Milan 2013: A game of two halves

FX celebrated the launch of Seymourpowell’s international product research from the Milan fair with a party at Herman Miller’s flagship London showroom. The report’s authors are Mariel Brown, head of trends, and Chloe Amos-Edkins, senior design researcher and CMF specialist

To the 200 or so architects, designers and clients at the FX party, Mariel Brown and Chloe Amos-Edkins, both of Seymourpowell, gave a short synopsis on their key findings: eight dominant trends represented in cultural and contextual chapters. What follows is our edited extract from their report, which can be seen in full at webroot/milan - there is also a video of the party with interviews with the good and the great in attendance: http://

Herman Miller's generosity was critical to the success of the evening. With terrific networking opportunities for all clinets, architects and designers - a rare blend of perfect business opportunities for FX readers - they were all royally entertained with Herman Miller's hospitality with wine and food liberally served with goodwill.

The Poetry of the Essential

Many designers felt it timely to focus on only the essential elements of a product, finding comfort in the process of rationalisation. This creates a new poetic simplicity, as seen in lighting manufacturer Flos's new String Lights, designed by Michael Anastassiades. They comprise an LED bulb within a shade, connected to metres and metres of thin cabling. Used to draw geometric shapes in the air, this cord was inspired by the electrical cables in city landscapes. The notion of essential elements was taken to the extreme by architect Jean Nouvel's diversion into footwear design for Italian brand Ruco Line. His design, called Pure, was created with the philosophy of reducing the shoe concept to its purest form and resulted in a monolithic shoe made of rubber and leather.

Heirloom Rituals

There was a noticeable interest in products people become attached to, through cultural or ritual use. These are not intended to be passing style statements, but something to be cherished for life and passed on.

Business-savvy British designer Tom Dixon spearheaded this trend with the launch of his 'eclectic' range in 2012, offering designs at prices the average person might reasonably afford, alongside his bigger-ticket items. This year he expanded his heirloom range.

The accoutrements of tea drinking were spotted at numerous exhibits. Sebastian Herkner's Chado tea set for Verreum was 'created for ritual', while Tea With George by Sholten and Baijings for George Jensen fused the Japanese tea ceremony with Dutch coffee culture.

Enduring materials and handcrafted quality could be seen in abundance at the Japan Handmade exhibition, where Kyoto-based craftsmen demonstrated their skills and knowledge, often passed down to them by their master-craftsmen fathers. We loved the woven metal and wood-handled magnifying glass by Kanaami-Tsuji.

Digital Fantasy

As digital inputs become an ever-more omnipotent part of life, the boundaries of our physical and digital worlds are blurring. Digital forays into the physical space allow us to escape the humdrum of daily life, and we observed this at Nike's Universal Everything's The Art and Science of Fi installation.

Artist/designer duo Carnovsky's Zigzagging, for fashion house Missoni, was another fantastical exhibit: an immersive light, colour and sound installation that was a like walking into a giant kaleidoscope. Maybe best suited to a party venue, the innate sense of dream-like fantasy was nevertheless powerful.

Reflections on Nature

For the past three years or so in Milan, designers have referenced nature in both form and choices of materials. Yet something new was emerging this year with an almost spiritual or meditative meaning. Some designs blended the technological with the natural, hinting at a future where technology would enhance our sense of wellbeing. Japanese technology giant Toshiba partnered with design studio IXI to create an installation comprising tiny LED lights and crystals hanging in a darkened room, slowly fading from dark to half light (right). As the lights' brightness increased, the crystals created a halo effect around the light, allowing ephemeral rainbows to appear.

Equally uplifting through the recreation of natural phenomena was the Ripple Project, by Studio Shiikai and Poetic Lab, in which a lamp cast dappled shadow and light reminiscent of those found on surfaces of water.

The Reflection on Nature trend took a celestial turn at Spazio Rossana Orlandi, where Eindhoven-based design duo OS and OOS exhibited a clock/light inspired by lunar eclipses.

