Milan Design Week created to the theme of climate emergency and community building

Milan Design Week is truly special, with few cultural events on the calendar having quite the same reach. Joining Salone del Mobile — the historical indoor furniture fair at Fiera Milano — is Fuorisalone.

What began in 2003 as supporting exhibits with a more conceptual theme has since morphed into a hugely exciting set of events around the districts of Brera, 5Vie and Tortona. And it’s here where art, design and architecture intersect for the cross-fertilisation of ideas. This is where you can pick up the discourse on design thinking, which for 2023 was imagined to the theme “Laboratorio Futuro” (Future Lab).

Read my highlights here.

Mobility examined at Milan Design Week

Up until a few years ago the automotive world came to Salone del Mobile Milano as spectators. The week is dedicated to product and industrial design; the venue acts as a platform for discourse on design and speculative debate. It isn’t meant to be a stage for showcasing new cars.

With more and more car companies participating now, what is the right way, the correct etiquette, when it comes to exhibiting in Milan? Unveiling a car is definitely not the right approach, and designing objects that directly reference the cars also lacks imagination.

Instead, the concentration of designers, architects, artists and critics gathered here from all around the world provides the perfect space for a dialogue on urgent matters namely the state of mobility, and the role of the automobile for future generations.

This year BMW, MINI, Lexus, Mazda, Hyundai and Ford exhibited in Milan, and how they chose to be seen by the wider creative world speaks volumes.

Ford played it safe, showing a range of products based on its latest GT supercar including a boat, guitar and table football, whilst Mazda took a similar assignment to a higher level examining its underlying design philosophy through non-car objects.

BMW and MINI initiated dialogues on the future of mobility, albeit with varying results. Hyundai looked at how a financial company can connect with the art world by turning spending into a sensory experience, and Lexus opted for a fully conceptual study that took on the universe and the meaning of life.

We start our journey at Mazda. The Hiroshima marque operates under the guidance of Kodo, a design philosophy rooted in old Japan, one that expresses the values of intricate craftsmanship – playing with contrasts and what director of design Ikuo Maeda refers to as Rin (self-restrained dignity) and En (alluring sensuality). Here the marque has worked with a variety of artisans to interpret Kodo through non-car objects (see images above).

Skilled Japanese artisans contribute crafted objects using ancient methods. It is fascinating watching these two objects come to life – the sheer amount of work, the patience and the passion that almost injects life force into these static objects. The lacquerware vase appears to have trickling tears. It is a pure work of art. ‘There is something very spiritual in the way they work,’ admits the design director.

The sofa, coffee table and bicycle are concerned with creative engineering and a more European approach to problem solving. The sofa is elegant and long – so long that it took the European team lead by Kevin Rice some time to find ‘a cow big enough to provide a single sheet of leather’ he jokes. The foam needed to be milled in a way that even the Italian furniture makers responsible found challenging. Underneath, the structure is made of red wood and the natural untreated red from the wood reveals itself on occasion, subtly without show.

These one-off objects are about creative engineering – they celebrate the art of creation, the skill, the journey, the people, the process – so rooted in old Japan.

Next we visit MINI who commissioned Spanish artist and designer Jaime Hayon to examine mobility in Urban Perspectives through the Citysurfer, the company’s foldable electric kick scooter concept (see images above).

Hayon’s Citysurfers are embellished with colour and texture. He explains that coming from the world of art allowed him the mental freedom to explore mobility, in what he says is his accent. He wanted to ‘create something more inspirational in terms of graphics and colour; give the object a more fantastical look’.

And they certainly look so, especially in Hayon’s ‘urban jungle’ – a cityscape of bold colours and shapes, of streets made of thick slabs of white marble, dots to direct the flow of traffic, giant copper street lamps, oversized helmets.

BMW has also used the occasion of Milan to address driving patterns in the future, albeit in a more quite manner. Here Zurich-based designer Alfredo Häberli re-evaluates future mobility in Spheres Precision & Poetry in Motion at a highly conceptual level (see images above).

Häberli believes ‘silence, space and time’ are what will constitute luxury in the future – that luxury is beyond the material dimension. His journey begins with childhood memories, sketches and formal studies. It ends with a large-scale model, a wonderfully dinosaurian 10-meter teak sculpture that resembles the skeleton of an old ship discovered at the very bottom of the ocean.

