Salone del Mobile: The Most Important Design Event in the World

Salone del Mobile 2023 at Rho Fiera in Milan. Photo courtesy of Delfino Sisto Legnani, DSL Studio

Salone del Mobile, held April 18 to 23, has once again proved it is the most important design event in the world, and the heart of Milan Design Week. Organizers declared that visitor numbers were up 15 percent over last year, with 307,418 people from 181 countries visiting the fair.  There were 1,962 exhibitors—including 550 SaloneSatellite designers with foreign companies making up 30% of the total. “People come to Salone to discover what’s new from the brands, but also to create connections,” said Salone del Mobile president, Maria Porro. “To create these connections, the layout of the fair is very important. So we decided to have an urbanistic approach. To think about the fair as a city, an ideal city, starting from the pavilions of Euroluce.”

Euroluce, the Salone del Mobile biannual lighting showcase, usually takes place every two years, but as a result of the disruption caused by the pandemic, this was the first since 2019. In many ways, it really outshone the furniture pavilions. The layout might have been smaller than in previous years, but the quality was there. Among the throngs of people, it was hard to tell whether Flos or Artemide had more visitors. A popular product at Flos was the Black Flag lamp, designed by Konstantin Grcic, an extendable wall light that illuminates up to 3.5 meters from its frame. Another standout, Ronan Bouroullec’s Céramique table lamp features a ceramic cap that can be tilted along its ceramic shade to provide lighting at various angles.

The Black Flag lamp from Flos, designed by Konstantin Grcic. Photo: officeinsight staff
Artemide Veil floor lamps by Bjarke Ingels. Photo: officeinsight staff

Artemide, whose work is based on research and technological innovation, highlighted lighting debuts by some of the most popular architects today: Bjarke Ingels, Foster + Partners, and David Chipperfield, just to name a few. BIG’s Vine Light chandeliers include new groupings of seven or 11 components.

Tom Dixon, who always adds a shiny bling to his products, was exhibiting for the first time.  His Choice lighting system allows you to choose from eight fittings and 64 configurations to allow you to create your own luminaires to fit the mood and décor you want.

The Tom Dixon Choice Lighting System. Photo: officeinsight staff

The overarching theme at Vibia’s stand was “Shaping Atmospheres,” where displays built from thin slats of wood amplified the warm glow produced by new products that embrace soft materials like Lycra. Lasvit’s stand theme was “It All Comes from Above,” and included work from Yabu Pushelberg and David Rockwell. Finally, American companies like Pablo and Hudson Valley Lighting Group were present.

Lasvit’s Cassiopeia ceiling sconce, designed by David Rockwell. Photo courtesy of Lasvit

Spaced throughout the pavilions were specially curated museum-quality exhibitions, touching on lighting design. A group of installations dubbed “Constellations” presented light sculptures inside of structures designed by Formafantasma. Another excellent installation focused on the work of Gae Aulenti, complete with models and original blueprints of her lighting work.

Gae Aulenti lamps shown at Euroluce. Photo: officeinsight staff

Still another installation focused on the work of photographer Hélène Binet, which explored the relationship between light and architecture. For the Italian organizers of the fair, not every square inch of the trade show floor had to be filled with booths, something American trade show organizers should pay attention to.

Designing for the Great Outdoors was a prevalent theme for both furniture and lighting brands, whether for the backyard or a corporate office rooftop. Companies were rushing to debut their version of an outdoor solution, or else, like one Belgian lighting rep said, “We’re working on it!”

Within the furniture pavilions, the Italian brands like Poliform, Edra and Molteni&C who did exhibit at the fair, were in many cases bigger than ever. Minotti had a bit of a lobster trap syndrome–easy to get in, hard to get out. This allowed for almost 50 Spanish companies like Sancal, Nanimarquina, Vondom, and Gandia Blasco to shine.

Arper always has a well-designed presentation and this year’s was no exception. Their stand’s theme “Life is Beautiful,” showcased new pieces by Ichiro Iwasaki, Garcia Cumini, Doshi Levien and Antti Kotilainen.

The Twain chair from Magis, Konstantin Grcic and Hella Jongerius. Photo: officeinsight staff

Magis, once known for its plastic expertise, now has more material choices. A collaboration between Konstantin Grcic and Hella Jongerius resulted in the Twain Chair–a study in sustainability, mixing wood, leather, and fabric. The Bouroullecs expanded Officina collection of tables, chairs, stools, and coffee tables are forged in iron, preserving an age-old traditional craft. Zanotta, which was recently acquired by Cassina, highlighted some design pieces by Italian sixties experimental group Superstudio.

