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In Milan, Furniture Design Is High Art


MILAN, Italy — The era of interactive design has arrived at the Milan international furniture fair.

To see the light, don't bother reaching for the switch. Do as Finnish designer Ilkka Terho does: Phone your lamp.

With a punch on his cell phone, Terho makes lights come and go, as well as turn color. It didn't strike him as the least bit odd that the glow around him came from plump white pillows suspended in air. Or that a row of these cloud-like poufs inflated and deflated behind his head as he talked. He had programmed them earlier to operate independently.

"This is the future of lighting," said Terho, who explained the novelties from a design group known as Snowcrash.

Modern has never worked like this before at Milan's international design extravaganzas. Known this year as iSaloni 2000, the 39th official trade show opened at the city's sprawling fairground. Nearly 1,650 furniture companies and 500 lighting firms displayed their products through Sunday.

For Americans, the mass-market pursuit of "good" design is a recent phenomenon propelled by price-conscious retailers from Kmart, Target and Ikea to Pottery Barn. But for design-savvy Europeans, Milan has been a magnet for four decades. Each April, architects, interior designers, photographers, stylists, set designers, graphic artists and museum curators gather here to spot the Next New Thing.

For three years, fair organizers even have opened the door wide to design schools, where a new generation of talent is emerging. American contingents this year traveled from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena as well as from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.


Milan is committed to furniture as art as nowhere else on the planet. How else to explain the sometimes outlandish designs that spring up here? How else to explain the relationship between Kartell's new plastic indoor-outdoor sofa by Philippe Starck and custom-designed leisure dunes from avant-garde architect Zaha Hadid?

Nevertheless, city fathers organized a happening to demonstrate that commitment to 170,000 visitors arriving from around the world. They invited select visitors to the historic Rotonda della Besana to experience "Rooms and Secrets." More smoke-filled encounter zone than art show, the event transformed a Renaissance treasure into a spooky fun house. Yoko Ono contributed chessboards on a slant. Theatrical director Robert Wilson re-created a primeval forest for Valkyries, indoors. Two skeletons made love on film.

Furniture showrooms are no less an experience, for those who get in. At the elegant house of Driade, crowds pressed against the ropes for a chance to inch through the showroom's labyrinth. At the entry, baroque blown-glass vases by Borek Sipek towered precariously. But the new aesthetic looks more like an ultra-sophisticated dorm room--or the casual chic of an Ian Schrager hotel: bare floors, unmade bed, practical shelving units, a couple of wicker chairs and an over-scaled rice-paper cube to cover the lightbulb above.

Putting Concepts on a Par With Commercialism

Milan embraces ideas as well as marketable items. In the 1980s, wildly postmodern furniture from the Memphis group made news but did not filter down to the mass market. Today, a banner over a main street heralds new objects by the group's founder, Ettore Sottsass. Right behind is a banner for the Ford 021C concept car by Marc Newson. It made its European debut Tuesday, in chartreuse. Ford doesn't even intend to try this car on the market.

No banner was necessary to announce the provocative work of Zaha Hadid, whose three-dimensional assemblage drew crowds before the doors were opened. Four pieces of hard and soft forms were arranged on a platform, a collection billed as "lounging furniture." But to call the berms and surfaces furniture would be to diminish the effort. Like Hadid's edgy architecture, a new vocabulary is required. Try formiture.

"It's an interior landscape," Hadid explained. "It's about how to organize space in a different way. It's about space in a box."

"It's beautiful," said Paolo Moroni, of the Sawaya & Moroni gallery, which commissioned the work. "I don't know if it's comfortable. I don't give a damn about that."

Maarten van Severen's aluminum rocking chairs might spark the same assessment. They are unforgivingly low, but the lines are great. The Belgian designer is working on something for a future fair called SOS, for Short Office Sleep, a napping chaise even a boss could love.

"The most important thing is to cement man, living space and architecture," he explained. "I don't feel like a magician, but sometimes it's like that."

The latest design is an aluminum table that required special construction to support the span on the designer's famously slim table legs.

"The dream I've had for so many years is to have a table without legs," he said.

Levitation by computer chip, perhaps? Well, yes, he said, he had been talking to Snowcrash.

Handicrafts Allied With Technology

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