The latest digital technology stole the show in Milan as the design world thronged to one of the world's most important furniture trade fairs, the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, now in its 51st year. The fair is accompanied by a mass of smaller events across the Italian city.
Internet-based "shared design" was the big buzz. It's the newest trend, according to Joseph Grima, editor-in-chief of the influential Italian magazine Domus, chatting live on the internet via the impressive pop-up studio of British webmag Dezeen.
Designers share their ideas by making them universally available via the internet (open-sourcing) where they can be used, improved or modified by other designers. Anyone can then download the plans for free, often including computerised templates that allow the item to be made locally using digital laser cutters, CNC routers or 3D printers. It's the new digital DIY.
Just how shared design can work was on show during a five-day event (hackedmilan.it) at Milan's major department store La Rinascente, where shoppers could witness the assembly of a "WikiHouse", designed by Architecture 00:/ of London.
A team of volunteers downloaded digital templates for the building's plywood components, then had them cut locally on a digitally controlled woodworking machine (see wikihouse.cc) before assembling the parts in the store. "Milan this year was more about ideas than products," says the event's organiser, Beatrice Galilee from Twickenham.
Elsewhere was Digital Forming's "co-design bar" — masterminded by Londoner Assa Ashuach — where you could adjust and customise designs to create your own version of, say, a lampshade or a pen, and then get it digitally manufactured and delivered to your home. This is a digital industrial revolution.
To Milan's transport museum, London's Tom Dixon brought two giant computer-controlled German metal punches to churn out flat metal shapes, which were bent into chairs and lights. Such machines can be programmed by teams of designers/developers working simultaneously in different countries. The resulting products can then be made anywhere, saving on transport costs and energy use.
London's Ross Lovegrove pushed computer technology to its limits in an impressively large pavilion with undulating glass walls built by the Czech manufacturers Lasvit. Moulds are shaped by computers (which make changes very easily) and the glass — in huge sheets — is hot-formed around them. This embossed, rippling glass is further enhanced by dancing computer-controlled coloured light projections.
Design and technology was the headline at Salone Satellite, the "new blood" section of the furniture fair itself. Here Cambridge scientists showed a moss-topped table that produces energy, while an iPad controlled a kitchen. Studio Mango's ingenious Matrix heater dramatically reduced the size (and metal used) for a 1,000-watt radiator.
Meanwhile, Italy's mega-brands like Kartell, Driade, Magis, Cappellini and Artemide paraded awesome hi-tech techniques for 21st-century furniture and lamps, with a staggering array of materials.
Moulded resins turn furniture into organic sculpture, while carbon fibre reduces it to a line. Metal — whether laser-cut sheet, tube or mesh — is ever more ambitious. Concrete — newly slender — is everywhere, even on kitchen cabinets.
Born-again bottles in glass or plastic, cardboard, juice cartons and other detritus become new materials, while plentiful linen and fast-growing bamboo get modern makeovers.
And humble Ikea (with its new PS collection) used a strong, cheap wood fibre/waste plastic combo. Old-fashioned wood, however, holds its own, machined and shaped with new technology.
Tech may be hot, but in Milan craft was also cool. Hand-upholstering is an inimitable British skill and there was a craftsman from Shoreditch's SCP making a different chair each day. Indeed craft techniques were joyous and exuberant.
Witness a tree trunk "Anglepoise", chairs knitted by French grannies, and a huge throne created using a single tree from Sherwood Forest. Sporting a new ethnic chic is American Stephen Burks's Dedon garden furniture, woven in the Philippines, and Swedish Glimpt's designs for Cappellini, hand-made in Vietnam.
Sadly, there were mere passing nods to the world's worst problems of diminishing resources, pollution, social deprivation and natural disasters, though Panasonic showcased green technologies, such as the latest photovoltaic and energy-storing cells and advanced LEDS and OLEDS.
Ever cleverer energy- and water-saving appliances were at Eurocucina, the kitchen event alongside the furniture fair. A lavish bar dispensing free drinks hyped a designer revamp of SodaStream's fizzy water-making gadget, "saving 550 bottles per household a year" — but drinking tap water is cheaper, easier and uses no bottles at all. In the upmarket home of its Italian designer, SodaStream previewed AquaBar for "all kitchen water needs" (hot, chilled, filtered, sparkling) — while much of the world still lacks a tap.
But outside on a Milan pavement, 24home. it still sought a sponsor for their super-ingenious portable cardboard shelter. All over Milan, Japanese designers were fêted for their calm, low-key, pared-down approach. Outstanding was Oki Sato of Nendo, with a simple wood bathtub (Bisazza) and a totally black furniture collection (Kpercent).
By contrast, Swedish Bolon did mad Missoni woven-vinyl matting in vivid signature zigzags. Edgier was a colour patchwork of waxed-oak parquet blocks (Established & Sons). Spanish Nani Marquina showed rugs inspired by artist Eduardo Chillida, who died in 2002.
Light bulb moments included new fittings with integral super-saving LEDs that last for decades (at Tom Dixon and new brand Booo). London's Lee Broom assembled an English pub as a panelled background for his new hand-cut Cumbrian crystal bulbs and table lights. Elsewhere, see-through fittings showed off their pretty halogen lamps.