Need to Know
23 : 04 : 18

20.04.2018 Milan Salone : Design : Retail

Designers at this year’s Milan Salone del Mobile Internazionale stayed away from political messages, instead focusing on issues such as pollution, future cities and new branded opportunities.

1. Making the abstract accessible

Hidden Senses by Sony, Milan 2018 Hidden Senses by Sony, Milan 2018
Hidden Senses by Sony, Milan 2018 Hidden Senses by Sony, Milan 2018
Hidden Senses by Sony Hidden Senses by Sony
Hidden Senses by Sony, Milan Hidden Senses by Sony, Milan

At this year’s show, several brands presented concepts that visually communicated complex information in a more intuitive and responsive manner, and consequently generated new visual languages around their products.

In a standout exhibition, Sony demonstrated how unobtrusive technology can enrich interactions between user and object. At Hidden Senses, five ‘case-study’ areas contained everyday objects that responded to simple gestures or movements with playful and surprising reactions. ‘The manipulation of everyday objects has the potential to be the next interface for a new lifestyle,’ Hirotaka Tako Sony Creative’s chief art director told LS:N Global. By eradicating devices such as smartphones and tablets to receive everyday information, Sony envisages a world where we communicate with technology through new hand gestures and body movements.

Meanwhile, Puma proposed new methods to convey changing information in real-time. Their partnership with MIT Design Lab used biotechnology in a variety of ways, including tracking an athlete's performance metrics. The aim was to make data more visceral according to Charles Johnson, Global Director of Innovation at Puma.

'The wearable space is currently very data-driven – it’s all pie-charts and bar-charts. That’s not a desirable information medium for consumers. What if you had something that is more interactive, more visceral and more expressive, wouldn’t that be cool? That’s where the potential of biodesign comes in,' he told LS:N Global. 'With scandals around Facebook and data protection, this will become even more important and consumers will become interested in other formats of data transmission and representation.

2. Solving pollution through design

Air Inventions by Panasonic, Milan 2018 Air Inventions by Panasonic, Milan 2018
Breath/ng by Dassault Systèmes and Kengo Kuma, Milan 2018 Breath/ng by Dassault Systèmes and Kengo Kuma, Milan 2018

Considering the current socio-economic and political climate, it was surprising to see a lack of provocative work that confronted these issues head-on. However, several technology brands did focus the global pollution problem and proposed solutions to improve air quality for consumers.

Panasonic presented ‘Air Inventions’; an immersive installation that showcased the brands latest air-conditioning technology, allowing visitors to experience the cleanest, purest air in Milan. Set inside a large air dome 20 metres in diameter, the air in the space was purified using a proprietary technology called Nanoe X, which is indiscernible to visitors. Nanoe X collects moisture from the surrounding atmosphere and applies a high voltage to create nano-sized particles of water. The technology has the ability to penetrate fabrics to remove odours and inhibit allergens and mould. Panasonic used projection mapped animations of particles transitioning through various states and a co-ordinating soundscape to add tactility to the experience.

Three-dimensional software design company Dassault Systemés also sought to find design-led solutions to pollution. The company partnered with four leading designers Kengo Kuma, Daan Roosegaarde, Wesley Goatley and Superflux, challenging them to use existing pollution neutralising materials to create localised clean air solutions.

Central to the exhibition was Kuma’s expansive spiralling installation Breath/ng, a material which can absorb the equivalent of amount of pollution produced by 90,000 cars, and Goately's reactive installation, which confronted the political biases when reporting pollution data.

3. Contemplating the future metropolis

Built by All by MINI LIVING, Milan 2018 Built by All by MINI LIVING, Milan 2018
Built by All by MINI LIVING, Milan 2018 Built by All by MINI LIVING, Milan 2018
Built by All by MINI LIVING, Milan 2018 Built by All by MINI LIVING, Milan 2018
Built by All by MINI LIVING, Milan 2018 Built by All by MINI LIVING, Milan 2018

Rather than just using Milan purely as a venue, several designers were sympathetic to Milanese culture and infrastructure, using the city’s streets and residents as a means to question the role of design in future urban centres.

Not for Sale by Design Academy Eindhoven was a series of installations embedded into the daily life of a Milanese residential street, Via Pietro Crespi. Designed to explore the micro-societies that exist around the quotidian transaction of goods, a newsagent, barber shop, and food market all located on the street hosted speculative projects from the Academy. Each store owner was a part of the installation, engaging passers-by in conversation and encouraging them to view the work.

