The Milan furniture fair, the design frenzy that dwarfs this city's famed fashion week in size, opened its 50th exhibition this week, and the event that in 1961 drew 12,100 people likely will close on Sunday having surpassed the 2010 total of 329,600.
The masses are still zigzagging through a maze that is three times larger than all four halls of the Los Angeles Convention Center combined. Furniture covers 2,265,803 square feet, the equivalent of 39 football fields. That's 482 pro basketball courts.
In the era of Facebook, when furniture designers don't even need their own website to reach potential buyers around the globe, why do so many manufacturers, store owners, designers and journalists bother with the Salone Internazionale del Mobile? Perhaps more important, why should anyone else care?
Some of the answers are obvious: Many of the looks first seen here eventually will reach the mass market in some form, and representatives from major chains — the CB2s of the world — are indeed scouting for trends and signing deals.
They will talk about the need to touch and feel pieces, to evaluate comfort and function, to assess the quality and finish of furniture through eyes not deceived by Photoshop. There's the networking too — designers connecting with manufacturers, manufacturers courting fresh talent.
But for a more telling answer, you could look to Ventura Lambrate, one of several exhibitions staged away from the main fair. Hundreds of young creative minds gathered for the second year to show their work in the empty factories of the Lambrate neighborhood.
That's where Fabian Von Spreckelsen, a German student at the Academy of Fine Art Maastricht in the Netherlands, was eager to demonstrate his life-size, minimalist equine sculpture. It turned out to be kinetic, a giant rocking horse composed of quarter-inch-thick sheets of steel, leather and more than 5,000 stitches. He jumped onto the horse to prove that the piece actually does rock, realistically in fact. The first day of the Ventura Lambrate exhibition hadn't yet ended, but he said a scout from Louis Vuitton already had been by and expressed interest in buying the piece.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Milan at the fabled Spazio Rossana Orlandi, the most celebrated design store in a design-centric city, Story vases were lighted like a museum display. The collection is a collaboration among the nonprofit Editions in Craft, the Swedish studio Front and the Siyazama Project, South African women working in traditional bead craft.
To create the glass vases, the designers of Front interviewed five Siyazama women and compiled stories that included their dreams — dreams of flying in an airplane for the first time, of owning a house, of getting married, of having their craft appreciated in other parts of the world. The Siyazama women spelled out portions of their stories in beads wrapped around a wooden mold. When the beads were set, the mold was removed and a Swedish glassblower filled the void, the occasional bulge protruding between letters lending a wonderful effect.
Each vase is 1,440 euros, about $2,100 — a price that probably won't generate a wince from Rossana Orlandi regulars — and the bulk of the money will go to the artisans who crafted them.
Meanwhile in the fashionable Zona Tortona neighborhood, Stephanie Forsythe pointed to a handbag hanging on the wall of her exhibition space. The Tyvek-like skin was aglow like illuminated rice paper, the front of the bag painted with a big, red, rising sun.
Forsythe is director and designer of Molo Design, the Canadian company best known for furniture, room dividers and lighting all made with accordion-like folded paper. Molo fitted the handbags with a ring of LEDs that can run on two AA batteries or be plugged in. All proceeds from the limited edition 50 ($150 apiece) go to Architecture for Humanity, a nonprofit organization providing post-earthquake and -tsunami reconstruction efforts in Japan.
Forsythe said the inspiration for the bag was Milan itself, a desire to create something smart and interesting to share with the world gathering at the fair. With so much happening day and night, the bag was intended to be a beacon — a guiding light for pedestrians navigating dark city streets, a warning to speeding taxis and motorcycles, and most important, an instantly recognizable symbol of support. Indeed, one look at the bag and you can infer its meaning.
The bag is more than a bag, and here in Milan, the best designs prove that furniture can be more than furniture. It can be tradition preserved. It can be audacity untethered. It can be emotion evoked. A Swedish-South African craft collaboration can prove worthy of Milan's most exclusive design gallery, a student's wild rocking horse can catch the eye of Louis Vuitton, and a simple handbag carrying heartfelt sentiments can light up the night.