Patterns, but not trends, in Milan

Special to The Times

IF there's one piece of advice that emerged after five days of scouring the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, the world's largest and most prestigious furniture fair, it is this: Do not ask a furniture designer to talk about "trends." To an already tortured creative mind, this is the ultimate insult, and the quickest way to a conversation ending. As renowned designer and architect Antonio Citterio sniffed, "I'm not interested in that question at all."

Trendy is a dirty word in the design world -- but whether these people like it or not, they have been bitten by a collective bug. At the Milan show, which closed Monday, trends were everywhere.

Perhaps most prominent was the demise of stark minimalist interiors. In their place was a new, rigorous take on the term "decoration."

"The big movement at the moment is 'eclecticism,' " observed Wallpaper magazine editor Jeremy Langmead. "You don't want to completely forget the foundations of minimalism and functionality, but people are putting a more decorative layer on top of that -- making it warmer and more personal."

A favorite technique was the use of prints. Patterns have jumped onto non-fabric surfaces, such as the laminate tabletops that Tom Dixon covered in colorful pinstripe or chain-link patterns. At Swarovski, the design team Basso & Brooke even silk-screened prints onto individual chandelier crystals. Lace continued to be a major influence, popping up on white lattice screens as well as laser-cut steel chairs at Zanotta that looked like doilies.

Even hard-core minimalists seemed to be cracking, as they found ways to flirt discreetly with decoration. Ross Lovegrove's Supernatural chairs turned the basic into the beautiful with a cluster of pierced holes in their synthetic backrests. Future Systems' Drift benches, produced by British up-and-comers Established & Sons, were stretched into long curves with hollow centers. At Cappellini, Francois Azambourg's simple metal Mr. Bugatti chairs were made infinitely more interesting by their crumpled metal surface.

Some designers aimed to throw some pattern into your life with a textured surface, such as the enormous igloo-shaped lamps and wall partitions from French brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec for Vitra. Their pieces appeared to be covered by rows of book-binded trays. Patricia Urquiola went wild with a web of 3-D poinsettia petals on her felt lounge chair for Moroso. For the conceptual maximalist -- or perhaps anyone with lost luggage -- Ron Arad has decided to dress his Ripple chair with clothing: fashionable covers for the butterfly-shaped seats.

When not obsessing over speckled tweed, furniture designers paid homage to textured leather. Punched with Chesterfield-style cross-stitching at Poltrona Frau, or draped like blouse sleeves on Urquiola's bucket-shaped Smock chairs, leather looked warmer and more sophisticated than ever.

Lighting designs were dramatic. "I'm seeing a lot more reinterpretations of the traditional chandelier -- lots more fragmented lighting sculptures, rather than solid sculptures," said Nadia Swarovski, who commissioned pieces for her yearly Crystal Palace chandelier exhibition. A Swarovski design by Gaetano Pesce seemed like a living crystal blob -- moving, changing colors and emitting music and perfume. At Established & Sons, Pritzker prize winner Zaha Hadid hung 16,000 black crystals from surgical wire to create a giant, floating black bloom that glowed with light.

Eclecticism also manifested itself with material mixes in single objects: lacquer sides and felt pillows on B&B; couches, wooden tabletops paired with turned steel legs by Marcel Wanders, or even the ultimate melting pot -- wood, metal, fabric and leather all thrown together on the Worker chair by Hella Jongerius, the first female designer at Vitra since Ray Eames in the 1960s.

While cruising Milan's enormous new fairgrounds for great finds, Dan Friedlander, owner of the San Francisco boutique Limn, blurted out: "There's a very good word for this. It's called 'superficial.' "

But oddly, when designers weren't decorating, they were hiding. Take Minotti's Terra kitchen, designed by Claudio Silvestrin. It had no faucets, no hardware, no wood, no paneling. Water spurted out from a hidden hole, and the entire structure consisted of two slabs of an expensive rock, porphyry. Appliances were hidden behind doors. Price: $250,000.

"It will never get old," company owner Alberto Minotti said proudly. "We've eliminated all of the things that date a kitchen -- the panels, faucets, handles -- and the stove is covered."

The same timeless effect was achieved in the bathroom by designer Naoto Fukasawa for Boffi: a new tub that was a faucet-less, remote-controlled block of synthetic resin. "Too many functions confuses the people," Fukasawa said of his tub, into which water spills soothingly from an inconspicuous slit.

Wanders launched a series of couches for Moooi that offered more than 60 ready-made cover designs as diverse as fringed plaid and fur-trimmed brocade, allowing for quick living room updates. "Women love their bags and shoes far more than they love their couches, and I hate it!" said Wanders passionately. "We want to make sofa buying as fun, nice, easy and fast as possible. No 12 weeks waiting anymore."

Good-looking function also came in the form of De Padova's stackable wooden chairs, which looked as beautiful piled up in a vertical tower as they would around a dining room table. The company also showed the Campo D'Oro table, which splits into three hinged pieces to allow for customization. Jasper Morrison's wooden benches for Cappellini, meanwhile, stacked to become bookshelves.

The apex of attractive function, however, came in the form of Citterio's sleek new Kinesis design for Technogym. Finally, the home gym may emerge from its shackles in the garage. Sculptural in form, with a flat, mirrored facade and no bulky weights, this pulley-based exercise system can be mounted on your living room wall much like a plasma TV.

"These objects must have the elegance of disappearing," Philippe Starck said in commending the design. "The more it disappears, the more it can be in the home."

The trend-phobic Citterio echoed this sentiment over at B&B;: "Design is not taste or style," he declared. "It's a quality of life." Now that's a trend we can live with.

J.J. Martin is a Milan-based contributing editor to Harper's Bazaar. She can be reached at

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