Milan design week and its anchor event Salone del Mobile have resumed their traditional April slot after three pandemic-hit editions. Dezeen's editorial director Max Fraser asks if the festival has returned to its former strength.
Judging from the packed sidewalks of Milan and the thronging aisles of the Salone del Mobile trade fair held at Rho, on a surface level Milan is back.
According to figures released by the show organiser, visitor numbers were up 15 per cent on 2022 to 307,418 people from 181 countries, with China reclaiming its place as the top country after Italy following the lift on their travel ban.
However, the pre-pandemic event of 2019 pulled in almost 80,000 more visitors (386,236) and occupied approximately 18 per cent more exhibition space so on paper, the fair is not back to normal. Well, nevermind – on the opening day, I was none the wiser. The surge of visitors often felt overwhelming.
While society may have embraced a variety of pandemic-induced "new norms", by contrast anxiety-riddled CEOs and sales managers were pinning hopes on their order books returning to a healthy state as soon as possible, despite continuing jitters in the market.
Exodus of leading brands "alarming"
The drama amongst exhibitors and visitors alike was that Vitra wasn't showing, despite the brand's strategic move away from trade fairs. Perhaps more shocking was the departure of Italian stalwarts such as B&B Italia and Cassina that favoured their inner city showrooms as the place to showcase and conduct business. US brand Emeco wasn't there, as well as British brands such as Case Furniture, Modus, SCP and Very Good & Proper.
Most noticeable was that the key Danish brands including HAY, &tradition, Fritz Hansen, Fredericia and Carl Hansen & Son had vacated and chosen to focus their energies on 3 Days of Design in Copenhagen, a burgeoning citywide event in June that is capturing attention. This exodus is alarming, leaving me wondering if this is a temporary hiatus or a more permanent move away from the traditional trade fair format which is expensive and often formulaic.
The exposure is great but how much of it ever converts to business?
The loss of certain exhibitors forced a rejig of the hall layouts and, as explained to me by one exhibitor, it altered the pecking order between brands. But this is something only regulars to the fair would notice and didn't seem to deter the steady march of visitors onto the stands.
Deep in the halls and deprived of natural light, few of us actively enjoy spending time in this environment, including designer Tom Dixon whose brand exhibited in the Euroluce lighting halls for the first time. "As much as it pains me to admit, we did really good business here," he told me, citing the difficulty of competing with the showy inner city spectacles staged by the mega brands.
One can't argue that Salone del Mobile remains a strong forum for international commerce, illustrated by the fact that brands are still prepared to part with huge sums of money to exhibit here, in some cases rumoured to be multi-millions of euros. Italian brand Minotti built a stand so immense, one was capable of getting lost in it, an experience repeated at Molteni&C, Poliform, Edra, Kartell and others.
Unbeknownst to me, some of these displays take more than a month to construct, the justification for which I would guess is validated by the lines of people queuing to enter them – one example, Zanotta, clocked about 1,000 people per hour across all six days. The exposure is great but how much of it ever converts to business? Those are the stats the missing brands will want to find out.
Sustainable change remains elusive
As ever, if you're in the business of manufacturing sheet material, you're laughing all the way to the bank during Milan design week. I find the quantity of material resources required to build these slick displays to be unfathomable, and despite the sustainability objectives set out by organisers, it was hard to see where progress was being made, not least because these sustainable intentions were only voluntary for exhibitors.
Layer in the impact of shipping and construction (and disassembly) as well as the travel footprint of the teams involved and I struggle to avoid recurring existential doom surfacing in my moral conscience.
How do we ever disrupt the status quo if we're afraid to ruffle the feathers of those holding the purse strings?
It would seem the quest to keep producing more new furniture and lighting while maintaining brand prowess and full order books sits at odds with society's wider responsibility to tackle the climate crisis. Plenty of people shared their disgust with me at the lack of progress in this regard but I noticed that this sentiment often turned to smiles when within earshot of the commissioning brand owners. How do we ever disrupt the status quo if we're afraid to ruffle the feathers of those holding the purse strings?
