Salone del Mobile 2021 Delivers Exactly What We’ve Been Missing

After being postponed last year, the Milan Furniture Fair returns with human connection at its material core.

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Last week, Milan, Italy, saw a whirlwind of technical innovation, high-concept storytelling, material exploration, and, perhaps most excitingly, community. An acknowledgment of ongoing isolation—and an eagerness to get back to doing things in person—ran as through lines. Exhibits focused on the sense of touch and interaction, revelations born of solitude and quiet contemplation, and our collective social, ecological, and interpersonal progress.

Here, we’ve gathered a handful of highlights from across the city that reflect a desire to reconnect.

Some Vibrant Things by Audrey Large 

With Some Vibrant Things, French designer Audrey Large’s solo show at Nilufar Gallery, the artist brings her digital concepts to life with a 3D printer.

Photo by Mattia Iotti

Hosted at Nilufar Gallery, French designer Audrey Large’s solo show of 3D-printed sculptures, titled Some Vibrant Things, is a conceptual whiplash, toggling between allusions to the digital realm and a dashingly vibrant material reality. Large’s idea for the objects was to render her digital concepts into real-life forms, giving the physical products an air of just having stepped out from the pixelated world. At once grotesque and glamorous, the technicolor figures exist in liminal arenas of comprehension, which is precisely their intended provocation.

Much Peace, Love and Joy by SPREAD

Tokyo-based design studio SPREAD brings a dose of joy through colorful, flower-like paper works at Alcova, a nomadic platform for art and design.

Courtesy of Alcova

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SPREAD, the Tokyo-based design group helmed by Hirokazu Kobayashi and Haruna Yamada, brought a landscape to life with Much Peace, Love, and Joy—a fairy tale–esque installation wherein doses of color hover over a sun-soaked setting. Each petal-like piece is torn by hand and tactfully attached to netting that all but disappears against the landscape.

The installation was hosted by Alcova, a nomadic platform for art and design that, this year, took up residence in an abandoned military site-turned-overgrown park on the outskirts of Milan.

Peel Vase Series by Marcela Trejo and Alyssa Lewis of Studio Block

The Peel Vase Series by Marcela Trejo and Alyssa Lewis of Studio Block presents a gentle metaphor for the times.

Photo by Santiago de Hoyos of Studio Santiago

Vancouver-based designers Alyssa Lewis of Studio Block and Marcela Trejo collaborated on the latest iteration of their Peel Vase Series, also shown at Alcova. The series was originally presented in 2019, and the set of three new vases reflects the transitions and evolutions of our shared experiences from the past two years. The pieces are set at varying heights and designed with different conical configurations; some envelop the flora, while others act as ornamental concave structures, peeling away like petals. With matte finishes, the aluminum designs are soft-spoken, presenting a certain modesty—a metaphor for our necessary humility in relation to the natural world.

Recliners by Studio Sluijzer

Studio Sluijzer’s daybed designs, positioned against the Milan skyline, are finished with material upcycler Cooloo Circular Canopy’s sustainable coatings.

Photo by Neneh Reza Verburg

Perhaps responses to the conditions of the pandemic, there were ample examples on view throughout the week that beckoned touch. In collaboration with Cooloo Circular Canopy, a company that upcycles waste materials, Studio Sluijzer debuted a duo of recliners as part of Masterly, Salone’s event dedicated to Dutch design and craftsmanship.

Despite their firm appearance, the furniture is soft to the touch.

Photo by Neneh Reza Verburg

Part of a larger set of outdoor furniture pieces, the recliners are ultimately a trompe l'œil: Though they take the appearance of concrete, marble, and brass, they are in fact cushy to the touch. The rooftop display offered an al fresco moment of respite against a part of the city prone to industry—a juxtaposition to the opulent, traditional palazzo setting that played host to more of Cooloo’s radical material innovations.

BreaZea by Crafting Plastics! Studio and Office MMK

The olfactory-engaging bioplastics wall system, BreaZea, in situ at Supersalone, a 2021 addition to the yearly festival.

Photo by Adam Šakový

The Milan Furniture Fair has long run on the spirit of innovation, and a 2021 addition to the festival carried on that tradition. This year, organizers introduced Supersalone, an exhibition area that favored design displays over exhibitor booths. Among them were BreaZea, a modular wall system by Slovakia- and Germany-based Crafting Plastics! Studio and Office MMK.

The wall system, essentially a kaleidoscopic web of cutouts, was an active illustration of how both functionality and personality can manifest from non-traditional plastic substitutes. The system is a visual delight and an olfactory treat, its material makeup emitting aromas of caramel and sugar. The bio-based, oil-free polymers used in the design biodegrade within 60 to 90 days, and not only do the polymers leave a zero-waste footprint, but they also supply nutrients to the soil they return to.

Robot Shelf by Rio Kobayashi

Rio Kobayashi’s solid-cedar Robot Shelf, a "friend" for interior spaces, was developed in 2020 during the lockdown in London.

Courtesy of Rio Kobayashi

An expert carpenter, designer Rio Kobayashi uses Japanese traditions within modern contexts to create pieces in dialogue with their environment, utilizing playful shapes and functional forms. He crafted Robot Shelf, a human-scale figure, while under lockdown in London, where he lives and runs his studio. Like Geppetto’s whittling of Pinocchio into existence, Kobayashi’s shelf became a companion to him in the solitude of the pandemic. At Supersalone, the robot offered a moment of levity through design.

