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Observations from Salone del Mobile.Milano 2018

Anyone looking for a clear and unequivocal answer to the question “what approach did design take in 2018?” within the context of the great Salone Internazionale del Mobile di Milano cannot fail to be surprised. There was no one single approach, but many different, design approaches. In fact one could attempt a play on words, to the effect that the lack of a well-defined trend should be seen as the driving trend. There have been many and varied style approaches: from organicism to a return to the classic, a search for purity or fantasy and, within each different strand, there are designers from the most diverse cultural and geographical contexts. 


While this absence of unidirectional approach should be powerfully stressed, there remain various characteristics common to all the trends evidenced, first and foremost the retrieval of the narrative value of objects, of their ability to create an ambience and live alongside each other in spaces conceived along the lines of cabinets de merveilles, collectors’ treasure chests. There are few references to the so-called white cube, now usurped by rooms (the loft concept is now extremely passé), steeped in shades of pink/red and grey/petroleum.  Furniture, lamps and objects adapt perforce to this mood, “warming up” their images with fine woods, precious finishes, enveloping fabrics and, especially, a very particular kind of tactility. Furnishing in 2018 demands to be caressed by the eye as well as by the hand. There are no neutral presences, rather talking simulacra, capable of expressing our ideas, our passions – narrating them. 


This is particularly evident when it comes to organicism, a trend enjoying a sharp revival in the realms of decorative goods, upholstereds and chairs, just to name a few. Even designs referencing a more composed classicism feature connected and sinuous details, demanding that one run one’s hand along them with pleasure. This has triggered a great many products featuring the use of leather, marble, brass and burnished metals, with sartorial-type details, rather than original pairings of materials. 


This marked return to the classic segues nicely into the genuine classics. The trend towards re-editions is becoming increasingly widespread and common. Great pieces from the past are being sought out, studied and reworked, usually with great philological care. Apart from the obvious nostalgic connotations and the recognition of exceptionally elegant design, buyers also appreciate the guaranteed return of an investment destined to perform well over time. In this particular sector too, research has been extended to different geographical contexts, from Brazil to Italy, but without a doubt the prevailing look is undeniably Scandinavian. 


Quite apart from their style classification, these pieces are also being rediscovered because of their size, typical of the periods and environments in which they were designed, and which pay no lip service to gigantism, having been conceived in a more domestic vein, more suited to the real dimensions of the environments into which they are to be inserted. Even some of the more able designers are tending towards a general scaling down of volumes. Smaller objects do not look out of place with the fashionable cosy (the English term is obligatory) look in myriad welcoming environments, but never overdone. 


This reductionist approach brings with it an interesting and original feminisation. Assuming it makes sense to distinguish gender in creative activities, it is worth noting that women designers (both well-known and emerging talents or even stylists) are onto a winning streak, both statistically and qualitatively. 

Talking of another tendency, fantasy is one of the most easily distinguished trends today. Justified by phenomena parallel to design, such as fashion and indeed cinema, it is particularly common on ceramics, monstrous or princely, funny or allusive. Fabrics and rugs are equally important, simultaneously drawing on African batik and 18th century prints, featuring exotic birds and dragons. All these are embellished with an immoderate and indiscriminate use of fringes in silk, raffia or rayon. 


Kitsch is also a word that has again become useful to describe another current phenomenon. Having lost its negative connotation (Gillo Dorfles had thought it up way back in 1968, but it is enjoying even greater currency today in the wake of Alessandro Michele’s Gucci revolution), kitsch applies to cool objects, as well as to sparkly finishes, glitter first and foremost and therefore gold. Gold (and all its derivatives – gilt, pinchbeck, brass-plating) is a word that has made a powerful return to the furnishing world. 


This analysis of the leading trends should also include the fact that one extremely positive aspect, that brings together all the “narrative thrusts” discussed above, is the rediscovery of artisan techniques and skills that are on the brink of dying out. Today’s maximalist approach to design calls for tremendously high quality details, finishes and processes.
Naturally as with all leading trends, this powerful narrative thrust, evidenced in terms of history, fantasy or kitsch, triggers an equal and contrary reaction, and thus there is no shortage of proposals distinguished by an exasperated minimalism. Continuing the literary metaphor, one might describe them as being marked out by a deliberate linguistic silence