This isn’t about finding an appropriate form – instead the designer has created an associative world that lends new meaning to the luxury of mobility.

Häberli has looked at architecture, urban planning – roads expand into the skies, they wiggle around one another with no clear direction, the journey itself becoming the focus. Cities are built on sea, in the skies – it is a world of movies such as Gattaca and Fifth Element.

Karim Habib, head of BMW design, explains the project. ‘For Alfredo mobility in the future is beyond cars, beyond aeroplanes. He has visions of how cities can be. It is more about flying, coasting, gliding,’ he says as he directs me to a white abstract vessel that is a boat, a glider, a spaceship rolled in one.

The wall displays sketches and drawings, a moodboard of Häberli’s visions for the cities of the future. Habib says, ‘the idea of flying cars has been present for so long, there is something beautiful and positive about it.’

He notes such projects will impact on BMW on an abstract level. ‘It feeds into the act of automated driving. You see for a brand that has been associated with driving, what are the challenges and equally opportunities?’

Here roads are three-dimensional, and the vessels are not about dynamic driving but enjoying the experience from A to B, and the silence makes driving more like gliding – the experience is like a sailboat.

Autonomous cars can free the driver to take to the wheel only when they want– when it is a pleasurable experience. ‘Our job as designers is to create an environment for when you’re not driving,’ says Habib before adding with a genuine smile, ‘I’m super happy to be working in a time when we can do all this.’

The Milan automotive journey ends at Lexus where we embark on an exciting sensory experience that involves design and food. The theme in A Journey of Senses is the cycle of life – rain drops, nature, and earth – delicately directed by designer Philippe Nigro‘s latticework cocoons and Japanese chef Hajime Yoneda’s experimental tasters (see images above).

The theme here is the Lexus ‘inside-out’ design philosophy whereby driver experience is placed at the centre, and we are very much lead by chef Yoneda’s vision that challenges us to enjoy rain, love nature and be grounded by returning to the beginning of life.

We consume ‘raindrops’ made out of sparkling candy, that tickle and crackle releasing a refreshing sensation as we watch the illusion of falling rain in a darkened room. We experience nature inside out, as we stumble into a space much like the inside of a giant tree trunk, pop a ball of cacao butter wrapping, the aroma of fresh, verdant greenery washing over our senses.

Our journey concludes in the beginning of life where we are enjoy a bowl of delicious ‘earth soup’ composed of the essence of vegetables, meat and fish whilst taking in the universe with its twinkling stars in the peace of darkness.

Nigro calls it a ‘playground for adults’ where contrasting material and textures, metallic mesh, soft transparent fabrics, blond untreated wood – ‘surprise the visitor’. Crucially, he notes, his modular structure will be dismantled at the end of the week and used for other purposes.

Yoneda says he has created a space that will calm the nerves, a concept that is fundamental to the car of the future. ‘Joy has to be in everything we design and experience’ and this, he says, ‘is to return to the beginning to earth.’

There is a growing concern that Milan is turning into a marketing operation with too many straightforward product launches. The main fairground at Rho certainly feels so. With designers Jasper Morrison nicknaming it ‘Salone del Marketing’, and Hella Jongerius launching her ‘Beyond the New’ manifesto attacking it for being a ‘cornucopia of pointless products and commercial hype’, it seems that all within the design community at large need to carefully examine their exhibits at Milan.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read our report in Wallpaper* Modern mobility, Salone drives a new definition of car creativity.

Read our previous Milano Salone del Mobile reports here.

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Cars and design unite at Salone del Mobile in Milan

Amongst the many, many creative festivals around the world, the Salone del Mobile has maintained its position as one of the most significant. When it comes to spotting the latest trends in design, in new materials, in concepts, in people, the Milan design week in April is the place to visit. Here, the city transforms into a gallery with neighbourhoods opening their doors to welcome this creative energy.

As Design Talks has reported in the past, some of the more enlightened car companies have clocked onto the importance of participating here. Last year, for instance, Lexus sponsored three designers and a group of emerging creatives for a very intriguing display.

