MILAN, ITALY — POINTING OUT features of his lean new coffee table Amerigo, L.A. designer Sami Hayek channeled his inner Armani. "It's lined with suede," he said, caressing the open shelf. "You barely see it, you rarely touch it, but you know it's there."
The same could have been said for truly inspired design at this year's 47th annual Salone Internazionale del Mobile, the world's most prestigious furniture trade show, which ended its six-day run Monday. More than 2,500 exhibitors showcased their latest home furnishings to 250,000 visitors, and though four convention halls were dedicated to over-the-top stuff that looked like Bobby Trendy decorating for Tony Soprano, sophistication could be found elsewhere. Here, the biggest news was the way in which luxury played second fiddle to form and function.
In tune with economic woes in the U.S. and beyond, the gilded looks that ruled Salone last year yielded to spare shapes and modest materials. The Italian firm Plank showed the Myto chair, whose cantilevered design by Konstantin Grcic was made possible by a new synthetic material called Ultradur. Karim Rashid's Isis chair, which anchored a display of cleverly updated ancient Egyptian designs, consisted of a simple, folded metal sheet. Designer Francois Russo pressed Corian into service for Poltrona Frau, whose chic version of the director's chair came with X-shaped legs made of the countertop material.
Leather transcended its customary bachelor-pad look at MatteoGrassi, where it was cut into a structural fishnet for a chair back reminiscent of Harry Bertoia's classic 1950s wire seating for Knoll.
Other designers made statements with silhouettes. Right angles seemed suddenly wrong, as Alias and other firms built outdoor furniture sets composed of skeletal shapes and irregular grids. Ligne Roset's Lines collection of cabinets featured trapezoidal and rhomboid shelves and doors. The Jirafa floor lamp by the German firm ding3000 stood on slanted legs, like some carefully balanced creature on the savanna.
At the Arco booth, Dutch designer Bertjan Pot fiddled with proportions. He fashioned wooden Arc benches that were shaped like hefty boats but sized to slip under his Slim dining room table, with its skinny legs and an ultra-thin top. Like much of the season's best new pieces, Patricia Urquiola's large beveled wood Log chairs for the French company Artelano had the clean lines of Danish modern and the heft of Brazilian furniture.
FOR the Italian firms that still dominate the show, one challenge is balancing the minimalism for which they are famed with colorful midcentury modernism or the resurgence of Baroque ornamentation.
Some designers nailed it with surprising simplicity: Casamania's Twine table had hairpin wire legs that passed through four holes in the top, creating an occasional table that was as cute as a button. Carlo Scarpa's Rialto shelving for Estel mixed sky-blue trim with lilac shelves and boxes to create an architecturally unimpeachable storage unit that was also thoroughly hip.
Paola Navone, the artistic director of the 126-year-old firm Gervasoni, blended IKEA-like simplicity with a helping of Italian refinement, turning out a collection of beautifully crafted spindle-back silhouettes painted Gustavian gray. For accents, there were ornate candlestick lamps topped with vibrant orange shades and pillows made from Marimekko-esque textiles in huge dots and checks.
Few pieces achieved the modern-classic fusion as well as two takes on the Mies van der Rohe leather daybed. Zanotta supplied its Vogue Divano with rococo lines -- a curved backrest created from four carved wooden chair backs. Perched on Fabio Novembre's daybed was a larger-than-life-size black rubber figure that recalled a Henry Moore sculpture.
Such surprises were few and far between in the main halls of the Salone, but originality reigned at its Satellite annex for young designers. Although many pieces relied too heavily on computer-generated modular designs or looked like uncomfortable origami, there were charming exceptions.
Pianeta Sud Est created I Like Grass, a carpeting system made of green-painted rattan pieces placed in an aluminum frame, all cushioned by recycled sponge. Brooklyn woodworker Paul Loebach created a Colonial American-influenced tabletop with docks for wooden vases.
THE show turns Milan into a citywide design extravaganza, with galas in showrooms and the free-spirited Fuori Salone event in the Tortona district. There, the kind of progressive and provocative designs that Angelenos often find at Beverly Boulevard stores were shown to the public in a bazaar of interior design. University-sponsored student exhibitions and a group of Berlin designers housed in a geodesic dome bumped up against deep-pocketed corporations.