Design: The big, chic showdown

Do you love Italian flair or Scandinavian cool? As the Milan Furniture Fair begins,Kate Watson-Smyth referees a tussle for design supremacy that's been playing out for decades
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The Independent Online

Over the next six days, the movers and shakers of the furniture world will be rubbing shoulders. Interiors trends will be established, the next big names in design will be talent-spotted, and the prosecco will flow. For today the Milan Furniture Fair opens. It is like the fashion weeks of New York, Milan and Paris all rolled in to one. Only with more chairs.

The world of furniture keeps no medal tables, but if there were such a thing, it would be dominated by the Italians and Scandinavians. Simon Andrews, a senior specialist at Christies, says: "All countries have at some point exercised leadership in international design. But Scandinavia and Italy are different, because they have had a force in every decade and across every medium – not just furniture design."

So what will rule our homes over the next few years? Italian flamboyance or Scandinavian restraint? These are the battle grounds on which the battle for dominance is fought.

Colour

The Scandinavians are not big fans of colour. Most of the classic designs come in glass, stainless steel or black. One exception is the Danish firm Normann Copenhagen, which is producing rubber washing-up bowls in a range of colours – but the monochrome versions are regarded as the classics.

Paul Overton, founder of Panik-Design, which sells Italy and Scandinavian homewares, explains: "The Danish company Eva Solo used to produce a spice rack, which looked like it had a bunch of flowers on the top for the labels to be inserted. This was produced in plain silver for the Danish market, and with multi-coloured flowers for the rest of Europe. It's a classic example of the Danes realising that the rest of Europe likes colour more than they do. For them, it's all about the function of the product rather than the way it looks."

Function

As Overton says, the Danes care about functionality above all else. If they buy a salt and pepper pot, they expect it to last for ever. If they buy a Louis Poulton Artichoke light from the 1920s, it will be passed on to their children.

Scandinavian design can be austere, but it might complement your furniture better than something Italian, which might feel like it's taking over the room.

While function is important to the Italians, they also care about how the product looks. What matters most is that it gets noticed.

Fashion

The Italians are more likely to react quickly to a new design. At the moment, they are the leaders in funky TV stands and home-cinema storage.

"If the design doesn't work after they have produced it, they are happy to modify it," says Overton. "The Danes will take a long time to react to a new product but when their design is produced they stick with it. Even it if doesn't sell well in Europe, they won't abandon it."

Loyalty

The Danes have an enormous sense of loyalty to their country and its products. Unlike the British, who have to be encouraged to buy British, the Danes buy Danish. They are their own greatest fans. The Italians have a more disposable attitude. If an object falls out of fashion in a few years, they will change it, whereas the Danes might spend more on an item but they buy for life.

Price

For the Italians, price is about brand. Alessi is divided into three ranges: top, middle and bottom. As with fashion you are paying, in part, for the label.

The Danes simply relate the price to the manufacturing cost. So you can buy a set of glasses from Rosendahl that are cheaper than Ikea, but you can spend nearly £1,000 on a toy wooden monkey that clearly took a lot of work to produce.

Materials

The Scandinavians pioneered the use of plywood and veneer, but the Italians are also using wood now from their own sustainable sources. Simon Andrews sums it up thus: "The Scandinavians use natural materials with a strong craft feel. They are inspired by nature – glass, for instance, to mimic ice. The Italians concentrate more on the technology and the use of different materials."

The future

The Dutch are having their moment in the spotlight, so perhaps the future is orange. Venka de Rooij, of Dutch by Design (www.dutchbydesign.com), says: "The Dutch have a very strong background in design and it seems to be their time now. Their furniture makes you laugh. The Scandinavians have always been very popular but their design can be austere and the Italians make things that are very beautiful. But the Dutch go one step beyond and combine great beauty with wit.

"The Dutch will take a material and do something you wouldn't expect with it. Tord Boontje makes lights out of paper," adds De Rooij, "and Suseela Gorter was photographing flowers and made the photographs into stickers that you can put in the window, to look like a vase of flowers. Gorter's stickers only cost £3.50 which is the other point – Dutch design is very affordable."

The "invisible self shelf" (£19.95, www.1001homes.co.uk) looks like a book that attaches to the wall, on top of which you can put your real books, giving the impression that your tomes are floating on the wall.

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