(and still no social revolution worth searching for)
From handicraft to digicraft: Milan’s furniture fair looks to the future
At this year’s fair, alternative designers are turning luxury traditions on their head to focus on ‘furniture hacking’ – from printing chairs to building their own particle accelerators
One of the perverse pleasures of going to Milan for the furniture fair in April is being forced to window shop so far beyond your means it’s funny. Wander the streets around the Duomo and you’ll pass the Prada store in the Galleria and the Valextra store on via Manzoni, where the Platonic ideal of the leather suitcase will set you back €6,000. Milan revolves around the luxury industry, and the furniture fair is part of it. This year, however, there was an alternative group of designers subverting the traditional logic of the event. These were the geeks and hackers challenging the very notions of luxury craftsmanship and mass-produced furniture – and stealing the limelight from a thousand glitzy chair launches.
A stone’s throw from the Duomo, some of them were gathered at the Palazzo Clerici in a show called The Future in the Making, curated by the Italian design magazine Domus. Seeing these designers huddled around their laptops in an opulent baroque setting, it seemed entirely plausible that the geeks shall inherit the earth. In a show all about alternative means of production, here was Dutch designer Dirk Vander Kooij’s Endless Robot, which prints out chairs made of recycled fridge plastic. There was also a series of furniture collected under the titleAutoproggetazione 2.0, a homage to Enzo Mari’s 1974 project, where he gave away the designs for a series of DIY furniture pieces that people could knock together with planks and nails – except these new ones, of course, are the digital, open-source equivalent, made with computerised cutting machines.
In the frescoed banqueting hall was a MakerBot Thing-O-Matic, a cheap 3D printer squirting out digital canapes made of Nutella. For years now, 3D printers have been heralded as a manufacturing revolution, but now that you can buy one for the price of a good laptop, they’re finally becoming accessible to enthusiasts and not just professional designers. These DIY methods disrupt the traditional triangular relationship between the designer, the manufacture and the consumer – because now you can be all three. The cover story of this week’s Economist calls it “the third industrial revolution”.
On top of these technological developments there are new business models emerging, most notably the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, also featured in the show. If a simple radio design can get $1m in seed funding from the public, traditional manufacturers are going to find their hold on the products market eroding rapidly. But the thing that struck me about the Domus show was that it presented an alternative trajectory for Italian design. The Arduino circuit board (the core piece of kit that so many hackers and designer-programmers use) was created by an Italian: the interaction designer Massimo Banzi. To be clear, there’s no question here of national ownership – nothing could be further from the spirit of open-source design. But if you see Banzi and the tinkerers he has empowered as the digital heirs of Enzo Mari, then that’s an intriguing alternative history of “Italian design”, and one that suggests other strategies than merely trying to flog more quality sofas to the Chinese and Russians.
All over Milan, this tension between mass production and self-production, between handicraft and digicraft, was to the fore. At the Museum of Science and Technology, British designer Tom Dixon was punching out sheet-metal furniture on a giant industrial metal-punching machine. While the machinery itself is somehow engrossing, the process is crushingly boring – a state of the art version of the Fordist production line. The consumer has no involvement here but through his wallet. But upstairs, another Londoner, Assa Ashuach, was exhibiting his Digital Forming software, which lets you customise designs with the click of a mouse. Ashuach says he wants to “convert the user into a partner”, and that’s exactly the same ethos that has made Kickstarter such an incredible success.
Even in Milan’s most famous department store, La Rinascente, there was a healthy friction between “designer” objects and “happenings”. In a series of performances called Hacked: 100 Hours or Rebellious Imagination, a succession of designers and artists contaminated this shopping mecca with madcap games and alternative production methods. There were workshops on building an open-source house and on how to build your own particle accelerator. There was even a grudge match between designer Dominic Wilcox and a 3D printer to see which could build a better model of the Duomo – Wilcox’s wonky clay thing triumphed in the battle of Man v Machine. It was good fun, though if these performances counted as “hacking” it goes to show how ultra mainstream the strategy has become. Hackers used to be outlaws: now, even department stores want them around.
The other story in Milan this year was the revival of the city centre as a focal point for fringe events. For several years now the city has been splintered, with the main fair out in the sticks in the Rho exhibition halls, and the fringe events concentrated in the former industrial zones of Tortona and Lambrate. This year, Tortona was a shadow of its former self. Instead, many of the best shows were in the centre, occupying grand palazzos that, thanks to the recession, are suddenly cheap to rent out. Apart from The Future in the Making in the Palazzo Clerici, the Japanese minimalists Nendo were showing their furniture (all thin black lines) against the backdrop of the Palazzo Visconti. Meanwhile, the Nilufar Gallery was showing Kram/Weisshaar’s Multithread furniture, designed to reveal the load-bearing points, at the Palazzo Garzanti.
It is customary in a review of the Milan furniture fair to round up the year’s best products and, dare I say it, the “hot new trends”. But this was not a particularly strong year for innovative products, with many companies playing it safe or re-upholstering old classics. So let’s just accept that there was a more compelling story to tell. This groundswell of participative design, rapid manufacturing techniques and hacking is starting to challenge Milan’s design orthodoxy, making us forget about products and think about processes. Because the furniture fairs of the not-too-distant future will be for exhibiting new services and technologies, not just objects.