Design Direction By Lucia van der Post

Lucia van der Post says that the furniture and furnishings at the Salon di Mobile in Milan prove that the troubled economy has created a boom in designers’ creativity and innovation….

For designers who earn their livings by creating new “stuff” (which reminds me of Karl Lagerfeld’s definition of the job of the designer which is “eternally to re-ignite desire”), this year’s Milan Furniture Fair (Salon di Mobile) posed some interesting dilemmas. The Milan Furniture Fair, after all, is to the world of interior design what the catwalk shows are to fashion. It’s where designers strut their stuff. Where they come up with wild, wonderful and thrilling creations, designed to knock our socks off. But this year, the economic landscape looked so very troubled. It’s the year, after all, when “stuff” became distinctly out of fashion. When newspapers and magazines are filled with advice on how to make do and mend, when recycling became as fashionable as “It” handbags used to be.

So what did the most enterprising designers do? Why, they embraced the conundrum this posed with enterprise and energy and came up with plenty of new “stuff” but, in the light of what we have learned to call “these difficult times,” many of them imbued their work with a sense of social purpose, making sure that it was “useful” and, very often, made it from old materials as well as new. Frederique Morrell’s table-mats, for instance, fuse old lace with bright new plastic and turn them into highly desirable objects. Piet Hein Eek takes wood salvaged from beaches or discarded furniture and transforms it into something new and desirable is a perfect example of the genre. Just don’t expect this sort of salvage to be cheap. Piet Hein Eek’s pieces are increasingly collectible and are attracting fairly fancy price tags. Both designers’ works could be seen and bought at Spazio Rosanna Orlandi, a wondrous new store at 14 – 16 Via Matteo Bandello, which turns out to be a perfect expression of contemporary tastes in interior design – it is, above all, eclectic and inclusive. It sells whatever its owner thinks is beautiful and this could be a tin plate which she sells for 10 Euros, or it could be the exquisite wall-lamps of Marcus Tremonto which are mind-blowingly expensive. It could be vintage; it could be brand spankingly new. What it reveals is a willingness to see things for what they are and not to be bamboozled by big names and fancy provenance.

Some of the Brits, most notably Tom Dixon and Sheridan Coakley of SCP, came up with noticeably sober contributions to the design debate. Tom Dixon’s new collection – Back To Basics Utility (tables, stools, chairs) – was modest and functional and clearly in austerity mode, whilst Sheridan Coakley came up with SCP Boxed, a collection of very affordable pieces all ready packed to take away. Nicest of the Coakley designs was a beautifully simple ash stool by Alex Hallum. They represented one strong strand of current design thinking.

But, happily, there is another where wit and fantasy weren’t entirely lost. Jaime Hayon’s glass vessels for Baccarat have no perceivable function other than to be what they are, which is gloriously beautiful. Displayed en masse at Spazio Rosanna Orlandi, they looked wonderfully desirable, a reminder that even in these difficult times some part of us still craves things that are beautiful. The Front girls (four beautiful Swedes) are a quartet to watch, and at Milan they were everywhere, designing for Moroso, Moooi, Established & Sons and Skitsch, as well as a piece for Veuve Clicquot. Wit and trompe l’oeil is what they are about and they specialise in making ordinary things look extraordinary – a sofa that appears to be made of wood turns out to be made of softest fabric, a bookcase turns out to house not books, but clothes.

Stock exchanges everywhere may be in trouble but you can’t keep a good designer down. Creative, innovative, appropriate design may well turn out to be the answer to our economic woes.