For the first three weeks of April, 100 per cent British Design - with bowlerhat lights, Fair Isle knitted pouffes and insect-strewn bone china - was on sale at La Rinascente, Milan's seven-storey department store, in the shadow of the city's cathedral, as part of this year's Milan Furniture Fair, the largest interiors show in the world.
Billed as a UK design supermarket, the La Rinacente sale is idiosyncratic to say the least. Our image in Milan is for being a little barmy, while revamping old faithfuls such as Anglepoise, Wedgwood and Globe Trotter, and launching new designs: hand-shaped hooks, a dog light made from reclaimed wood, and plates with faces.
Bravely bringing on the British is Vittorio Radice, who knows London from his successful time at Selfridges. Now he's CEO at La Rinascente. "I love British design, it is so imaginative and original," he says.
Milan's main event is the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, in giant new exhibition halls, but there are also hundreds of smaller shows, installations and happenings all over town, featuring furniture, kitchen/bath accessories, china and glass and lots of lighting.
The London look
London's Established & Sons has been going for six years. Its attitude can be sniffy and its merchandise iffy but its lighting is superb. A Jumper chair was wrapped in a striped, knitted one-piece cover, and a cabinet was printed inside with Dutch etchings. A workmanlike take on a bentwood chair was by Londoner Martino Gamper (but you could buy the real thing for £99 at The Conran Shop).
Elsewhere, Tom Dixon (tomdixon.net) did classy metal lighting. A bulbous new shape called Void is spun with "double walls" in solid copper, brass or stainless steel (£250). This will be a classic. At Salone Satellite, the hall for new talent, London's Hidden Art designers were markedly professional. These makers, such as Louis and Sophie Howe, sell direct but hope to find manufacturers (hiddenartlondon.co.uk/milan).
The Salone is above all for the big Italian brands. One of the weirder talking points was a chair that crumples up like kitchen foil when you sit on it. It's by Moroso and should soon be in its Clerkenwell showroom in Rosebery Avenue, EC1 (020 3328 3560; moroso.it).
Kartell, the plastics king, did out its stand in black - more safe than stylish - with a new Philippe Starck outdoor sofa that was glam and glossy, but the white version would suit a garden better. Starck's neat new cupboards, good for small bedrooms, are prettier in colours such as violet, available now from Lifestylebazaar in Kingsland Road, E2 (lifestylebazaar.com).
Across the city, Designersblock was showing Bodging Milano, definitely the best installation. This covetable collection of silky-smooth stick-backed chairs was hand-made from unseasoned wood in Herefordshire.
This exercise in anti-tech was by nine top British designers, including Matthew Hilton and Gareth Neal (very designersblock.com). Also, there was Londoner Valentina Gonzalez (valentinagw.com) with her ethereal Ghost chair - a poetic piece of rigid translucent plastic that appears as "fabric". I predict a rocketing value from £1,500.
The large Poltrona Frau group is also now in Clerkenwell at 150 St John Street (020 7600 0600; poltronafrau.it). Its cluster of brands includes Cassina and Cappellini. Here Londoners Yael Mer and Shay Alkalay inject foam into bench shapes of ultra-thin ash veneer - a radical new technique.
Pattern creeps ever onwards, infiltrating even furniture. Dutch brand Moooi (moooi.com) prints blowsy roses on to plastic chairs and tables - more dinette than divine decor. Even less likely are Moroso's stitches printed on to recycled rubber for its Beth chair.
Computer-generated shapes and patterns have a weird beauty, particularly for lights. Witness Belgian Materialise.MGX (available through within4walls.co.uk), Ross Lovegrove's "cosmic landscape" for Artemide (artemide.com) and Lazerian laser-cut ply (lazerian.co.uk).
Philips's (philips.com) dramatic new OLED bulbs stole the technology stakes. They are slivers of glowing, energy-saving panels rather than a bright spot - more like a back-lit screen. Amanda Levete's dynamic Zlike Edge (establishedandsons.com) was the best item in production and will be in shops shortly. Tom Dixon's (tomdixon.net) Flat Lamps with OLEDs are wafer-thin in square, round and strip shapes.
New trends, ideas, materials and even technologies flourished in Milan. Not all the pieces seen will be immediately for sale but some should shortly be in London or on the internet.
The Aram Store in Kean Street, WC2 (aram.co.uk) will be selling Spun, which is Thomas Heatherwick's spinning-top seat (about £340). Also visit Chaplins in Pinner (chaplins.co.uk) and Viaduct in Clerkenwell (viaduct. co.uk).
Twentytwentyone in Upper Street, Islington, will host Milan highlights with a strong British theme, says director Simon Alderson. Provisional dates are 19-26 May (check on 020 7837 1900 or twentytwentyone.com). Expect work by Tom Dixon, Sam Hecht, David Chipperfield, Jasper Morrison, Sebastian Wrong and Modus.
To view Barbara Chandler's latest blog, visit www.homesandproperty.co.uk/blogs.