The 2015 Expo showed the capital of design that commercialism and the public sector needn’t be at odds, but the uneasy partnership feeds into existing challenges the city faces, writes James McLachlan
In may 2015, The Guardian ran an extensive piece eviscerating Milan’s then- forthcoming World Expo. Tapping into a vein of anger distended by accusations of corruption, incompetence and profligate public spending, Expo 2015 was condemned as the most cynical of white elephants before it had even began. Among the main objections, and one that led to a number of torched cars, was that Coca-Cola and McDonald’s were among the event sponsors – kryptonite to the anti-globalist movement. How could this jamboree of private interests amount to anything other than a complete failure?
And yet as preposterous as it all was – and yet no more ludicrous than the idea of an Expo itself – the event did not deliver the promised catastrophe. By the close of play, an estimated 20 million people had visited the Expo in a city with a population of just over three million. The Italians, according to a Reuters report, had even discovered a hitherto dormant respect for queuing. Perhaps more significantly, the success of the Expo awakened the city governance in Milan to the potential of greater collaboration between the public and private sectors.
It might seem glaringly obvious but, as Claudio Luti, the president of the Salone del Mobile points out in our interview this month, this is a new idea for Milan. ‘For me the Expo changed attitudes,’ he says. ‘It was not about the political left or right. If we do it well, it is better for everyone.’
Of course, the furniture fair is a huge moneymaking machine for Milan, easily dwarfing the higher profile fashion week, but as a visitor it always seems that the city is conspiring against you. The complaints are well documented – the taxi system is a nightmare, the hotels rinse attendees for all they are worth and, particularly if you are trying to set up an exhibition in the city, the bureaucracy is maddening. And while this unhappy state of affairs is not likely to change any time soon, there are signs at Mayoral level that a new spirit of collaboration between the city and the furniture fair is in the offing.
The key set piece at this year’s fair, for instance, is Carlo Ratti’s Living Nature. A herbaceous simulacrum of the four seasons, his project is a rehash of a 2017 proposal for property developer CityLife. What is more notable is where it is – on the plaza in front of the world-famous Duomo – the first time I can remember this, the most prominent public space in Milan, being given over to something related to the Salone.
During a pre-press event in February aimed at drumming up interest in the forthcoming fair, the mood among Luti and his fellow panelists was assertive. He called on the Triennale – Milan’s foremost design museum – to align itself more closely with the Salone and champion the merits of contemporary Italian design. The parallels with the role of the Victoria & Albert Museum, which acts as the cultural anchor for the London Design Festival, are obvious and perhaps rightly, the Salone identifies the mildly aloof position so far adopted by the Triennale as a missed opportunity.
The prospect of the Triennale becoming a cheerleader for the furniture fair may trouble those who worry about the continued encroachment of the private sector into public institutions.
Counter-intuitively, greater engagement from the institution, if done right, could quell fears that the core identity of the fair is in danger of being overwhelmed by the ‘branded experience’, as contrived by corporate giants such as Audi, Nike and Samsung.
Admittedly, some of these can be pretty cack-handed. Last year, Audi deadened the impact of Yuri Suzuki’s intriguing sound experiment by surrounding it with a trio of its aspirational saloons, for example. However nebulous, these installations are attention-grabbers. It is possible for someone to visit Milan during Salone
and not set eyes on a single piece of furniture. This is a problem, according to Giulio Cappellini when I spoke to him during last year’s London Design Festival.
‘We are speaking about organisations that can make huge investments,’ he said. ‘I am not against them, but the risk is that they kill the Italian design companies. In Milan, we are playing at home and we need to defend the quality.’
There is an irony here, of course. It was Cappellini who first broke away from then brand-new fairgrounds and set up Superdesign in Zona Tortona. A visionary move, Tortona was regarded as a no-man’s land, and set a pattern to entrench design festivals in the city rather than purpose-built exhibition halls. Although it was impossible to predict, this departure from the traditional trade show format opened the door to non-traditional brands to exhibit.
Cappellini will return to Zona Tortona this year, art directing an interior design project involving a stellar line-up of Italian brands, including his own. In the light of where we are now, it is hard not to read this as a conscious reassertion of what the Salone should be about.