Croma by Lodes and Luca Nichetto

Croma, a slender floor lamp designed by Luca Nichetto and manufactured by Lodes, debuted at Supersalone in green and bronze colorways.

Courtesy of Lodes

Out of Venice, Italy, lighting designer and manufacturer Lodes joined forces with fellow Venetian Luca Nichetto for their third lighting collaboration, the Croma floor lamp. Whereas a traditional lamp might flower open at the top, this one instead spreads out at its base, inverting the typical figure and directing the light source straight upward.

The light emitted by the lamp is an innovation in and of itself. A ring positioned about halfway up can be twisted to toggle the LED on and off, or to switch between warm and cold light. The Croma lamp comes in two ombré finishes, a first for the brand.

CArrelé Collection by Nature Squared

Eggshells are the key ingredient in Nature Squared’s new line of decorative wall tiles, all naturally dyed and as durable as traditional tiles.

Courtesy of Nature Squared

With the introduction of the CArrelé Collection, a line of wall tiles made out of discarded eggshells, Switzerland-based material innovator Nature Squared presents a niche argument: first, that eggshells are sturdy enough to outfit our built spaces; and second, that we can source enough of them from our decomposition sites to do so.

The collection, introduced through Rossana Orlandi Gallery as Nature’s first accessible product—a deviation from its bespoke, inlaid surfaces—is a collaboration between the company’s cofounders, Lay Koon Tan and Paul Hoeve, and superstar material innovator Elaine Yan Ling Ng. The resulting product comes in a variety of shapes and naturally dyed colorways, and maintains the durability of traditional porcelain tiles, proving that eggshells are all they’re cracked up to be.

Plastic River No.6 Ganges by Álvaro Catalán de Ocón

This rug by designer Álvaro Catalán de Ocón is a recreation of a bird’s eye view of the Ganges River in India. It is made from recycled PET plastic bottles and is a commentary on pollution.

Courtesy of Álvaro Catalán de Ocón

Plastic River No.6 Ganges is both a decorative rug and a precisely reconstructed aerial view of India’s holiest river, but it’s also a call to action. The indoor/outdoor floor covering, a collaboration between Spanish designer Álvaro Catalán de Ocón and Gan Rugs, is woven with yarn produced from recycled PET plastic bottles, bringing to light the exorbitant waste dumped into the Ganges.

The plastic tapestry is meant to compel us to acknowledge the West’s outsize contribution to pollution across the globe, a message that is already making waves: The rug just won Rossana Orlandi Gallery’s 2021 Ro Plastic Prize in the category of urban public furniture design.

Thermopolium Cucina by Henry Timi

Designer Henry Timi’s monolithic kitchen design, the Thermopolium Cucina, is right at home within his characteristic vernacular: brutalist, beautiful, and rich in materiality.

Courtesy of Henry Timi

Standing inside Henry Timi’s Brera District showroom is a sensual experience: Sounds are softened, scents are lulling, and the scene is blanched of color and full of negative space. Paradoxically, there is a rich and hefty tactile presence. Included in Timi’s new collection is the Thermopolium Cucina, which takes center stage.

Based on a thermopolia found in ancient Pompeii public kitchens, Timi’s monolithic station features three deep holes in its stone counter. The first is a sink with a faucet, the second is for dishes, and the third is a place to insulate food that’s ready to be served. Timi’s homage features elevated materials and construction, giving it a contemporary elegance.

The Lost Graduation Show at Supersalone

An aerial view of The Lost Graduation Show reveals the compelling collection of work on display at the Supersalone exhibition.

Photo by Diego Ravier

Many of the most impressive and forward-thinking design concepts included at Supersalone were presented through a special exhibition, The Lost Graduation Show, curated by Anniina Koivu. The exhibition featured work by graduates of the 2020-2021 semesters across 48 international design schools, but the show’s standout presentations came out of the Technológio de Monterrey’s School of Architecture. Designers from the Mexican institution presented haptic, technologically advanced, and highly human-centered innovations that resonated loudly within the current moment.

30Y Bumper by Viridiana Palma Domínguez’s

Viridiana Palma Domínguez’s 30Y Bumper uses friction to decelerate unconscious data consumption. The design was presented as a part of The Lost Graduation Show, a collection of student works from 2020 and 2021 graduating classes.

Courtesy of Viridiana Palma Domínguez

For example, Viridiana Palma Domínguez’s 30Y Bumper is a tech accessory that uses friction to curb brainless data consumption (think doomscrolling). Hempo by Yael Viridiana Lina and María Fernanda Segura is an intracorporeal object that slows immediate postpartum hemorrhage, which accounts for a substantial percentage of birth-related deaths in Mexico, particularly in rural areas of the country. Other designs of note were an ecologically sound vaccination syringe, an accessory that mediates menstrual cramping, and low-waste, high-design streetwear.

Related Reading:

The World’s Biggest Design Fair Is Postponed Due to the Coronavirus

Google Reveals How the Body Responds to Good Design at Salone del Mobile 2019


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