Redefining Value

While some more established designers sought to justify their premium price tags with luxury materials and exclusive craftsmanship, young designers and students challenged the accepted notions of value and luxury, at times even questioning the meaning of consumerism itself.

We loved the Central St Martins textile futures MA student exhibition. Moe Nagata's bold From Creatures jewellery , used waste materials from the food industry and harked back to tribal animism that respects (and utilises) every part of an animal - challenging today's global problem of waste and over-consumption. Emilie F Grenier's project Disquiet Luxurians took a thought-provoking look at luxury using, interestingly, feldspar - the world's most abundant mineral.

Soft Sanctuary

Our 'always on' digital culture is creating a desire to escape from our hyper-connected lives, and causing us to seek refuge in familiarity. The Soft Sanctuary trend seems to offer a reassuringly familiar break from the frenzy of the modern age, with soft forms, calming colours and inviting, tactile surfaces.

It's no surprise that design superstar Patricia Urquiola seems to be at the forefront of this trend, with her trademark warmth and tactility apparent in almost everything she does. Muted and pastel shades were everywhere, particularly dusky pinks and greys, kept fresh and modern with vivid accents of yellow or coral, as in Urquiola's Lana Mangas collection for Gan.

Furniture that 'relaxes with you' was found at the Miyazaki Chair Factory's exhibit. Its pursuit of quality craftsmanship and ergonomic pleasure has resulted in a collection that is soft at every imaginable touch point, including the curved armrests of the IS Lounge chair.

Nomadic Design

Global unrest and upheaval, plus maturing wireless and cloud technologies, are driving many people to lead a more nomadic lifestyle, and we saw many examples of designers creating pieces that responded to the desire for spontaneity, transformation and movement.

A compelling example of the trend was the collaboration between Tom Dixon and Adidas: The Capsule - a collection described as 'everything you can pack neatly in a bag for a week away'. A perpetual state of motion was achieved with conveyor belts rotating the collection past viewers, with the collection focusing on the notion of transformation and multifunctionality, such as parkas that became sleeping bags and backpacks that turned into makeshift wardrobes.

We also appreciated the more folk-embellished expression of Nomadic Design from Beirut-based design practice Bokja's The Migration Collection, that included The Migration Sofa carrying a burden of rolled-up rugs and bedding on its 'back'.

The Joyful Absurd

While some designers sought to rationalise and focus in on the essential, we also saw a return to a more playful aesthetic, on the back seat since global recession hit in 2008 when embellishments were perceived as frivolous. Belgian artists Studio Job is well known for its witty aesthetic and it presented some bold new pieces that built on its reputation of individualism, including its new Job Office series, Bucket and Tub lights.

Q&A with Luke Dawson, Global Marketing director, Herman Miller

FX: What were the highs and lows at Milan for Herman Miller?

HM: We opted to take part in the Fuori Salone and held an exhibit at our showroom in the city, presenting our latest chair, Mirra 2 with Studio 7.5. The internationality of attendees continues to grow and we connected with a truly global audience of architects, designers, specifiers, end-users and media. The challenge with Milan is always how to stand out. With so much to see and do, ensuring we have visibility is key.

FX: Why does HM do soft launches in Milan, before Neocon and after Orgatec?

HM: We previewed Mirra 2 and presented the design story, teasing the market before the product is officially launched at NeoCon. We chose to do this because the Salone is a great platform to reach all corners of the world. The experience of Milan in April, its diversity and reputation, helps drive its appeal, over and above traditional trade shows. It's purposeful and also fun!

FX: What's your response to SeymourPowell's research?

HM: The 'Poetry of the Essential' resonated with me personally and professionally. The need to distil the essence of a product into its essential elements and rationalise is a trend we are seeing more of today with dematerialised designs. In striving for less, industrial design and craftsmanship converge, and the results can be quite fantastic.

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

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