Milan Design Week came to a close this past Sunday, and after a week of visiting installations, interviewing designers and experiencing extreme visual stimulation, we're finally able to take a moment to ruminate over and make sense of what we experienced. While Salone has traditionally been about furniture and homeware design, we noticed a clear shift in interest towards experimenting with technology, understanding the designer's responsibility when it comes to protecting our planet and creating moments of experience around classic furniture. Below is a breakdown of five distinct trends we noticed during our trip, including examples of projects that illustrate a shift in focus for the design industry as a whole:
Imagining a Seamless Future Between Design and Tech
Large companies and independent designers alike explored ways in which tech has the potential to infiltrate our lives in more productive ways than just an AI relentlessly commanding us to stand up and sit down.
Google's A Space for Being TKTK
On the corporate scale, Google imagined a future where tech interprets the environments we desire based on our physical reactions to various spaces and products. Visitors to A Space for Being wandered through a series three rooms, each designed with different furniture, books, textures, lighting and even scents. While interacting with each room as they pleased, a screen-less wearable band silently collected the visitor's data based on subtle reactions, like skin temperature and heart rate. At the end of the experience, the bands were collected and the data interpreted, revealing which of the three spaces the algorithm felt you were most at ease in. The point was less about wearables and more about how this type of tech could have an influence on the design process at all scales, whether it be conducting user research before designing a new chair or even redecorating your own home based on what makes you most comfortable.
Raising Robotic Natives by Phillip Schmitt, seen at Broken Nature
The Triennale di Milano's Broken Nature exhibition examined the relationship between tech and design at an even more future-gazing level, featuring individual projects that look toward the future of human interactions with technology. Raising Robotic Natives by Phillip Schmitt is a designed system of robots, books and soft goods meant to raise the next generation with robots similar to how Gen Z was raised with technology. After being socialized with robots from an early age, "robotic natives" would have a completely different outlook on the importance of and place for robots in everyday life, thus creating potential for new, unimagined developments and interactions between humans and tech.
The result of such examples demonstrated a future that not only distances technology from the cold, distant, sci-fi cliches of yesterday, instead showing how tech can be used as a way to better understand ourselves.
"Handcrafted" by Technology
This year, we noticed less of a focus on handmade design and more of an excitement around the new possibilities surrounding generative design and machine-made processes—especially when it came to machine-made furniture that appeared to be handmade. Perhaps it's because people have stopped associating luxury furniture with handmade items or because companies want to keep churning out as many products as possible—either way, tech appears to be the future of the luxury furniture industry in a big way.
Autodesk x Philippe Starck x Kartell A.I chair
Autodesk, Kartell and Philippe Starck unveiled a prime example of generative design with their A.I chair. "Kartell, Autodesk and I asked artificial intelligence a question," said Starck. "Artificial intelligence, do you know how we can rest our bodies using the least amount of material?" The result is a fluid chair co-designed by human and artificial intelligence through literal conversation. Starck noted a few learning points along the way, including the software's need to learn terms and processes as it worked, but the project shows potential for a new design process, one in which humans and technology are able to collaborate in a surprising new way.
Maruni Hiroshima Chiar
You might recognize Maruni's Hiroshima chair—that's because it's not new. Instead of focusing solely on new product for this year's Salone del Mobile, the Japanese furniture brand decided to highlight a chair that's been on the market since 2008. The chair itself is timeless—if you were unaware of Maruni you'd easily think it were a new piece at the fair. But what sets it apart from many chairs at Salone is that while the shape and wood material appear to be easy to work with by hand, it's actually impossible to make by hand and requires the use of special robots to manufacture. This also decreases manufacturing time, which can't be a bad thing for Maruni.
Many designers during this Milan Design Week examined sustainability with a wider scope than materials explorations, examining entire product cycles that we need to either break or nurture for the betterment of our planet.
