Chair: Wallace by Jean-Marie Massaud for Poliform
Lamp: Tolomeo Mega Floor Lamp by Michele De Lucci for Artemide, courtesy of Lightology
Photo by Chris Force

Milano Magnifico

Monday, March 24th, 2014

By Amanda Koellner and Chris Force
Portrait by Francesco Brigida

With nearly 300,000 attendees expected this April, the Salone del Mobile defends its crown as the biggest furniture fair on the planet. We speak with eight of the best Italian design houses showing at this year’s event about Italy’s reign over the design world, the challenges facing their industry, and the unmatched Salone experience.

Back in 1961, a small union of furniture manufacturers launched Milan’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile to promote the exportation of Italian furniture. Just as the nation had ascended over its competitors to take the design throne, the Salone too morphed into the undisputed global champion of furniture fairs.

To put the sheer size of the event into perspec- tive, this year’s Salone is expected to bring in at least 290,000 attendees who will collectively help the Lombardy region generate €200 million ($277 million) during the week of the Salone. Meanwhile, Chicago’s NeoCon, dubbed North America’s largest design exposition, will gather 40,000 guests, and New York’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair should draw in 25,000 people. And although the eight design houses we interviewed are among the most prestigious and influential in the industry, you won’t find their work at NeoCon or ICFF—though the Salone is an event that they would not miss.

Italian design is an incestuous, esteemed world that rarely allows creatives from other countries to compete. Italy certainly succeeds where America falls short—not only in designing cutting-edge products but also in crafting them within its borders.

“The Italian way of manufacturing is to try to give new innovation every year, to invest, and to work with the best designers from everywhere,” says Claudio Luti, president of the Salone’s organizing company, COSMIT (Comitato Organizzatore del Salone del Mobile Italiano) and CEO of Kartell, one of Italy’s flagship furniture groups.

Luti’s design history is rooted in both fashion and furniture, as he spent a decade as the managing director of Gianni Versace. In 1988, he acquired Kartell, known for its clever plastic designs, and helped the brand achieve even greater worldwide success.

As the millennium turned, Luti’s collaboration with French designer Philippe Starck proved Kartell’s ability to make huge technological strides in the design world, as the iconic 2002 Louis Ghost Chair was developed by a single injection-molded polycarbonate in an eco-friendly, recyclable plastic—the first of its kind.

The relationship between Luti and Starck also speaks to the promiscuous nature of the design world. Although Starck’s collaborations with Kartell are plentiful, the designer also works with the likes of Flos, Cassina, and Dedon, among others, something rarely seen and often forbidden in fashion. “What I can do with my company is try to take the best creativity from Philippe because I prefer to work with clever designers, and they can work with other companies as well,” Luti says.

“It’s different in fashion, because, for example, when I worked for Versace, he made 100 percent of his collection, and I took care of the business, but there was no integration. Now I work on a project from beginning to end, and it’s a totally different approach.”

That attention to detail seeps into the overall Italian way of manufacturing, where there’s a true pride in doing everything in house. Take Gessi, for example, whose “Made in Gessi” production process calls for everything, from the cardboard boxes to the catalogs, to be made within the walls of its “Dream Factory” found on the sprawling grounds of Gessi Park. 

This is the type of company that reigns supreme in Italian design, and the type that will triumph among the work of more than 2,500 of the world’s best creative companies at this year’s Salone. The eight seasoned design houses featured will both compete with and inspire one another as thousands flock to breathe in the work they will unveil.

As COSMIT says, “Milan, and Milan alone, dictates the trends!”

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