The Milan Furniture Fair turns 50

It's not all unaffordable pieces and niche design – this year's top trends will soon be on sale in a shop near you
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The Independent Online

I'd rather talk about food than chairs," says the British designer Tom Dixon, sitting in his Ladbroke Grove studio a couple of weeks before he sets off to the Milan Furniture Fair, the world's biggest design event, which runs from 12 to 17 April. This is partly because he opened his own London restaurant, The Dock Kitchen, to the public last September (meaning his studio next door benefits from the most stylish works canteen in town). But also because he is taking a temporary version of it to Italy in a fortnight. "I want to make the set-up more active than your usual furniture exhibition. And to underline the fact that we're showing real stuff, that this furniture works."

Taking food to the Italians might seem a bit of a coals-to-Newcastle type of mission. But Dixon knows what he's doing. The 50-year-old has been showing his work in Milan every April for seven years and has seen the Furniture Fair grow to an event of enormous proportions. His pop-up restaurant, currently code-named Earnest and with London's latest culinary wunderkind, Stevie Parle, at its helm, should certainly get him noticed. Once lured in by the fine vegetarian fare, visitors won't be able to avoid his new cast iron-legged chairs (called Cast) or his new tables (Roll) – they'll be sitting on and at them. "It's the direct benefit of owning a restaurant," says Dixon. "The chair developed because I saw how many hard knocks a restaurant chair takes. And the table has a wheel built into it, so it's really easy to move around."

This year, as the fair celebrates its 50th year, the competition for attention is going to be fiercer than ever. When the event started in 1961, it was a local affair for local people – the whole of the Italian furniture industry is based in the north of Italy. By 1968, it had gone international. Now the fair itself, which takes place in a vast sequence of purpose-built exhibition halls to the north-west of the city, covers 1.5 million square feet, hosts around 1,300 exhibitors and attracts more than 300,000 visitors, with 6,000 or so journalists among them. Elsewhere in the city are hundreds of further shows (including Dixon's). And although you'd be surprised by how many of those 1,300 at the main fair are hawking the sort of bow-fronted wardrobes, elaborately decorated sleigh beds and onyx-topped tables that one would deem deeply out of fashion (but that clearly still have a thriving market somewhere), this is the place to see the very latest trends by the very hottest designers.

"Everything reached the height of flashiness a few years ago," says Sean Sutcliffe, the co-founder, with Sir Terence Conran, of the British furniture company Benchmark. "It was all shiny lacquer finishes, strong colours and huge sofas. We stopped seeing that a couple of years ago. Matt finishes and muted tones are back in. Wood is popular. Pieces are generally slimmer. Austerity is too strong a word, but design is definitely looking more discreet."

In the last few years, lighting has definitely been the thing to watch – totally transformed by the disappearance of the incandescent light bulb and its replacement by innovative LEDs. Even Anglepoise, the stalwart British company famous for its no-nonsense task lights, is joining in this year with a new model by the veteran designer Kenneth Grange. The Anglepoise Type C LED with its spindly stainless steel structure has a 1980s feel, but its technology – the state-of-the-art Cree LED – is far from retro. At the Italian lighting specialists Flos, the celebrated pearl-wearing Dutch designer Marcel Wanders has taken a very different approach, with a towering floorlamp called Chrysalis that he describes as "a magic vase [...] an evergreen flower fountain". It's a glowing polycarbonate chrysalis that is as far from Grange's pragmatism as you can imagine – lighting as objet for a well-appointed home. But expect to see something similar in Ikea sometime next year: where Wanders goes, others tend to follow.

Milan can also be the launch pad for young talent, and two young English designers are set for maximum exposure. The 26-year old Benjamin Hubert, who works a 12-hour day in his Highbury studio, is bringing 12 new products, from a lamp that looks like a car headlight for the Swedish company Orsjo to a laptop bag for the Italian company Nava that can expand into a holdall. Bethan Wood, a 27-year old graduate of the Royal College of Art, is showing a series of tables in Nilufar, one of Milan's most prestigious design galleries. Wood, despite her name, works with laminates, cut into minute pieces which are then inlaid like traditional marquetry to form patterns that look like candy-coloured agate. The timing couldn't be better. In September this year, a big retrospective of the Postmodernism movement (in which surface decoration, especially created with highly decorative laminates, figured large) will open at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Wood's work is a clever contemporary update of this movement, proving that pattern, properly applied, will always have a place.

If Wood is working at the exclusive end of the design market (her pieces are limited edition, meaning there will only be around eight of each one), even the classy, contemporary British producer Established and Sons has decided to limit its launches for 2011. Its director, Sebastian Wrong, says: "We've put our time and energy into creating fewer things, but [ones] that are completely resolved. This isn't the moment to show off, but to be realistic." Among his launches are the Soft Rocker chair by the design duo Committee – a big, squashy armchair with a rocking mechanism that's about all-embracing comfort for hard times.

Benchmark, on the other hand, though now 25 years old, is taking its wares to Milan for the first time. "It's long overdue," says Sean Sutcliffe. "For years London was enough, and we were just too busy to consider other markets. But now times are tighter at home, we need to lift our eyes to other horizons, and Milan's the place to do that." In line with his observations about quieter design, Sutcliffe will be showing new pieces that include the cute little Puck table – a circular side table by the young Norwegian Simen Aarseth – and a simple oak bench and console by Russel Pinch that are exercises in pure discretion.

Buyers, trend forecasters, students and journalists from all over the world will be flocking to Milan next week. If the product is right, the customers will be there. So what if London is in the doldrums and Portugal on the edge of a bailout? Latin American is vibrant, Asia is opening up to design and the Russians are among the newer consumers thronging the halls and cutting the deals. "Brazil is where it's happening for us," says Sebastian Wrong of the new markets. "You used to be suspicious of people from China with cameras," laughs Dixon, recalling a time when the Chinese would come looking for ideas to be recreated back home. "But now they're likely to be your best buyers."