There wasn't a sharp edge in sight at a majestic and wacky Milan Design Week
Italian style has turned a corner
I'm standing waist-deep in a sea of polystyrene packaging beans at one of the wackier fringe events at Milan Design Week. The Pleasure & Treasure installation by Advantage Austria, is situated in the Sala Reale, which was once the waiting room of the Royal House of Savoy at Milan's central station.
Architects Vasku & Klug have partitioned the majestic space with panels in bubble-gum pink and placed some pieces of furniture on plinths amid the sea of foam. Nobody seems to notice the furniture very much. They're too busy taking selfies and posting them to Instagram. "I've lost my handbag!" squeals a fashionista, diving head first into the foam like a child in a ball-pool. So that's the 'Pleasure' component.
Downstairs, a darkened room is centred on a gigantic black plinth on which smaller design pieces - mostly tableware - are displayed amid a hoard of golden chocolate coins. This must be the 'Treasure'. There is a strong smell of mint chocolate. Leaving the exhibition, I realise that I was so overwhelmed by the immersive experience that I forgot to look at any of the design.
Milan Design Week (April 8-14, 2019) is one of the biggest events on the interiors calendar, but it's hard to connect it to the real world. The central event is the Salone del Mobile furniture fair, where international brands promote their latest collections. The event was launched in 1961 as a way of promoting Italian furniture and has become a behemoth. Last year, it drew 370,000 design professionals, 5,000 journalists and 27,500 members of the public.
The Salone del Mobile exists to sell furniture, but the stands look like art installations and, because it's a trade fair, there's nothing as vulgar as actual prices. Some of the brands are available in Ireland, but only through interior designers and in high-end shops. In general, it's pricy stuff and I certainly didn't see anything that I could aspire to buy.
Then I realised that, while some people go to the fair to do business, the rest of us are just looking for inspiration. In the same way that someone might admire a dress in Vogue, but buy one from Dunnes, there is great pleasure in gawking at luxury brands. It makes you feel that you know what cutting edge design is, even if you can't afford it.
I travelled to Design Week with DFS, a company that specialises in sofas and chairs. After the fair, I spoke to Lee Fisher, a buyer with DFS, about how the trends that he sees at international fairs filter through into more affordable furniture.
"Basically, we look at the market - at our competitors. We see what they are doing in terms of leather and fabric, colour, shape and form. Then we brief our designers and build our future plans based on those factors," he says, admitting that takes about two or three years for the trends to emerge in high-street furniture.
So, based on the Salone del Mobile 2019, what shape will our sofas take in years to come? "Curved sofas are still popular and hexagonal accent chairs are massive," Fisher says. This trend reflects the wider trend for open-plan living areas - a curved sofa is no use in a standard four-cornered sitting room.
"We're also seeing oversized sectional sofas with integrated storage and furniture," he continues. That's modular furniture with built-in side tables, lighting, or shelving, either at the ends or between the sections.
Top marks for trend prediction go to DFS's Narnia sofa (€1,299). Not only does it show the curved form so prevalent in 2019, but it's also available in rust. This bright earthy terracotta was the key colour of this year's show, with an emerging trend for nudes, taupes and skin tones, especially in leather. Shiny lacquered leather is a thing of the past and contemporary leathers tend to be sanded into a warm, buttery, soft texture. Fabrics are also textured, some with the bouclé look of an old bobbly jacket; others with a metallic element within the weave so that it changes colour depending on where you're standing. Tonal accent cushions were everywhere.
There is also an interesting trend for backless, armless sofas. This is not nearly as nutty as it sounds. The backless sofa is a wide flat surface, like a daybed, with heavy triangular shaped cushions that function as armrests or backrests. You move them around to support you at the required angle. This arrangement sounds unstable, but it's actually not. The cushions stay put. For the easiest sofa-bed conversion ever, you just throw them on to the floor. "It's a key trend, especially on the high-end stands, but these sofas are not something we would develop for DFS," Fisher says. "They're a step too far for our customers."
If you fancy an armless sofa with moveable backrests, you'll find one of the original designs at Curated, a new interiors showroom in Sandyford, Dublin 18. It's called the Filiph and comes from an Italian brand called Art Nova (from €4,235 for a three-seater or €5,730 for a corner sofa). Mary Ryder, interior designer and one of the principals of Curated, is also just back from Milan. "Art Nova caught my attention with that design three years ago and now it's been widely copied by the big boys," she says. So it's clearly not just the high-street brands that are cribbing other companies' ideas.
I asked Ryder for her impressions of Milan. "The shape of 2019 is the pill!" she exclaims. "There wasn't a corner in the entire show. All the square and rectangular tables - from dining tables to coffee tables - have softened corners and the current shape is the lozenge. It's very child-friendly, really. There's nothing that would crack a child's head open anymore." Lighting is similarly curved. "Brass is the predominant finish and shades are opaque glass globes with a good wallop of Art Deco. Even the back plates for wall-fittings are all lozenge or disc-shaped."
Ryder also flagged a strong retro trend for exposing the framework of upholstered furniture, showing a tubular steel framework outside the upholstery. "It's more than a nod to Bauhaus design," she says. Textiles were in 50 shades of coral, ranging from the softest pink to deepest rusty terracotta, but with emerging tones of smoky blue. When it comes to pattern, though, 2019 shows no middle ground. The printed textiles at Milan were jungle to the max, patterned with lush tropical foliage or densely populated with fantastical animals and exotic birds on every available surface.
See advantageaustria.org, dfs.ie, and curated.ie.