To most of us a chair is a chair. To initiates it's a design microcosm, 'society in miniature'. David Redhead joins the trend-spotters and show- stoppers at the Milan furniture fair
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IT'S 10.30 on a warm spring evening in Milan. Fresh off the plane from London to attend the city's five-day furniture fair I've pitched myself into the throng of architects, designers, journalists, celebrities and liggers who have shoehorned themselves into the grand headquarters of the Italian furniture company Driade, a converted baroque town house on the chic Via Manzoni. Officially we're here to view Driade's new collection, launched to coincide with the opening of the show. But the plain, some might even say dull, assortment of minimalist tables, chairs and shelves are getting precious little attention, except from the 100 or so would- be gatecrashers who are peering through the showroom windows.

Most of the privileged band inside seem more intent on star-spotting, posing or gossiping beneath a canopy of 1,000 red and white roses strung from steel wires. Personally, I've just squeezed my way to front of the gaggle of journalists pursuing Philippe Starck, Driade's guest of honour, who is holding court in the entrance. Starck is explaining to me the principles that guide his furniture design. "," he gushes as the Washington Post sweeps him off for an interview. "Without it what do we have but a few vases and chairs?"

If the "loviness" is reminiscent of some scene from Prt Porter, the comparison is not far off the mark. In a sense, Milan is to furniture what Paris is to haute couture. For a week, furniture takes over the city. Streets are draped in banners publicising events. Subways are full of advertisements for newly launched ranges. Industry journalists and cheerleaders are out in force. But you can only take the parallel so far. Milan is not, after all, only about furniture as high art; while the Paris shows have always excluded all but the lite, Milan's doors are open to all- comers.

More than 150,000 people descend on the city every year, many of them buyers and sellers who aren't much concerned with the fashionable launches held in the city-centre showrooms and galleries. Their destination is the fiera, a rambling suburban showground which is the fair's "official" site. They probably don't even visit the hall reserved for the design- led lite. They are more interested in exhibition spaces stacked high with furniture to which the word "kitsch" scarcely does justice. There are stools disguised as Grecian urns, standard lamps as spinning wheels and acres of the sort of Louis Quinze repro that might have made even Louis cringe.

But despite the tat, Milan is still the world's most important design exhibition. Designers consider furniture much more than things to sit on. To many, the chair in particular is worthy of reverent study. Ever since the era, more than half a century ago, when modernists like Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe used it to test their theories of form, the chair has been seen as a design microcosm. The English architect Peter Smithson defined it in typically heroic terms: "When we design a chair," he declared portentously, "we make a society and a city in miniature."

In Milan such grandiose theorising dovetails comfortably with the needs of big business. The city has been the world's design capital for 40 years thanks to an extraordinary generation of local designers and the network of workshops and factories that sprang up to support their skills. By the 1980s Milan's furniture industry was thriving, its designers were household names in Italy and its fair the stage on which they created history. The world's design magazines devoted pages of weighty analysis to the significance of this new chair or that new table. At the height of the boom manufacturers seemed prepared to go to any lengths to woo the press and potential customers. One company rented a fleet of underground trains, complete with champagne waiters, in which visitors were ferried to twin big tops in the Milan suburbs, one containing cabaret performers, the other the new chair.

As I hotfoot it around the city in search of this year's show-stopping parties, it's becoming pretty clear that such lavishness is a thing of the past. Milan still has a bohemian edge though. Ron Arad, the Israeli- born London architect, has long been a darling of manufacturers keen to garner a little media attention. This year he's starring in his own show at the Triennale, the city's main design mus-eum. Sporting his trademark flower-pot hat, Arad looks every inch the alternative performer as he poses at the centre of his spiral installation of 38 shimmering stainless steel tables. In the gallery below, the one-time Australian beach boy Marc Newson shows his giant domed sculpture, each of whose coloured plastic segments - theoretically chairs - resembles a giant nipple.

Today's Milanese mainstream probably views such sculpi-furniture with a touch of wistfulness. The Italians may be fond of grand gestures but they sit uneasily with an economy in a state of perpetual free fall. Much of the furniture on show reflects an age of austerity. True, Arad and the Spanish cartoonist Javier Mariscal have been hired to design armchairs and sofas that add a frisson of glamour to Moroso's upholstered ranges. But a visit to the artier furniture companies, once reliable sources of chairs as post-modern liquorice allsorts or love seats as "constructivist towers", reveals that now they offer work that is immediately recognisable as "real furniture".

If you want to get noticed in Milan today it's cheaper and more fashionable to play the eco-conscious 1990s card. Even Alessi, the quintessential manufacturers of yuppie chrome objects, are giving it a try. Heading for their showroom in the expectation of finding a successor to Starck's notoriously impractical spider-like lemon squeezer, I find Enzo Mari, a grand old man of Italian design, holding forth on how to turn plastic bottles into flower pots. Poor Enzo. He has the air of a disgruntled market trader demonstrating a new kitchen appliance to puzzled passers-by.

