The art of sitting comfortably

Can designers make remarkable creations in an age of austerity? Caroline Roux sees boom times ahead
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The Independent Culture

Even before Eyjafjallajokull began to erupt, the mood at this year's Milan Furniture Fair was black.

At the world's biggest annual design outing (visitor numbers are around the 300,000 mark), colour was eradicated in favour of something rather more serious, as if to make the point that this is an industry that knows when to play and when to put the toys back in the box and get real. Major Italian manufacturer Kartell, best known for fashion-led translucent plastic furniture in bright juicy fruit colours, presented an entirely monochrome display which looked more like a rigorous display in a design museum than an attempt to sell new work by the French showman Philippe Starck. His new designs included a glossy black reworking of his Bambi-legged Mr Impossible chair.

Like the arenas of art and property, the furniture industry had become a little too exuberant for its own good, pre-downturn. Companies were showing any number of prototypes, many of which would never go into commercial production; experimental designs and extravagant installations came as standard; increasing numbers of pieces came in limited editions, with hefty price tags. The Milan event was inspirational, but it had become hard to sift reality from fantasy.

Now, as manufacturers are trying to cut their losses rather than enhance their reputation for glamour, wit and whimsy, reality has become the order of the day. "It was crazy two years ago," says Jaime Hayon, a star Spanish designer known for work that tends towards the baroque, "but things are now under control. The investment is too big and people, myself included, are applying proper thought to why they are doing things. Work needs to have a reason to exist, and it has to arrive on time."

Hayon's response to the new mood included a pretty wire chair, called Pina, for the big, and highly creative, Italian manufacturer Magis, that through clever construction creates an illusion of something lush and inflated. "I'm giving dignity to a low cost material that can look very poor," says Hayon.

For Tom Dixon, one of Britain's most successful designers, it has meant seriously upping the pace of production. "Italian companies still take five years to make a new chair," he says, "but I want to produce things in five weeks." Dixon was only showing four new products – all them available to buy there and then. They included a stab at creating a new icon in the form of a wooden café chair called Peg – pretty, lightweight, stackable, and reasonably cheap (£200-£275).

The problem with showing prototypes, of course, is not just customer frustration with not being able to buy them. Copying is rife in this industry and the minute you put a piece on display, it's likely to be produced by someone somewhere in the world. Ron Arad's work has been so ruthlessly reproduced in China, that the designer eventually went to the factories churning out the copies of his Tom Vac chair and offered to create a new design especially for them. The offer was declined. Dixon's quick turnaround is one way of circumventing this issue. Added to that, he is now selling online, an area that the design world has been strangely reluctant to enter.

"Design has been so slow to respond to online," says Alasdhair Willis, CEO of smart British label Established and Sons. "I know we're not going to sell a sofa that way, but it's an access point to the brand." Willis, who has worked with names including Zaha Hadid and the much admired and rigorous Jasper Morrison, has this year added a new line called ESTD to bring 12 cheaper products to market (starting at £40 for a ceramic coat hook and going up to £1,000) and at a greater speed. "It totally articulates what we are as a design company," says Willis of the range which continues its modernist, industrial aesthetic, but which won't identify the designer. This anonymity seems appropriate in more modest times (the veneration of the design superstar was definitely less in evidence in Milan this year), and "the designers enjoy it. It allows them to do things against type." Willis is intending adding to this new range month by month, giving the customer reasons to keep coming back. If he's following a fashion model (particularly one elaborated by a store like Zara, where customers expect new products weekly), it's hardly surprising. His wife of seven years is Stella McCartney.

As you might expect, sustainability and conspicuous responsibility was everywhere but in more forms than you can imagine, from recycling to dematerialisation. At the Swiss company Vitra it meant a "chair" called Chairless that consisted of no more than a cushion to place on the floor and a strap to wrap around the back and knees to relieve the tension of sitting, by Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena. The message was probably "less is more", though the product's sense of its own worthiness was simply overwhelming.

The Campana Brothers, Fernando and Humberto, from Sao Paolo, utilise the sort of scrap materials that are used creatively in the favelas of Brazil to produce designs for the fabulously rich. This year they had riveted together many scraps of aluminium to make a large, shiny, pendant lampshade for the ultra-luxe Italian company Edra. "It shows the possibility of re-use," says Humberto. "The second life of a material. And it can be completely disassembled and the materials used yet again."

Philippe Starck's answer to the environmental problem was to create a range for the upmarket outdoor-furniture company Dedon (many of its products are in a distinctive dark-brown woven fibre and appear on expensive terraces around the world) that can be made locally, rather than shipped far and wide from one location. "It has great political and economic implications," says Starck, whose thinking is as clear and articulate as his work is often flamboyant. "A good product needs a good concept."

One of the most carbon-neutral designers, though, is one making work of the variety that provokes the "Is it art or design?" debate; large, sculptural, deliberately non-functional pieces that exist as an exploration of materials and forms. Nacho Carbonell is a young Spanish designer who lives in Eindhoven in the Netherlands. He had filled the vast space belonging to chic Italian fashion house Gianfranco Ferré, the Spazio Ferré, with repeated versions of a peculiar hooded conjoined desk and chair. One was covered in shattered green glass; another sprouted wool from its sides; and another was perforated by hundreds of tiny steel rods. One was an explosion of twigs.; in all there were around 15 variations. "You know when you finish a project and you think, I could have done this, I could have done that," says the charmingly hippyish Carbonell, who was happily designing toasters until he realised there might be a more interesting time to be had. "Well, this is about continuing doing this and doing that until you reach a conclusion."

While the work has no use except as a conceptual statement, Carbonell's own lifestyle is one of almost zero consumption. He lives in a squat and works in a rent-free former church. He rarely buys clothes (the Ferré people politely asked him and his team to use the back door during the installation of the show), and never has an extravagant night out (if you've been to Eindhoven you'll know why). In a city like Milan, caught up in the sort of status anxiety fuelled in part by the worlds of fashion and design, Carbonell's approach to his life and his art/design suddenly seems very attractive indeed.