Called the House of the Senses, this was one of the week's fringe events. Its French designer, Christophe Pillet, is from a new network on the web — beopenfuture.com — that brings together designers and artists. His simply constructed chalet showed how beauty can be enabled by innovation, technology, and creative collaboration on the internet (with a little help from nature and from craft) — key trends at many of the 300 design events across the city.
These ranged from the world's largest furniture fair — the Salone Internazionale del Mobile in 14 separate halls on the outskirts of the city — to one-person shows (including Clerkenwell's Brodie Neill, with his plywood lounger, and Lee Broom, also from east London, with a constellation of crystal lightbulbs). At the same time, there were live workshops for wood, metal, ceramics, glass and leather fighting for all things handmade.
A glass-topped dining table — called Vault, by London's Bloomlab — had a bulbous coral-like base with cavities hollowed out of wood. Alongside was the room-sized machine that made it in Italy. Such are the new technologies that fuel innovation.
In its Milan showroom, Cassina (now also in London's Brompton Cross) future-guessed with an illuminated sofa fabric controlled by an iPhone. But even now robots are working wood, and computer-controlled lasers can zip through metal with ferocious accuracy. Daringly complex moulds shape super-breeds of plastic and push plywood curves to their limits, while glues can stick together the thinnest sheets of glass. There are ever-more durable lacquers, paints and powdered metals, too.
Angles and facets make for furniture geometry, with sharp bends and twists of steel, perforated sheets of metal, and/or wiregrids and tubes. This is a harsh sculptural look for perhaps a statement chair — but a rug could soften the effect.
In Milan, London's artier rug-makers Deidre Dyson, Christopher Farr and Top Drawer starred in a stunning show called Rug Revolution. Luckily for comfort, we also have new resilient memory foams, quilted padding, and cocooning chairs. Some shapes refuse to die — wing chairs and Windsor stick-backs are constantly reinvented.
The happy chaise is here again with strong colour everywhere at Milan. Blue and reds were favourites and one chair looked dip-dyed. Sofas mixed blocks of colour for a patchwork effect. Alongside the furniture fair was Euroluce, a bi-annual lighting exhibition. After the demise of the tungsten bulb, lighting virtuosos are exploiting CFLs and LEDs with startling effects.
Often it was simply the materials that worked their magic. Sheets of golden copper and brass clad Londoner Tom Dixon's totem-like storage towers and trestle tables, Surprisingly, marble, granite and even cork had been used for pendant lights. Concrete was elegantly fashioned into slim-line tables. "But wood will never go out of fashion," says British designer Simon Pengelly, whose startling new Norse chair for Modus is simply beautiful.
Milan rather turned its back on pattern, though UK's Ercol showed with aplomb how it's done, splashing a stunning digital print across a sofa. Dutch Moooi printed mad mazes on to armchairs. A new British technology can change wall/floor colours with infinite gradations. Liquid between glass sheets is activated by a small electrical current — log on to foreverchangingcolour.com for a demo.
Indeed, design around Milan was truly international with lights in china clay from New Zealand, exquisite indigo-shaded leather from Japan, and carbon-fibre lighting from Slovenia. Polish design was innovative and assured. Milan's vast department store La Rinascente celebrated an "Afrofuture". Here windows and workshops (and even the escalators) reverberated with new art, technology and craft from a continent no longer dark, with some ideas via London — graphics and furniture. The dynamic young curator, Beatrice Galilee, is also from our capital.
For a more light-hearted moment, how about an Andy Warhol Brillo-design foam seating cube? Or a little lamp made from scrubbing brushes, a graffitied clock, or a giant clothes-peg bench? Coming from Milan, Aram Designs in Covent Garden will soon have a coat rack shaped like musical notes, and wooden birds, fashioned from offcuts, will flock to Liberty. Design is not as serious as you think.