Worthiness cannot hide the fact that Italian designers have simply run out of things to say. But all is not lost. Northern Europe may not be able to match the Italian sense of drama but they have come into their own in the 1990s. The Czech group Olgoj Khorchoj has emerged from Eastern- bloc obscurity, scraped together the money to rent a stand and is winning admirers for its beautiful and odd sculptural glassware. Droog, a young Dutch collective, is forging a name as the industry's wittiest fringe performers. They offer vibrant, collapsible rubber vases, doorbells whose chime is the clink of a small hammer striking a crystal wine glass, lights in the form of recycled milk bottles and assorted other pieces offering deadpan comments on the sad state of the world.

More important, perhaps, 30 years after their minimal design inspired the launch of Habitat, Swedish designers are making a comeback. And the witty forms of the Swecode group's designs - cushions as Swedish flags, for instance - suggest they have discovered a winningly dry sense of humour. What some have christened the "My Life as a Chair" style may yet prove to be the beginning of a big Swedish revival in the High Street. Ikea, considered a joke by the in-crowd when the company first showed here five years ago, has hired 15 of the country's top designers to create PS, a range whose elegance scared the Italians as much as its rock-bottom prices. (It is available at Ikea's London stores.)

Yet even these rising nations have their work cut out to match the impact Britain has made on the Milan scene. As the new season's collection is revealed at the champagne and oyster free-for-all at Cappellini's smart shop on Via Montenapoleone, Giulio Cappellini, who cuts a casually elegant figure in his Prince of Wales check suit and brown brogues, is one Italian manufacturer who can afford to relax and enjoy the party. His immaculate stile Inglese outfit seems fitting. Cappellini revived his sleepy family firm by swimming - along with the British - against the national stream. Rejecting 1980s decadence, he recruited designers like Jasper Morrison and the Milan-based Lon-doner James Irvine to help evolve a new visual style that was ordinary but not dull. Christened New Function-alism, the style's success has elevated Irvine and Morrison to star status in Milan. Undaunted by criticism of his "disloyalty" to Italy, Cappellini has introduced a new wave of British-trained or British-born designers like Terence Woodgate, Ross Lovegrove and Konstantin Grcic.

The new Brit Pack are sure to remain a force at Milan's creative edge. So why is it that designers who are big names there remain unknown at home? Britain seems to remain stubbornly indifferent to modern design. Everywhere you go in Milan you run across young British graduates who are heaving their portfolios around Milan's design studios in the hope of a commission.

Britain can only muster one manufacturer to compete with the Italians. Sheridan Coakley has been trying to persuade the British to buy the modern furniture he makes and sells through his London showroom, SCP (135-139 Curtain Road, Shoreditch, London EC2; 0171-739 1869), for the past 10 years. Jasper Morrison, Matthew Hilton, Konstantin Grcic and Terence Woodgate owe their first break to him.

At the party SCP is throwing for its friends in Milan the company's designers offer a range of explanations for Britain's distaste for modern design. Coakley himself - known affectionately by his loyal band of designers as "Dad" - remains cheerfully resigned to the mysteries of British taste. "Being individualistic is part of our island nature," he argues. "We stand apart from Europe in our view of music and fashion. Why should furniture be different?" But for Terence Woodgate, a Londoner now based in Portugal, the fault lies partly with retailers who lack a crucial sense of adventure. "I can't understand how Marks & Spencer can produce a collection of clothing that looks like Paul Smith," he says, "But when it comes to furniture it's all Laura Ashley: pine and cornflowers."

Perhaps, I reflect en route to the airport, the truth is that the British are still caught up a class-inspired dislike of modern furniture. It is smarter to inherit a battered leather Chesterfield than to buy a spanking new Jasper Morrison sofa. New furniture, it seems, is only for the nouveaux riches. This is after all the country in which Michael Heseltine can be dismissed by Alan Clark as the sort of Johnny-come-lately who "had to buy his own furniture".

But British reluctance to buy modern is probably as much a matter of expense as of snobbery. The cost of Italian furniture has fallen recently but it is still unlikely that many of us will discover the charms of new functionalism through Cappelini's range, whose visual ordinariness is not matched by its prices. British people are not going to rush out to buy Kon-stantin Grcic's plywood coat hanger and shelf at £135 a throw. I can't help wishing our talented designers had the weight of a big retailer prepared to invest in a low-cost version of their distinctive vision of modern furniture. A few years ago Habitat might have provided the answer to British designers' prayers. Today, though, Terence Conran's former brainchild is more likely to extend a helping hand to the Swedes. It is now firmly in the hands of Ikea. !