The Bouroullec brothers designed the Magis Officina Collection. Photo courtesy of Magis

But to put it all into some context, only a handful of American exhibitors were present at the fair. American company TUUCI, for example, was on trend by celebrating 25 years of design and engineering innovation by showcasing their outdoor products, including a giant-sized parasol which spans up to 24 feet wide. And some of the usual design driven brands like Emeco and Vitra chose to not exhibit this time round, while classic Italian brands like Cassina and B&B were content to debut their novelties at their showrooms in the city.

A parasol from TUUCI, perfect for outdoor entertaining. Photo: officeinsight staff

There was one estimate that during Milan Design Week, there were more than 1400 off-site exhibitions, product launches, and activations scattered all over the city, something impossible for one person to see in a week. The Brera Design District had some excellent must-see exhibitions. The Hermès installation held at La Pelota, where Vitra originally used to show, was a crowd favorite. Nearby, Herman Miller had a fun exhibition of graphics from their archives of 100 years of corporate ads and textiles, although the company did not showcase any new products.

An installation featuring rugs by Hermès. Photo: officeinsight staff
Herman Miller’s centennial celebration of graphic art and textiles. Photo: officeinsight staff

As an industrial city, Milan has no shortage of interesting spaces to exhibit.  Alcova, the independent design fair curated by Joseph Grima and Valentina Ciuffi, was housed in an abandoned slaughterhouse, and while it was not the most accessible-friendly space, it was the place to visit to see the work of emerging designers experimenting with furniture design and the latest in sustainable materials. With over 90,000 visitors, it was one of the must-see events, and highlighted a mix of the cutting-edge designers in addition to some more corporate brands.

Alcova, the independent design fair, was housed in an abandoned slaughterhouse. Photo by Agnese Bedini

Drop City, located in the arches around the Milan Central Train Station was another must-visit destination. The exhibitions here were more cerebral in content, with an exhibition curated by Anniina Koivu entitled “A Prepper’s Pantry: Objects that Save Lives,” and a fascinating display by Daisuke Motogi’s “Hackability of the Stool” project, based on Alvar Aalto’s Stool 60 by Artek.

The Hackability of the Stool exhibition at Drop City
Photo: officeinsight staff

Cassina, now owned by Haworth, had a strong showing in the city. At its showroom near the Duomo, it debuted an exhibition on its “I Maestri” legacy of bringing back classic furniture (and lighting for the first time this year) by iconic designers. One exciting new collaboration previewed was with the Eames Office of a lamp designed by the Eameses in 1949 that will finally be put into production next year.

The Cassina and Eames Studio collaboration,featuring a 1949 lighting prototype. Photo: officeinsight staff
A range of lighting from the Louis Poulsen and Fendi collaboration. Photo by Frederik Lindstrøm, courtesy of Louis Poulsen

Andreu World debuted a new Milan showroom, designed by Patricia Urquiola, that was a model of the sustainable use of materials. Our sources say that Haworth President and CEO Franco Bianchi was even seen touring the space to check out the competition.

The new Andreu World showroom in Milan. Photo courtesy of Andreu World

Fashion and car brands were back again, playing an even bigger role. Louis Vuitton, Dior, Hermès , Armani, and Bottega Veneta debuted their products for home and accessories markets, both practical and at other times more inspirational. Louis Poulsen, for example, collaborated with Fendi to create a collection of five pieces of Poul Henningsen’s iconic PH lamps, reimagined with Fendi’s design language, color palette, and patterns.

For SolidNature’s installation, designer Sabine Marcelis created a dining table with an array of food on it. Photo: officeinsight staff

Even Google appeared with a stunning sensorial presentation called “Shaped by Water,” which explored water’s attributes and the way they suffuse design. Led by the Google Design Studio, Ivy Ross, vice president of design for hardware products at Google, and the immersive artist Lachlan Turczan, the installation featured two interactive sculptures, “Sympathetic Resonance” and “Wavespace,” and much more—all in an effort to probe our understanding of the liquid. It’s a sign that bigger corporate bands want to showcase their creativity. Yet bigger furniture brands like Restoration Hardware and Steelcase chose to sit Milan Design Week out.

Google Design Studio’s Shaped by Water installation, created in collaboration with artist Lachlan Turczan. Photo courtesy of Google

Aside from the tradeshows and exhibitions, it is a time to catch up with friends and colleagues. Some brands are increasingly turning dinners into memorable experiences. For SolidNature’s excellent installation by OMA, Dutch designer Sabine Marcelis created a dining table and an accompanying bar. The Josef & Anni Albers Foundation held a dinner for 70 people to celebrate their exhibition drawing upon how the pair’s legacy is woven into the fabric of contemporary design, thanks to a new platform that made its Milan debut. Brands are showing that design is all around us, and that they can turn product launches into memorable experiences.