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Nifemi Marcus-Bello

"It has become near impossible for an unproven talent to get a foot in the door"

The unmissable lack of diversity at Milan design week pointed to a wider issue within the industry, writes Amy Frearson.

The lack of diversity in the design industry is no secret, but the scale of the problem came fully into focus during this year's Milan design week. In the several hundred exhibitions dotted around the city, you could find designers across a wide range of ages, races and genders. Yet if you looked solely in the showrooms of major furniture manufacturers, that spectrum narrowed significantly.

As the days went by, I lost count of the number of brands launching new products by primarily or, in many cases, entirely male designers. There were so few Black designers that I could count all the ones I saw on one hand. And, perhaps most surprisingly, young designers were also in short supply; it was rare to find anyone under the age of 40. The lasting impression was of an industry not just closed to minority voices, but to any new voices full stop.

When it came to female designers, it was always the same names

To a casual visitor, it may not have looked that bad. The gender issue was significantly improved by the presence of two women whose names need little introduction. Milan-based Patricia Urquiola launched so many new designs that her studio released a map to help people locate them all, while the various offerings from London-based Faye Toogood included an exhibition that was boldly feminist, featuring rugs that celebrate sex and the human body from a woman's perspective.

While both were welcome additions, I couldn't help but feel a sense of disappointment that, when it came to female designers, it was always the same names. In a design world dominated by men, surely there are more women up to the challenge?

The long list of brands spotlighting all-male designer lineups in Milan this year included Alessi, Alias, Flos, Knoll, Magis, Molteni&C and Wonderglass, while those with just one woman in a group of three or more men included B&B Italia, Bisazza, Classicon, Gebrüder Thonet Vienna, Moooi and Pedrali.

To be absolutely clear, I am not accusing any of these brands of gender bias. Most of them have worked with women in the past (albeit some more than others) and I'm sure most will again. I'm not trying to point fingers, I simply want to highlight the overriding sense of imbalance that overshadowed my experience of the design week.

These are just the most extreme cases. There were countless other brands where the gender balance among their designers was nowhere near 50:50. The same was true of brands whose shows centred around a single designer. Established female names like Maria Celestino, Paola Navone and Cecilie Manz were all present but wholly outnumbered by their male peers.

The absence of Black and minority-ethnic designers was even more stark. As in previous years, racial diversity was largely absent from the new launches of most furniture brands.

It remains to be seen whether furniture producers are taking note

The only notable exceptions I encountered came from German brand Dedon, whose all-male-designed collection included an extension to the Kida furniture collection by African American designer Stephen Burks, and bathroom brand Kohler, whose monumental palazzo exhibition centred around a toilet by British artist-designer of Caribbean descent Samuel Ross, a rising star.

I spoke with Dominique Petit-Frère, co-founder of New York and Ghana-based architecture and design studio Limbo Accra, about her experience in Milan. Despite being one of the only Black women exhibiting anywhere, she told me there was cause for hope.

She pointed to programmes such as the Samuel Ross Black British Artist Grant Programme, of which she is a recipient, as green shoots of change. "The positive change that's happening is that you have people like Samuel Ross nurturing the next generation of talent," she said. "There is still work to be done, but people are trying to break into these spaces."

Petit-Frère's optimism was not unfounded. Away from the furniture showrooms, in group exhibitions taking place across the city, Black designers were responsible for many of the standout works. The Communion table by British-Ghanaian designer Giles Tettey Nartey was the showpiece of the ​​Wallpaper Class of '24 exhibition at the Triennale Milano, while the Omi Iyọ installation at Palazzo Litta by Nigerian designer Nifemi Marcus-Bello (pictured) marked him out as a talent to watch.

Other highlights included sculptural furniture works by ​​Mark Grattan, presented by UNNO Gallery, and Limbo Accra's own contribution, the self-launched Euclid Stools presented by Petit-Frère at the Prada Frames symposium. But what all these designs have in common is that, for now, they are largely limited to the world of limited editions and one-off commissions.

As Petit-Frère also conceded, it remains to be seen whether furniture producers are taking note and whether these designers will be given the chance to work on products for a wider audience. "On a systemic level, I'm not sure what the change looks like," she said.

The diversity problem is symptomatic of a wider issue affecting the design industry at large

The opinion I had formed before arriving in Milan was that one of two things was happening. At best, companies were ignorant of the value of products that transcend borders and reflect different cultures. Or at worst, they were being deliberately exclusionary because, for whatever reason, it was easier.

Only after I arrived did I realise that the diversity problem is symptomatic of a wider issue affecting the design industry at large. The fact is, it has become near impossible for an unproven talent, no matter who they are, to get a foot in the door.

The situation is best summed up by a conversation I had with Sebastian Herkner, a 43-year-old designer who found fame in his early 30s after being scouted by Patrizia Moroso, creative director of influential furniture brand Moroso. Herkner said the same opportunities are not available to up-and-coming designers today.

"Because of the unique situation at the moment, first with Covid, then everything else going on in the world, a lot of companies think it's better to put their efforts and belief in established designers rather than young designers," he suggested. "They are not really looking for new ideas and I think that's a problem for the young generation."

Herkner is right, but the issue goes beyond young designers. The "playing it safe" formula that naturally became a theme during the pandemic has somehow become the status quo.

It's easy to see why; for a business operating in a time of global political and environmental instability, when supply chains and manufacturing costs have become completely unpredictable, an established designer naturally represents a safer investment. It's not just about experience; a big name means brand power, a sure-fire way of grabbing attention in a crowded market.

There are plenty more talents out there, and enough to represent a much more diverse pool of voices

The question now is whether change is possible. History tells us there can be huge rewards for brands willing to take risks. Just look back to the late 1990s, when Cappellini took a chance on recent graduates Ed Barber and Jay Osgerby, or even just before Covid, when began a partnership with then relatively unknown Ini Archibong.

If the rest of this year's Milan exhibitions are anything to go on, there are plenty more of those talents out there, and enough to represent a much more diverse pool of voices. Brands need to be braver and take a chance on them.

Amy Frearson is editor-at-large for Dezeen, having held the role of editor from 2016 to 2019. She is also a regular contributor to the Financial Times and Elle Decoration and published her first book, All Together Now: The Co-living and Co-working Revolution, in 2021.

The photo is by Amir Farzad.