This year, in the Area Sciesa Tre in Via Amatore Sciesa, BMW will be displaying its latest collaborative work with the award-winning designer Alfredo Häberli. Under the banner precision and poetry the duo have pooled their shared passion for technical innovation and contemporary materials to create a multi-layered, poetically inspired installation that unites the visions and values of tomorrow’s mobility with very personal perspectives.

Häberli’s own recollections and experience of cars have inspired this piece. Against the background of highly automated control, the designer imbues the driving experience with new meaning and renders it tangible within an impressive spatial dimension.

At the centre of his journey into the immediate future of mobility is a large-scale, deliberately abstract object – the form cites the lightness of forward motion and design addresses pivotal values of future automotive design. The idea is that if technically everything is feasible, the luxury of movement can focus on the core statement, and mobility becomes carefree and communicative.

‘Alfredo Häberli approaches our design philosophy with an ingenious passion and conceptual clout,’ says Adrian van Hooydonk, BMW Group design director. ‘I always enjoy philosophising with Alfredo on design and mobility, and I’m delighted to see these ideas now taking shape in an installation as well.’

Elsewhere, sister marque MINI has teamed up with Spanish artist and designer Jaime Hayon for a glimpse into urban mobility in the future. On the basis of the new MINI Citysurfer, a flexible, individual electric kick scooter concept, Hayon creates a fanciful experience world that showcases his personal take on future mobility, on exhibit at the Laboratorio Bergognone in Via Bergognone 26.

Finally, Japanese carmaker Lexus will be showing a Journey of the Senses at Carrozzeria Tonreria in the Zona Tortona. The installation sees French product and space designer Philippe Nigro creating a setting featuring food by the celebrated Japanese Michelin star chef Hajime Yoneda. The idea is to stimulate the senses, enabling people to experience unexpected new connections and insights. Sounds exciting…

Salone del Mobile is from 14 – 19 April in locations throughout Milan.

Read our previous reports from Salone del Mobile Milan

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Notes from Salone del Mobile Milan

Design lovers flocked to Milan earlier this month for Salone del Mobile, the world’s most significant design fair that also marks the unofficial start of the design season. The main event at Fiera Milano is definitely worth a visit, but it is away from the crowded exhibition hall that some of the more exciting events take place. Pockets of Milan come alive during the week with designers and artists from all around the world exhibiting a mix of critical and avant-garde, fun and frivolous work. Milan’s old districts, with their elegant and slightly crumbling buildings, sit in contrast forming a perfect setting for the contemporary work on show.

Palazzo Clerici, in the heart of Milan’s bohemian Brera Quarter, hosted a number of events to respond to this sumptuous former residence and frescos by famed Italian painter Tiepolo. Taking over the first floor of the palace, Islands by London design studio Raw-edges offers a new take on a variety of domestic spaces. Working with materials firm Caesarstone the exhibits propose to reshape the typical interior arrangement by positioning the working surfaces as the binding element of its design. The main focus is on the kitchen and the significance of the preparation of food for surfaces that respond more to our emotional needs.

Work With Me People III by Bart Hess is both fun and intriguing, inviting the audience to take part in creating the Dutch artist’s other-worldly materials – in this case rubber. Hess worked with MU art to create a mock-laboratory replete with protection masks and rubber gloves. His futuristic materials and textures are designed to push the boundaries of textile design.

Meanwhile Studio Minale-Maeda showed Keystones. It reduces the design of furniture to a single compact connector, which can be 3D printed on location so that only the most essential part of the furniture needs to be shipped.

By Porta Genova, another old Milan district hosting the fair, carmaker Mini revealed Parallels, a visually absorbing light and sound installation. Collaborating with London-based art and design collective United Visual Artists, it sets out to explore the interaction between man and machine. Parallels is a conceptual take on Mini Connected, the company’s latest in-car infotainment system that links the car to the driver, home and office with the interface feeding information silently through colour coded circles of light.

In Milan UVA explores connectivity also through light. Rings, fixed to the wall a meter apart, project a tunnel of light to create cylindrical bodies of light. We enter the installation, walk amongst and inside these light tunnels to experience the quite magical atmospheric world they create. The cylinder uses motion sensors to engage us in interactive dialogue, and our movements trigger feedback in the form of changes in colour – from diamond white via turquoise to a forceful dark blue – and sound effects.