Freitag's Uninfluencer installation
Freitag's "Uninfluencer" installation at Ventura Centrale focused on the individual, holding visitors accountable for their own 'design sins'. Mimicking the Catholic tradition of atoning for your sins, "Uninfluencer" led the visitor through a series of tasks, prompting each sinner to recognize their wrongdoings, confess in a design confessional and ultimately ask for forgiveness. Whether struggling with an unhealthy Amazon Prime addiction or past designs that harm the environment, designers and consumers were encouraged to forgive themselves and take actionable steps towards improving their habits in the future.
Fairphone 2 at Broken Nature
We also noticed a few projects that focused on repairs as a means of sustainability and longevity for a specific product. Fairphone 2 is a modular cellphone designed to be assembled, disassembled and repaired as needed. The phone aims to address the ethical implications of the 'designed to break' model the phone industry follows today, in addition to impossible working conditions, unlawfully minded materials and more. Fairphone 2 is currently on the market today and is on display at Broken Nature in Milan.
Still Running by Marta Sternberg
Repairs were also on students' minds this year—Still Running by Royal College of Art student Marta Sternberg is a redesign of the classic iron that can be disassembled, repaired and then reassembled. The project rethinks home appliances that are often considered deemed disposable as durable objects that can be passed down from one generation to the next.
Confusing Corporate Presence
Upon arriving in Milan, we noticed something big that we hadn't experienced at Milan Design Week in such high quantity before: large corporations, such as Yamaha and Sony started infiltrating the city with installations aimed towards navigating the future of design and tech. Even Juul had a booth at Ventura Futures.
On one hand, the presence of industry giants in a fair environment traditionally meant for furniture and conceptual design ideas speaks to the ever-growing importance of design in the public and private spheres of business and commerce, but it does leave us with questions. Are these companies using Milan Design Week as a way to connect with the design community? Are they using their power to explore design solutions to the world's problems? Or is Salone evolving into an effective way for companies to spend their marketing budget? Only time and the next few design weeks will show how this will affect the shape of Milan Design Week and the industry as a whole.
Sony's Affinity in Autonomy installation
Sony's Affinity in Autonomy installation hinted at building an emotional connection between humans and robots in a vague way. Visitors were led through a series of five interactions, all of which touched on different roles AI plays in the design process.
The Lexus Design Award Pavilion
Lexus has been unveiling their Lexus Design Award winner during Milan Design Week for years and has found a sweet spot between marketing and connecting with the design community. This year, half of their pavilion was dedicated to showing the work of the Lexus Design Award finalists (an awards program that helps fund the design research of up and coming designers), and the other half was dedicated to a light and robot installation that showed off some of the car company's latest innovations.
Instagram vs. Anti-Instagram Experiences
When an entire city is taken over by designers in 2019, you better believe Instagrammable moments are tucked away in every grand Milanese palace. While we do mourn the days when things were less about capturing phone content and more about experiencing moments off-screen, we are happy to say that the graphic installations and colorful spaces seen at Milan Design Week far surpassed "Instagram museums" like the Ice Cream Museum and Rosé Mansion here in NYC.
Vitra's booth at Salone del Mobile
We just talked a bit about corporate presence, which definitely had something to do with the surge in social media marketing throughout Milan (hello money to blow). But we also noticed photo-worthy moments popping up at Salone del Mobile, which typically maintains more of a trade show vibe. Companies definitely went bigger and bolder with their booth displays, creating full blown installations meant to be photographed and shared. An apparent example is Vitra, who combined their furniture and homewares with art pieces to create four different environments, representative of four different personalities.
Benjamin Hubert x Cosentino's Raytrace Installation
On the other end of the mobile content spectrum, there were designers and brands who made a conscious effort to encourage people to put their phones away and live in the moment. Google's A Space for Being installation, which we mentioned above, didn't allow any mobile phone use in the space, and Benjamin Hubert and Cosentino's Raytrace installation purposefully used massive blank shapes, dark lighting and materials like Dekton that are difficult to photograph using a phone.