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You can hear them long before you see them. You know they’re coming because the ground starts to rumble underfoot. As they loom ever closer, the sound becomes almost deafening and then you see them surging towards you. It’s not a uniform herd lurching forward at the same pace. Rather, there’s a mix of breeds – big and small, lightning fast and lumbering. This is the march of the wheelie bags and what their owners all share is a hunter instinct, with tens of thousands all descending on the same feeding ground to feast on the same thing – furniture brochures and catalogues.
This was the scene on Tuesday morning as Milan’s annual furniture fair (the Salone Internazionale del Mobile or Salone for short) got under way with legions of buyers, vendors, suppliers, journalists and spectators passing through Milan’s sprawling suburban exposition site. The distributors and buyers of beds, freestanding wardrobes and cantilevered kitchen counter systems like nothing more than filling up their little wheelie suitcases and carts with catalogues, brochures and various giveaways. There are so many wheelie bags bursting with printed material that the various concourses and halls are filled with the constant hum of little wheels rolling over tiles or acrylic carpet. Occasionally, an absent-minded attendee chattering away on a mobile phone will take a corner too quickly and will then perform a Dick Van Dyke-style tumble over a wheelie bag.
The Salone is a curious old beast as it brings together so many companies trying to sell the exact same thing. Across 20 different stands in as many different exhibition halls, you can see the exact same chair presented with varying degrees of effort. While it’s hard to determine who made this particular construction of wood, wool, glue and screws first, everyone seems to be selling their version of four legs and a high back as if they were the original inventors of the concept. Some will be highlighting its Finnish provenance while a few rows down a crafty salesman will be talking up its unique historical significance in the Korean household.
Despite all the chatter about more compact urban living and various trends to address shrinking apartments and more mobile lifestyles, there was little in the way of evidence that brands and their suppliers were particularly interested in making a sofa system that would easily glide up a tight stairwell or a freestanding kitchen that might happily travel from an apartment in Hamburg to a bungalow in Naha. I know quite a few people who live in large flats and houses but I struggled to figure out how big a market there might be for 12-seater sectional sofas with coffee tables the size of an aircraft carrier to match.
I know there are a lot of sprawling modernist houses by Marcio Kogan in Brazil and there are plenty of open-plan apartments being erected in Singapore but is there really enough room for hundreds of companies to meet the limited demand? Then again, while many of the displays show these pieces in domestic-style settings, the reality is that many of these massive pieces will find their way into the airport lounges of Chinese and Gulf airlines, which have thousands of square metres to fill as they open routes to new outposts.
Having mastered the drill of seeing the essentials, I was able to get through the fair in just under three hours and, as I went from one stand to the next, had picked out enough pieces to open a café in Zurich, furnish a kitchen or two in Toronto and London, create a welcoming pool scene in Palma and kit out an alpine retreat in South Tyrol. In case you don’t have time to make it to Milan before the Salone ends on Sunday, here’s a list of what was best in show.
1. The Monza Chair by Plank was reimagined in new colours and is perfect for cramped quarters that require a good-looking chair that can be stacked away neatly.
2. Hans Coray makes a comeback at Vitra, bringing the classic Landi-Stuhl back into production alongside the newly launched Davy table by Swiss designer Michel Charlot. Watch for this line-up to start gracing better looking terraces around the world very soon.
3. At Maruni, Jasper Morrison offered a rugged, wood arm sofa that would work perfectly in a mountain retreat in Nagano or above Whistler.
4. For summer lounging, Gandia Blasco’s Stack sun lounger is an elegant, somewhat leaner version of the Spanish beach bed that is found on the sands from Valencia to Marbella.
5. Spanish outdoor furniture brand Kettal also commissioned Jasper Morrison to add to its line-up with the very simple and sturdy Village chair and table. Perfect for a balcony in need of sensible, no-nonsense seating.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
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