history.

  • mr. stone

    Job well done! Finally a journalist who had the courage to tell the truth about the furniture fair in Milan. The show is suffering just like the Italian economy and politics.

    Personally I think it’s too late to save the “bleeding dinosaur” and as you can see from this article from the Economist the increasing of corruption in Lombardy is not helping at all!
    http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21565990-eve

    Just remember people: choosing quantity over quality it’s always a big mistake.

  • tom wick

    This is not journalism, this is propaganda.

    A journalist from London, working for a London-based website, writing an article in favour of London’s design ambitions, and on top is giving support for a London-based designer.

    Nice try.

    • Mr Deeds

      Yes, how odd is that… because I see so many Italian journalists praising the design of other countries over their own!

  • Vanessa

    I’m a Milanese student of design at Politecnico di Milano. This year I decided not to go to the fair in Rho because I already knew that it would be only a waste of time (year after year I see the same products or copied products – really sad).

    So I decided to enjoy the Fuorisalone, but it disappointed me too: I don’t really care about events (yeah, they’re important too in order to live a real design week), but the real problem of this edition is that it was really hard to find interesting projects!

    Companies are forgetting that design must improve people’s life and they “project” only in order to sell their products. In this edition I took part in the death of design, I can say. I think that the way of doing design must be reformed. Or else, Milan won’t be the world design capital city anymore.

    Let me say something about organisation: these problems aren’t only of the Salone, this is an Italian problem. Communication is so poor in Italy. I hope that someone will read your article and think about a Salone with a better quality in the future years!

    And a website for the Salone would be totally great! I mean, there’s a website for the Fuorisalone and none for the first one?!

  • Mario

    It is indeed a worthless comparison, Milan and London. Of course certain aspects of the fair are on a dead end road such as Zona Tortona with its sponsor teams (Vodafone, Red Bull etc) and high square metre prices.

    But this is something which has been going on for the past five years. And you see that the situation slowly resolves itself with areas such as Lambrate. So there is a reason to ring an alarm bell, but not in the way Marcus does. It’s comparing Jaguar with Maserati. Pointless!

  • http://www.micromacrolab.it Mmlab

    C’mon Marcus, your article is a bit pretentious. The weather was actually not that bad, pretty sunny for most of the week!

    You can’t find good design in each event taking into account that there are millions of different exhibitions going on, but just to mention a few, Lambrate and Rossana Orlandi were quite fresh and interesting.

    London is cool and it’s growing but it is not there yet.

    • zanger mouse

      “London is cool and it’s growing but it is not there yet.” I believe that’s more or less what the article says.

  • R.M.

    “The Fuori Salone events around town feel much less busy than in recent years. You can walk down Via Tortona without running the risk of being crushed to death. Exhibition spaces are unfilled. Taxis are plentiful. I’ve met people who’ve found hotel rooms at the last minute – and not been ripped off….”

    I don’t agree with a lot of statements in the whole article. But this one is an approximate opinion, no numerical data is given, it gives hearsay information. It has no more value, for me, than Berlusconi’s statement about international crisis: “We have no crisis: just look outside, our restaurants are always full!”. Same mediatic way to say somthing maybe false, maybe true, but very effective to catch the attention.

  • Dan Leno

    This sounds like a boring tourist’s review left on hotels.com. I guess some people want to have the same standards everywhere they go not to fall out of their comfort zone. I truly hope that Milan or any other European city won’t fall for this Starbucks culture of standardisation and I personally keep enjoying this variety as a truly valuable quality that keeps the experience of traveling exciting.

  • http://www.albertoantoniazzi.com A.A.

    A word used in this article says it all: “Byzantine”. And it works well for Italian politics too.

    There’s absolutely no chance for Milan to compete with London in the near future.

  • Rob

    Very easy to say now the the new design is in London. But the truth is that design as we know it was born in Milan. The ‘design weeks’ as we know them were first established in Milan. Both economical and cultural crisis is obscuring Italian design for about a decade and you can only see it now? Very late I might say. But there is nothing at the moment that can be compared to the Milan of design, the Bar Basso and the culture you can still breathe and live there. London design week is a small copy, yet more polished and better organised. The Fuorisalone is a spontaneous collection of events. Interni Magazine only tries to get the most out it but it is probably the worst design magazine you can buy for money.

  • F.C.