MINI Living's Built by All project demonstrated how unused spaces, such as abandoned shopping centres and warehouses in cities like Milan, have the potential to become new co-living communities. Working with Studiomama, Built By All proposed that residents should lie at the heart of the design process and co-create the space alongside professional architects. Within the disused factory space were four modular designs that were all informed by the residents' lifestyles such as a soundproof capsule home for a music producer.

MINI Living continues to push the boundaries of urban housing and has been using events like the Salone as a testbed of ideas to inform their work. Their first real-life co-living concept is already in development in Shanghai.

4. Performance over products

Vegan Design - The Art of Reduction by Erez Nevi Pana, Milan 2018. Photography by Amir Farzad Vegan Design - The Art of Reduction by Erez Nevi Pana, Milan 2018. Photography by Amir Farzad
Vegan Design - The Art of Reduction by Erez Nevi Pana, Milan 2018. Photography by Amir Farzad Vegan Design - The Art of Reduction by Erez Nevi Pana, Milan 2018. Photography by Amir Farzad

As noted at last year’s show, there has been an increasing shift towards exhibitors using performance as a means to engage visitors in larger, topical discussions beyond just product.

Israeli designer Erez Nevi Pana questioned whether it is possible to design a furniture free from any animal byproducts. Having discovered that typical building materials such as paint, resins, glues and cements contain animal-derived materials, he set out on a journey around the world to create five objects that are aligned with his vegan ethics. For one piece, he travelled to the Dead Sea to construct a stool made from crystallized salt accumulated over eight months at the bottom of the ocean. The pieces were displayed on mountains of the original source material – from salt to trash to textiles. Although the final products were beautiful, it is the extreme lengths Pana was required to go to, to produce an animal-free product, that provoked a dialogue around the issue.

Dutch architectural firm Space Encounters took a more inclusive approach and created a performance space where visitors were encouraged to be part of the exhibition. Creating a working performance space called Bar Anne, Space Encounters hosted a series of talks, discussions, music presentations and dancing, with their designs actually in use within the space throughout the week. ‘You can try them, test them, sit on them, jump on them and even sleep on them. Be our guest,’ the firm stated.

5. The rise of design week merch

ECAL Digital Market, Milan 2018 ECAL Digital Market, Milan 2018
Pea Whistle by Anthony Guex, ECAL Digital Market, Milan 2018 Pea Whistle by Anthony Guex, ECAL Digital Market, Milan 2018
ECAL Digital Market, Milan 2018 ECAL Digital Market, Milan 2018

As each year passes, the Salone becomes more dominated by big brands, who are using the show as a platform to showcase their design awareness. This year, that translated into a notable increase of smaller designers using the fair's exposure to generate new retail opportunities.

Several designers incorporated merchandise into their offering or even built their concept around the retail model, which is traditionally absent from the show. The Swiss design university ECAL's store Digital Market was a 3D-printing production farm, that produced objects designed by Master Product Design students and sold directly on site.

Similarly, Design Academy Eindhoven sold merchandise in the local food market as part of their Not For Sale exhibition and interestingly, at the end of Nendo’s extensive solo exhibition, there was an interactive store where visitors could purchase a surprise gift from three, oversized gumball machine’s to take away an element of the exhibition. It was a way to make design more accessible, in a fair where the products themselves often run in the thousands of euros.

6.Thought-starter: Have design shows lost their voice?

A host of big brands took over elaborate venues across Milan city centre during Salone del Mobile Internazionale 2018, but many presentations lacked a directional voice.

Considering Milan Design Week is the biggest design fair in the world, you would assume that it was a hot bed of provocative work and boundary-pushing ideas. But it wasn't. It was all quite safe – a bit too safe in fact.

Large brands understand the benefits of connecting with a captive audience through new experiences and products, but this year's activations felt like a lost opportunity to actually communicate brand values and ethics authentically.

Carefully considered press releases, cautiously chaired panel discussions and heavily briefed interviewees are the antithesis of creativity. One designer commissioned by a large tech brand mentioned that he wasn’t even allowed to use the word ‘political’ in his concept description for fear of being inflammatory.

The key purpose of design is to spark debate, to provoke new ways of thinking and challenge existing establishments as a means to progress, and if we censor this dialogue at design shows, we aren’t fostering creativity.

As outlined in our Civic Brands macro trend, brands need to stand by the issues that matter to them without fear of reprisal, and it will create a more authentic connection with consumers.

Open Sky by Phillip K. Smith and COS, Milan 2018 Open Sky by Phillip K. Smith and COS, Milan 2018