Around the corner Turkish Stones worked with designers from Turkey, Italy and Japan for Marble Across Time. Using natural stone, this is a choreographed journey through time that begins in Turkey, passes through Italy as the symbol of contemporary society and ends in Japan as a place of progress.

Here Aziz Sariyer addresses the past with an allegorical kaleidoscope to keep visitors at a distance so that the past becomes a memory. ‘Past time is indeed the integrity of all the moments lived,’ says the Turkish designer of his Passage installation where ‘the mind, perceives the integrated moments as past time.’

Fabio Novembre’s Here I Am represents the now. ‘I live, I love, I’m happy. Present is not only a tense, in many languages it’s also meant as a gift. Live your present, the sky is the limit,’ says the Italian architect and designer. And Yoshioka Tokujin’s marble plate concludes the journey. A table of the Universe balances hanging between thin acrylic bands. The Japanese artist and designer describes it as a massive stone that has been freed from gravity and is free, floating in the air

Salone del Mobile runs from the 8-13 April at venues throughout Milan. Read about Lexus at the show here.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read our previous reports from Salone del Mobile Milan

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Lexus at Salone del Mobile Milan

Japanese carmaker Lexus sponsored three international designers to interpret the theme Amazing in Motion at Salone del Mobile (8-13 April) this year. The impressive exhibition took place in the bohemian Brera Quarter, home to the Accademia delle Belle Arti, and away from the main crowded Salone at Fiera Milano.

Here Nao Tamura’s Interconnection looks back at the 2011 Japanese tsunami. The designer relies on natural motion to study our relationship with nature. The floating purple petal-like discs hang from the ceiling on thin threads, individually swaying to the natural flow of air as visitors pass by. The impact has an almost ethereal quality.

Tangible Media Group’s Transform explores the link between design and technology. The US design team worked closely with professor Hiroshi Ishii from MIT Media Lab to interpret the car’s hybrid drive where kinetic energy from braking is captured to charge the battery. Here sensors capture the energy from our movement to shift a thousand pins up and down in an almost surreal wave-like motion. Professor Ishii added extra theatre on the opening day by playing conductor to this orchestra.

We Dance by Fabio Novembre employs ‘technology to express the movement of this dance,’ says the Italian designer. Here he presents a mirrored sphere – almost like a giant disco ball – that is surrounded by shards of pointed glass and is cocooning an entity that represents the beginning of life, and ‘draws a direct connection to the cosmic motion of planets and galaxies’ says Novembre.

The carmaker also featured work by the 12 winners of the Lexus Design Awards in Milan. The international competition, now in its second year, is aimed at emerging designers. Two contrasting visions were made into physical concepts for the show. Answering to the theme of curiosity, and inspired by childhood, Sebastian Scherer‘s hand blown glass bubbles Iris have a magical quality, whilst James Fox has taken a more practical and rustic view with his Macian concept.

Mentored by games creator Robin Hunicke, the German designer was after creating ‘lightness and play’ for Iris. The bubbles here are individually hand blown, mimicking the concept of children’s playing bubbles, so that each has a unique shape and an individual colour that transforms with changing light. The end result is a magical installation that really does ‘capture a moment in time, so fleeting, so unexpected’ as described by its creators.

Fox’s Macian concept works on the idea of foraging, in this case for materials. Working with mentor Arthur Huang, a sustainability expert and director of Miniwiz, the British 3D designer has literally created a den-building kit. The idea is ‘to encourage children to get in touch with nature, to encourage curiosity by engaging with the environment,’ he says. The Macian is a set of tools, neatly packed in a backpack that can ensemble a den in any wooded area. There is even a guide to help inspire a variety of designs. All you need are a few wooden rods and his tough plastic parts can create a durable skeleton to attach the rainproof canvas top.

Elsewhere runners up architect and designer Mami Kim from Mamikim & Co partnered with fine artist Joe Hardy to create Piximot, a digital construction that unveils the technology and science behind electronic gadgets – the idea is to engage future generation to connect with the object.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read about other car brands at Salone del Mobile.

Read our previous reports from Salone del Mobile Milan

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | UK 
Design Talks is published by Spinach Design

All rights and labelled images are covered by ©