The return of the decorative arts was the unavoidable story of this year’s Milan furniture fair. Finally it felt like we could leave behind all that angst about “design art” and limited editions and just enjoy the kind of craftsmanship that designers have been producing for centuries – long before they were called designers.
In the teeming halls of the Saloni, the business of mass-produced furniture continued as usual. But across the city, and in Zona Tortona in particular, the more experimental designers were turning their backs on the conceptualism of the last decade to embrace the fine workmanship of traditional artisans. Many of them have been working in this vein for some time but there was a definite sense of critical mass, both in terms of the kinds of objects being made and the kinds dominating conversation late into the night at Bar Basso.
Leading the surge was new British company Meta (profiled overleaf), which was exhibiting a collection of ridiculously fine objects by well-known contemporary designers paired with craftsmen from around the world. “Have you seen Tord’s cupboard?” was the question everyone was asking, in reference to Tord Boontje’s £250,000 armoire of hand-enamelled fig leaves. Suddenly Swarovski Crystal Palace, the annual crystal chandelier fest, seemed to lose some of its sparkle.
At moments it felt as though we’d gone back in time, skipping from Boontje’s art nouveau to Kiki van Eijke and Joost van Bleiswijk’s art deco metalwork to the Delft-kitsch surrealism of Studio Job’s porcelain flower arrangement tower. Add to those Maarten Baas’ show in a mechanic’s shop – the funnest venue in town – and you’ll see that the Dutch still rule Milan.
Elsewhere, the fair had grown yet more, making it impossible to see everything. But despite the increase in stuff the distances between venues made the fair feel sparse. Zona Tortona, which for many years was the fair’s cutting edge, was invaded by a more corporate set, which is a shame but inevitable. Overall, there was a quieter feel to the fair. The oversized brashness of last year had calmed, letting the understated work breathe.
Kiki van Eijk and Joost van Bleiswijk
Dutch designers van Eijk and van Bleiswijk exhibited together, transporting visitors back to the 18th century and the 1930s respectively. Van Bleiswijk’s huge Art Deco-style NS NG wall cabinet (top) is made of polished pieces of inox slotted together like a paper tree. It has a certain Chrysler-building glamour to it. The Patchwork Cabinet (above) is like a curiosity case from an old museum, with its round-edged oak and bronze details. It suited the rarefied collector’s market Milan seemed to be courting.
Each of the fig leaves that make up the doors of this wardrobe (clothes hang from the tree-like structure, if you were wondering) is hand-enamelled by craftsmen. Called An Object that Conceals and Reveals, the piece would sit better in the dressing room of a Shakespearean fairy queen than a contemporary design fair. It was one of the handful of pieces presented by new brand Meta – the sister company of Mallet Antiques – which married designers to craft specialists across the world. The wardrobe isn’t a limited edition, you can order as many as you like – if you’re prepared to wait.
This re-interpretation of the 17th-century Dutch flower vase for Royal Tichelaar Makkum joined versions by Hella Jongerius, Jurgen Bey, and Alexander van Slobbe. Job Smeets says the random juxtapositions recall the “clueless stories” adorning the pyramids, and the duo feel that designing it was like a confusing physics lesson. So we don’t think they really understand what’s going on here either. Studio Job also presented an exhibition of bronze farmer’s utensils – an ironic reference to their rural roots – at Spazio 8, marking the increasingly detached nature of their work. We’d be interested to see Studio Job exhibit in an art context.
Meta was the most talked-about debut at Milan this year. It’s a venture from Mallett of Bond Street, an ultra-traditional antiques house, which is looking to expand its business with new furniture and objects from modern designers. But rather than just adding contemporary design to its customary stock of 18th-century pieces, Meta manufactures and plays matchmaker, linking up designers with craftsmen and unusual materials that, in some cases, have not been used in hundreds of years.
“Looking through design, there’s often great, great design that’s let down by rather poor materials,” says Giles Hutchinson-Smith, managing director of Mallett. “We saw that this was a niche in the design world that we thought we could develop.” To that end, Meta took five designers – Matali Crasset, Tord Boontje, Asymptote, Wales and Wales, and Barber Osgerby – and introduced them to more than 50 ateliers and master craftsmen working with delicate and archaic materials. The result is a range of distinctive products, such as Boontje’s cocobolo and Dalbergia wood L’armoire, a chest riddled with secret compartments, and Crasset’s Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend lamp made of paktong, an ancient non-tarnishing metal.
Meta was one of the clearest signs at Milan that process and craft have supplanted the bigness and brashness of previous years. Hutchinson-Smith and his colleagues spent two years interviewing ateliers and master craftsmen in preparation for the launch.
“A number of those we had already known from our core business of dealing with furniture and works of art,” he says. Then, Meta introduced these craftsmen, and the materials they worked with, to the designers at a workshop in London. “It lit the designers up; they realised that there was so much value in the materials, and that it was a very different approach to what they’d done before. They got very excited by it.”
One of the surprising aspects of the Meta venture is that it demonstrates how little inter-communication there has been between the craft and design world in recent years. “None of the workshops we used had ever been approached by a contemporary designer,” Hutchinson-Smith says, “and the designers had never been approached by a master craftsman. There was absolutely no blueprint when we started this project.”
Hutchinson-Smith claims not to be worried about the economy. Meta is already recruiting designers for its 2009 collection.
Meta used Oxford University’s archaeological material sciences unit and the formula for an 18th-century Chinese candlestick to re-create paktong – the gold-silver coloured metal in Crasset’s hanging lantern, Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend 1. The metal is unique in that it doesn’t tarnish, and is harder than silver. Filling Crasset’s lantern – which follows the angularity of recent work – are 24 hand-blown glass panes, made using vanished glass-blowing techniques.
Wales & Wales
Possibly the most beautiful piece of furniture we saw in Milan this year, it’s the ripped ash surface of this writing desk that stuck in our mind. Sections of a 100-year-old ash tree are meticulously lined up by the grain, and invisibly joined so the desk top appears to be seamless. The top glides sideways on leather covered wheels to expose a space for hiding laptops and other ugly necessities. Lift the lid and a red pen box adds another surprise.
London duo Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby’s Cupola reading table looks like an elegant homage to late-period Sottsass. It’s made of seven glass elements handblown by Italian craftsmen, and joined atop each other. Even the components that you can’t see within the piece are glass. The shape references 19th-century glass furniture but the colours and round edges give the piece a toy-like quality. The milky coloured dome is blown from a single gather of glass – as big as it can possibly go – and hides the bulb within it.
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