Design Week at the Knees

by Gus Donohoo

Reports from the gilded trenches of Milan Design Week 2016
The giant golden sphere sits ponderously, somewhat ominously, like the black slab from 2001: A Space Odyssey, yet golden and burnished—the futurist strips of overhead lighting refracting into a blurred infinity. I’m at the new Fondazione Prada in Milan: the ancient city’s latest sweeping triumph of art and culture. An avant-garde fortress of art, fused from modernist, industrial, and contemporary elements by the “starchitect” (and Flaunt essayist) Rem Koolhaas.


The sphere in question is a work by James Lee Byars, and forms a part of the visionary exhibition To the Son of Man Who Ate the Scroll by sculptor/curator Goshka Macuga. Beside the golden sphere sits Macuga’s talking, moving, humanoid-robot-philosopher—beclad in a clear raincoat, with one foot shod in crude timber, the other in insulation foam. The android proclaims: “Technology is in our nature, through our tools we give our dreams form: we bring them into the world.”


It was with this mechanical sentiment that I was thrust into the world’s largest design showcase: Milan Design Week. A city-wide celebration of art and design communicated through a blizzard of events and exhibitions where designers and brands of all different stripes and business models converge upon Milan to bask in the afterglow of the perfect settee (or other, similarly dreamy works of man).


A little ways outside the city proper lies the Salone del Mobile, the main event of Design Week (on paper at least) and the largest furniture fair in the world, stretched across more than 2.2 million square feet of space inside the dizzyingly vast exhibition center designed by starchitect Massimiliano Fuksas.

I had the privilege of exploring the (seemingly) never-ending sprawl of tables, couches, lamps, and chairs with the Financial Times style, taste, and design maestro Lucia van der Post. Van der Post—a Design Week veteran—was keenly attuned to the trends, histories, and aesthetic details that have forged the contemporary design landscape. In addition to wise advice for the aspiring design writer: “I think fabrics are jolly hard to write about,” she made me keenly aware of the myriad major brands that were championing the exact same designers, with venerable figures like Philippe Starck, Marcel Wanders, and Ron Arad lending their name and talents to a multitude of different companies.


Tokujin Yoshioka for Kartell


As Jerry Helling, President of Bernhardt Design commented to me afterwards, “I really can’t remember any product in particular from the fair because it all looked so similar. It used to be that companies built a body of work with a designer and developed a relationship and a consistent vocabulary—and the designers were not exclusive to a brand but very much identified with it.”


William Sawaya for Sawaya & Moroni


The hand of the recently passed Zaha Hadid [cover artist for Flaunt’s January 2016 [CTRL-C]+[CTRL-V] issue] was everywhere in Milan, and was at play in everything from tables, to book shelves, to the barnacled protrusions of a stunning bronzed metal and crystal table centerpiece that forms the heart of the new Swarovski homeware line.


Zaha Hadid for Swarovski


Hadid, best known as the starchitect behind deconstructivist masterpieces like the Guangzhao Opera House, epitomized the star-power trend long observable in architecture, and that is seemingly on the rise in design more generally. It’s a trend that’s apparent to the designers themselves. Design atelier Studio Job showcased everything in Milan this year from carpets, to mosaics, to garden furniture, to a limited edition Mason jar for imbibing Disaronno Sours— with each innovation attached to a different brand. Over a brace of these tasty, specially adorned drinks, founder Job Smeets explained to me, “It’s all about identity. The middle ages of design are a little bit over. Twenty years ago the name of the designer was never important. What was important was the brand that they worked for, and that’s changing. Nowadays the brands get inspired by the designers and take a piece of their identity.”


Studio Job for Disaronno


If design is becoming more atomistic, the lineage of a city like Milan has a habit of resolving trends and individual identities into the over-layered masonry of time, artistic movements, and exited empires. All but the boldest and most megalomaniacal struggle to keep their names and shoulders above the broken stonework and detritus of the past.


Nowhere was this more apparent to me than in my final night of Design Week, at an enchanting dinner hosted by Judy Dobias of Camron PR in a Napoleonic palace at the heart of the city center. This year the dinner—a notable annual event that draws some of the biggest names from the design community—was held in an astonishing, gilded, private home. And there, under the gaze of Roman sculpture, Renaissance painting, and Rococo fixtures, it was hard not to be struck by the namelessness of so many great artists and artisans of the past—famed in their own time no doubt, yet now mere ebbs and ripples in the collective dreaming of millennia of civilization.