    Ridiculous article. This is not design criticism nor journalism, it’s dumbed down propaganda. (And it would seem that Dezeen has an on ongoing contract with Tom Dixon…)

  • David

    I just want to specify that Milan is not a small city as many of you say. Milan has a small municipality, but the real city, with all its importance, is in the top five biggest European cities.
    London’s municipality is 10 times Milan’s municipality, but London is a metropolitan city, the union of more municipalities.
    In 1 year also Milan will be a metropolitan city and then it will have a similar extension with a population of over 4,000,000.
    And it already has a metropolitan area of 7,400,000 people.

  • http://www.walnutgreydesign.com/ Mr Walnut Grey

    This is an opinion piece and Marcus is stating, from what I read, his opinion on Milan Furniture Week (or whatever it’s called). Shame its turned into a Milan vs. London debate.

  • amanda

    Why do people have to compare and find the “best”? London/Milan. Each have their own unique personalities and any real designer would be able to appreciate that. In Italy it’s in the blood and design oozes out of every crevice – yes it may be disorganized but it always has been – why try and compare and make it like all the other places? Just let it be.

    As a Londoner I do find it a bit rich that a British journalist is complaining about the weather. Hello, it’s been raining here for a year. As for London – well it is a vibrant place but it is also very self conscious about design with taste and style being controlled by mainly non-design trained journalists. The Italians would never stand for that.

  • Roberta Mutti

    Milan is facing a recession. Truth. Milan public transportation is cheap but could be improved. Truth. The Milan Design Week is not a unique brand. Truth, probably Marcus Fairs is too British to really understand.

    The reality is: the Milan Furniture Fair, Salone del Mobile and others, in the Halls of Rho-Fieramilano, counted 324.000 visitors.

    100% Design, 2012 edition: over 25.000 visitors. That’s all.

  • Jay

    I understand it was for the sake of metaphor but if you’re worried about your hair going curly ;) get yourself an umbrella – it always rains a lot in Milan at this time of year and most of last week was fairly pleasant.

    I agree on the whole but would say there were more new (and interesting) products from the big manufacturers than last year’s tweaks on old designs – some major investment going on even if Italian companies are being bought up left right and centre.

    I wouldn’t agree about London – although the literature may be better designed, the general feel you get from the scruffy venues is of one big student show – no offence to students – but if you want to see all the new stuff from the major suppliers you go to Milan. The internet connection is dreadful and the system of trying to pay for your lunch before you’ve seen it is ludicrous, but the Milanese are some of the friendliest people, which more than makes up for it. A great city – and try getting anywhere in London for the equivalent of €1.50 – we have a ridiculously expensive public transport system… um, getting off the point.

  • http://bicycledesign.net/ James

    “This has led to the curious situation today where rival Milanese furniture companies work with the same promiscuous pool of international names, resulting in product portfolios that are often indistinguishable. It’s hard to think of another industry where brands would allow their identities to be blurred in this way.”

    Seriously? It seems that the problem you are describing is pretty common in most industries these days. Companies that are driven by sales and marketing rather than design and engineering tend to quickly and crudely copy any idea that a competitor has success with. Furniture companies are far from the only ones with a brand identity issue.

  • Ahmed

    The article is not saying that London design week is better than that of Milan in general. But it’s true that it’s better branded and organised. I think it’s not a question of scale but orientation – London is design and future oriented, but Milan is closer to the trading of contemporary design.

    • baua

      Give them, as bad as they are, a chance to organise your little venues cattling and they’ll do well enough. Give others the chance to organise the MIlan venues all around and we’ll see.

  • andrea tosi

    “Life begins at the end of the comfort zone”.
    As background to this debate there is the eternal conflictual duality among the Mediterranean passion and the Nordic organisation, the culture of making vs speculation and gambling, business and design.

  • Marco

    Are you sure you were in Milano during the Furniture Fair? Perhaps you have missed your flight and you were arriving in another city and you were too … to admit your mistake?

    The Furniture Fair in Milano must be analysed at the fair (in town it’s a sort of great party!) and this year at the fair the level of research and products was really very high!

    Marco

  • http://twitter.com/Pierangelo_Ran @Pierangelo_Ran

    I think you put too much confidence on Mr Luti. His company, Kartell, still doesn’t have a website optimised for mobile view, even though it is a worldwide well known Italian design brand.

    This means that, as Italians, we still think that it is enough to be beautiful and “organisation” is something that follows.