It was not lost on me that those brands talking up their carbon reducing initiatives certainly emitted a lot of carbon to communicate that message in Milan. But I'm prepared to accept that at least they're trying and there's no such thing as perfect.
Risk-averse brands are turning their backs on young talent
Ordinarily each year, I would expect a few burgeoning designers to hit the big league and be taken under the wing of high calibre brands. This dropped off throughout the pandemic years and that noticeable lack continued in 2023. Rocked by the instability of recent years, companies seem to be favouring established names that are perceived as lower risk.
But if this trend continues, it is my belief that the talent void will taint Italy's reputation as the place where a designer's career is propelled forward. Perhaps this is a symptom of what designer Jasper Morrison described as "a corporate Salone", where increasing numbers of brands are being acquired by venture capitalists more concerned by the balance sheet than any cultural dilution.
That said, a few halls away in Salone Satellite, a mainstay of Salone del Mobile dedicated to emerging talents, I was taken by the modestly formed stand of Design Academy Eindhoven that was free from any new designs. Instead, students were broadcasting roundtable discussions with industry commentators on their Elevator Radio show.
I participated in Crisis x Critique where we unpicked the problematic idea that "design can save the world". We talked about how designers can create consciously for our uncertain future at a time when the world seems to be in constant crisis mode.
Our amplified voices felt like a distant cry from the neighbouring halls of noisy commerce. I experienced a feeling of unease that the graduates were looking at us like we're all mad for wasting energy on chairs and lights. Surely we've collectively got bigger fish to fry? We leave their generation pondering where they fit into this behemoth industry.
Milan is still the hub for new ideas
The hundreds of events dotted around the city as part of fuorisalone remain a favourite of exhibitors and visitors alike. Extraordinary venues coupled with sunny days (well, mostly) and air-kissing over gelatos is enough for anyone to forget the woes of our times.
Locations that would seem inconceivable to use in other cities come alive for the week such as palazzos, churches, historic villas and museums, grand municipal swimming pools, tennis clubs, apartments, and even a monumental abandoned slaughterhouse. These spaces are worthy of a visit in their own right yet become the backdrop for experimentation from individual designers, collectives and often disruptive brands, with many of them embracing innovations in biomaterials and fabrication, waste reduction and circularity.
Cutting through the noise becomes a skill, and many great shows and installations were often located via tip offs
That said, many of these venues were dominated by camera-friendly immersive experiences by mega brands that stole attention away from the more subtle interventions. Too many fashion brands were hogging the limelight this year – I overheard one visitor say "fashion brands should stick to fashion and leave design alone" and I would tend to agree.
Depressing to me, visitors would shuffle through these venues, photographing and filming everything on a sort of autopilot of content accumulation. Cutting through the noise (and the queues of people queueing because there's a queue) becomes a skill, and many great shows and installations were often located via tip offs from friends and colleagues.
The event remains the place to connect
While this year might've lacked one stand-out show that everyone was talking about, Milan design week is still the place for our industry to come together.
With visitors from across the world, Salone del Mobile and fuorisalone remain the annual design events to unite us, and it is the people who collectively provide the social glue that holds Milan's tapestry of creativity together.
Encouragingly, beyond the professionals, the week attracts a huge number of locals proud to experience the extravaganza that their city hosts. And for all of the strain it puts on the city (and on all of our wallets via extortionate accommodation bills), I still find it to be a joyous week to connect with friends, break bread together and reignite conversations.
If you threw a bowl of confetti in the air, as hard as you try, you will only ever catch a few gems as they fall to the ground. To me, one's experience of Milan design week is similarly haphazard; one will only ever manage to see a snippet of what's on offer in the city. However, relationships will form here which, as designer Luca Nichetto put it, "there is no place like Milan to gather as an industry. It is the best event for our community."
Milan design week took place from 18 to 23 April. See our Milan design week 2023 guide on Dezeen Events Guide for information about the many other exhibitions, installations and talks that took place throughout the week.
Dezeen in Depth
If you enjoy reading Dezeen's interviews, opinions and features, subscribe to Dezeen In Depth. Sent on the last Friday of each month, this newsletter provides a single place to read about the design and architecture stories behind the headlines.