Milan Design Week: The Death and Rise of the Artisan

We gave Craig Hodgetts, FAIA, Founding Principal and Creative Director of Hodgetts + Fung, a journal and asked him to cover Salone de Mobile in Milan for FORM. In a whirlwind, two-day trip, he chronicled his impressions—from impersonal roomscapes to upending the traditional relationship between designer and producer.

DAY 1

The big, squared-off trade booths arranged like so many candies in the Salone de Mobile were alive with frenzied workers slipping polythene sheets from this year’s crop of furnishings. Here and there, men on scaffolding swiped fast-setting compounds on just-clad walls, and the sound of stapleguns, like a swarm of insects, filled the air. It was the day before public viewing—a day free of the packs of purchasing agents, members of the press, and buyers eager to acquire the latest and greatest for the folks back home. A day when my wife, architect Ming Fung, and I could parse the goods on display from the critical perspective they deserved rather than as merchandise bound for the global furnishings market.

Viewed thus, with an admittedly jaundiced eye, the exhibit designs, logos, and materials reminded me of a de-fanged version of Pablo Portoghesi’s famous 1980 installation for the Venice Biennale, with each display framing mostly ordinary, but carefully composed roomscapes featuring storage units, upholstered goods, and chair after chair after chair after chair.

The Salone is, after all, devoted to the lifestyles and the middle-of-the-road business environments that nearly everyone occupies from nine to five—well-proportioned, clean lines, nice mass-produced finishes. Devoid of color and personality, these are the environments that have generally lost favor with millennials as they multi-task their way to dot com riches. But, and this is a big but, there did not appear to be a persuasive vision for an alt. business family of office furniture.

Perhaps, coming from Los Angeles, perhaps, even, coming from the culture of SCI-Arc and Chiatt-Day, we had expected too much. Perhaps, even, as architects lurking in the shadows of Wired Magazine and Fast Company, we had anticipated a global shift in the design of the workplace. One that fanned the flames of entrepreneurs and start-ups, that egged on the culture of disruption and innovation that has fueled a revolution; but instead found largely self-satisfied offerings that, give or take, might be quite at home on the set of Mad Men.

This is not, ultimately, a critique of the Salone: the giants astride the global furnishings industry cannot be so immune to the needs and want-to’s of their market–but one would hope, wish for, even plead for, a Salone de Revolution. A Salone in which propositions, not products, were offered up for debate. One in which the exchange of ideas prevailed over the exchange of contracts.

But…sorry, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

DAY 2

It didn’t take much to light our fire the next day. More than three hundred venues are mapped onto the folio-style guide, which we covered with Sharpie X’s before setting off on Milan’s dilapidated Metro to the Brera Design District. This was more like it. Undercapitalized, rag-tag displays vied for attention with slick and slicker corporate installations. “Mom and Pop” shops seemed to be the new model, while more established brands, like Audi and Poggenpohl popped up in scruffy vacancies with lighting, graphics and display technology to complement their brand.

Here, in shop after shop, the designer-as-proprietor had risked a lengthy trip to introduce their work to what they hoped was a global audience. Stacks of brochures were at hand, e-mails were exchanged, technology was discussed and sometimes demonstrated. It seemed remarkable that after a decades-long romance with molded plastics and the clever introduction of synthetic materials, long a staple of Italian and, in particular, Milanese products, that a newfound (some might say strategic) appreciation for natural and recycled materials has emerged. Wood, stone, and even ceramics have been revitalized by a unique marriage of traditional model-making and digital fabrication, exemplified by the re-issue of Magistretti’s well-known shelving system, which cleverly assigns notches and splines to create a structural connection sans fastenings of any kind.

Of course, craft and production have been the subjects of impassioned debate throughout the 20th Century. Even today, the artisanal touch is used to market everything from craft beers to chests of drawers, with manufacturers seeking “authenticity” for brands that need a boost from Green consumers. Conferring a personal touch on mass produced goods has vexed producers since the glow of low-cost replication–read faux textures—faded into cultural obscurity.

But here, in Milan, designers using digital scanners, 3D printing, and robotic fabrication have found the means to connect the eye and the hand of the artisan to robotic machinery in order to create personalized, well-crafted furnishings which capture the nuances of a hand-made object . In shop after shop, we were invited to witness the transformation of hand-made, miniature models to full scale, useful furnishings. These analogue to digital “translations” do not have to suffer the indignities of production engineering, and so are able to be extremely faithful to the original, hand-made article. The contours of a classic Hans Wegner chair in such an incarnation, might be replicated in wood down to the finest detail.

Imagine a coil-built ceramic scanned , digitized, and rebuilt by a 3D print head modified to extrude a bead of clay, or the miniature model for a curving, ribbon-like chair easily and quickly converted to a full-scale prototype. Evidence of the ease of these operations was everywhere, and promised to upend the traditional relationship between designer and producer. Its effect, like that in the recording industry with the advent of digital recording, will be to loosen the dependence of designers on established firms and to launch products directly to the consumer from their desktop.

 

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