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A Standing Affair With Designer Seats

Once again, the world crowds into the showrooms of Italy's Salone to see the latest chic furniture.

April 09, 2001|SUSAN EMERLING | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MILAN, Italy — It had been rumored long in advance that if you hadn't already booked a hotel room in this city for April 4-9, you would not find one. If you didn't have your dinner reservations, you wouldn't be eating at Savini. If you didn't have your tickets, you wouldn't be seeing Leonardo da Vinci's recently restored "The Last Supper," and if you didn't have your business cards, you wouldn't be entering the Salone Internazionale del Mobile (also known as the Milan Furniture Fair) that would swell this city of 1.5 million by more than 10%, drawing an expected 165,000 visitors from 144 countries.

Now celebrating its 40th season, the Salone has grown from a small consortium of Italian designers to the signature event of the international furniture design season, an annual rite of spring with a signal-to-noise ratio of one to one, as a vast chorus of soloists competes to be heard in a very crowded design theater.

In the first hours of the Salone last Wednesday, an army of men and women descended on the fairgrounds in a wide colonnade, pushing through the entry gates and accelerating its pace as long lines began choking the entrances. Very quickly, the sly, the impatient and the well-dressed elbowed their way to the front, hoping to be the first to gain entry to the 26 pavilions housing 1,605 exhibitors covering the 2 million square feet of the fairground, which is located at the end of a train line in a mostly residential neighborhood. Tempers flared among those who found the long waits to be more than their important stature could bear, expressing their utter disdain at the Italian organization system with arms opened wide to the heavens, exclaiming, "Non si fa cosi!" ("It just isn't done!").

Whether it is due to Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's so-called wealth effect, the strength of the U.S. dollar or the sheer dominance of Italian design, statistics provided by the fair's sponsoring entity say sales of Italian furniture to the U.S. rose 38% last year, to $1.45 billion, making the U.S. second only to Germany as the premier consumer of Italian furniture exports. So--looming recession or not--if it was hard to buy a chair at L.A.'s Pacific Design Center last week, it's probably because everyone was in Milan.

Despite the Salone's international name, the fair's exhibitors were overwhelmingly Italian, with the international component supplied by the polyglot buyers, fabricators, journalists and architects lining up to inspect, for example, a group of tables from Antonio Citterio's collection at B & B Italia that were so low to the ground as to seem impossible to reach by anyone with lower back pain. They also sought out William Sawaya's Calla chair at Heller, which looked like a cross between a white molded plastic calla lily and a crab. Or Francois Bauchet's bright red Yang sofa at Ligne Rosset, which formed three-quarters of a square by nestling three interlocking pieces, cut with a curving yin-yang line.

Viewers poked, prodded and inspected a wide range of molded, poured and sculpted gels, foams and plastics that were making an appearance in brightly colored tables and lamps. Violet, fuchsia and apple-green were used to amplify the clean shapes of rectilinear upholstered sofas, with a 1960s-inspired shade of tangerine orange making a particularly ubiquitous appearance.

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Exhibitors were divided into three categories. The "classic" section was dedicated to the manufacturers of crystal chandeliers and historic and semi-historic reproductions of all shapes and sizes. The other two categories were somewhat confusingly divided into "modern" and "design" in a relationship that even the fair's information booths had difficulty articulating. Upon inspection, "modern" seemed best described as the furniture industry's equivalent of the generic drug marketplace, with research and development being done by the firms occupying the fair's "design" sector. Even so, work in the latter sector would be best described as reviving classic Modernism.

The temporary showrooms were often full-fledged architectural environments replete with raised wood floors, subterranean illumination and private cafes lending an air of a highly animated cocktail party. Some favored invitation-only gatherings for their preexisting clientele, using quiet exclusivity to amplify their elite status as if they were beyond caring about the hungry marketplace. Italian manufacturer Driade so emphasized the cafe environment that the actual furniture--a minimalist refractory table made from three wide planks of cherrywood by English architect John Pawson and bright-green painted-glass Jelly Slice Tables by French designer Philippe Starck--seemed abandoned in a nether region more appropriate for busboys than buyers.

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