It is a Monday morning in Milan - a nice warm summer morning with the shows of Salone del Mobile waiting.
The programme of this year’s edition of the world famous interior and furniture exhibition is exciting, albeit overwhelming. However, priorities need to be determined, a route to be drawn, and off we go.
It soon becomes clear that a planned two-day trip will not be enough time to cover all of the selected exhibitions and events. Perhaps that was to be expected, but walking through the exhibition centre and the pop-up events in the Brera Design District confirmed this was not a regular trade show. This year’s Salone del Mobile was talking directly to the people, no matter if they were professionals, tourists or ordinary Milanese passing by.
Within only a couple of hours on this Monday morning, a lot of questions came to mind: is this vivid and inspiring or just a bit too chaotic? Is it a rich and layered experience or demonstrating a lack of focus? And most importantly, is this the real Salone del Mobile or a transitional version helping the city and the industry get back on track after 18 months of COVID-19?
The curator of the 2021 Salone del Mobile is Stefano Boeri. The well-known Milanese architect has created some of the city’s landmark buildings and is also the President of Triennale di Milano, the most important venue for design and architecture.
In an interview with Monocle magazine, Boeri explained the change of concept and the reasoning behind it. Boeri felt that there was, as it were, a need to bring the people back to the fairground. While in the past the show was focused on retail and professionals, the platform that brought industry and people together was ‘Fuorisalone’ – the part of the show taking place outside of the fair. With a concept of a ‘Supersalone’ for 2021, Boeri wanted to create an exhibition that turned things around, breaking barriers and bringing industry, professionals, design lovers and the general public together.
With distance being the enemy of conversation and community, Boeri and his team decided to use spatial design and architecture to seemingly reduce the size of the exhibition. They designed a modular wall system that formed a series of easy-to-navigate corridors. The modules were then distributed to the exhibitors who created their respective space within that system. In addition, the overall lighting was dimmer than usual, thus giving a more intimate atmosphere, one more conducive to conversation.
Boeri not only invited the industry’s big shots but asked designers, artisans and design institutes to attend and show their work. As a result, more room was provided for open talks, lecture areas and private dialogues, connecting culture, commerce, and consumers. For the first time in the history of Salone Del Mobile, visitors had the chance to buy and pre-order directly at the fairground by simply scanning the respective QR codes of the exhibits and then purchasing online.
Outside of the exhibition centre, Fuorisalone spread across the Brera Design District and beyond.
Organised and orchestrated by design agency Studiolabo, the 2021 focus was ‘Forme dell’abitare’ (or ‘Forms of Living’). Paolo Casati, a born and bred Milanese and founder of Studiolabo, has dedicated himself to Fuorisalone from its early days and has been responsible for its concepts since 2003. In a recent interview with Elle Décor, Casati explained that this year’s edition featured more than 90 events, 130 exhibitors and 140 showrooms.
The theme ‘Forme dell’abitare’ was explored in how design and industry worked with materials with a renewed appreciation of sustainability. Another key topic was the relation between art and design, with emphasis on personalisation and limited editions.
Casati is convinced the industry will recover quickly from the pandemic in spite of the shortage of materials and supply. As someone who has worked on Fuorisalone for such a long time, it’s no surprise that he sees a significant role for live experience when it comes to brands and products. Like many others in the business, Casati believes in a future of hybrid concepts that marry the live experience with the enhancements and effects digital technologies can offer. As he told Elle Décor: “what happens live becomes a storehouse of content to be broadcasted online, and anything physical gains value when you know how to make use of it, reducing pressure on venues and amplifying the message across the world.”
In light of this approach, Fuorisalone had more than 50 video reporters busy filming, streaming and broadcasting almost in real time. This is a great test for Casati - a foundation of experimentation to drive innovation in the coming editions of the event.
The city is your playground
Beyond Fuorisalone, more events and programmes spread across the city, at locations including Milan’s universities and even Linate Airport.
The terminal recently reopened after a round of refurbishments and now features a brand new exhibition space dedicated to Italian design. In collaboration with the Triennale di Milano museum, the exhibit opened this summer and features some of the highlight pieces of its furniture design collection. According to Marco Sammicheli, director of the Italian Design Museum of the Triennale: “Airports are typically seen as a ‘non-place’, so we wanted to create an exhibit that reminds passengers that the journey is part of the experience. It’s an invitation to knowledge.”
It was this entire journey that made Salone del Mobile 2021 memorable. Participants and visitors were seduced by an effervescent flow of creativity and design. Teeming with life, Milan presented itself as a hotbed of ideas, where just about everyone seemed to be involved. Getting a table at a restaurant or a seat in a café terrace on a Monday night was quite a task, and if in the lively atmosphere you overheard pieces of the next door table’s conversation, they were likely related to some event or other.
One-off or new format?
While the active involvement of the whole city of Milan for Salone del Mobile is nothing new, what we saw this year was a total breakdown of barriers between what is considered ‘trade’ and ‘public’.
Supersalone received 60,000 visitors over the course of a week. It was more than just a trade fair open to the public, it was conceived and designed with the public in mind. Older trade fair formats were replaced by a more concise and interactive setup. Giving brands limited space in a modular type of setting brought an organic feel, so the public could easily digest the content. Moreover, the integration of purchase by QR code built opportunities for direct sale to visitors, adding a retail element. All this, plus the involvement of design schools and local institutions, resulted in a real democratisation of the trade fair.
Outside of Supersalone, Fuorisalone and Triennale di Milano dotted the city with events, showroom exhibitions, and public art. That meant that, this year, visitors were part of a real immersive experience starting right at point of arrival, one that kept them engaged with all touchpoints throughout their stay, showcasing not only an incredible amount of creative work, but also the spirit and passion that Milan and its people have for design.
Finally, the question remains if this was all a one-off edition helping to restart Salone del Mobile after two years of pandemic standstill?
Rumour has it that next year the fair will go back to its usual April schedule, and that there will be at least a partial return to a more traditional format. However, from a visitor perspective, it seems likely that this year’s model will make an impact on the future. Hope is that more blurring the lines between culture, commerce and consumers will be explored, with more unique and memorable events to come.
NOTE: All pictures provided and licensed by the author.