Can we design our way out of disaster?
By Katie May Boyd, Eddie Hamilton, Lars Dittrich and Mariel Brown, Seymourpowell
No design fair captures the cultural zeitgeist quite like the annual Salone del Mobile in Milan. For 60 years, the whole design has descended on the northern Italian city, eager to draw inspiration from the ever-expanding showcase of the new and the next.
While last year’s show offered some positive changes in the form of sustainability regulations for exhibitors, we had mixed feelings as we headed into the global style hub this year. The context of the event had been the stuff of dystopian nightmares: a deepening climate crisis, political unrest, humanitarian disasters, war in Europe and soaring inflation – all of which forced us to ask ourselves whether the world needs more icons (and an exorbitant price). ) chairs.
Fortunately, however, we found something that surprised us – something worth the time, price and hype: creative optimism.
The energy at IRL was high, with exhibitors and attendees relying on each other’s ingenuity. From conversations with up-and-coming Ukrainian designers who had made the short but dangerous journey from Kyiv, to discussions with design executives from established giants, it was clear that the creative community was not just gathering in Milan, it was galvanizing.
Below are five trends from the show that capture the diverse response to these chaotic times and encourage us to ask ourselves how we might design our way out of the disaster.
In a radical move by the design community, we have seen a rejection of “The New”. It’s been five years since Steve Howard, then head of sustainability at Ikea, provocatively claimed that we had achieved “cutting edge stuff.” Now (finally!) we see mainstream design reacting. This year we have seen a profound response to the role of hyperconsumption and the climate crisis.
Traditionally, MDW has focused on new product launches, driven by trends and fashion; a cynic might say “new for new”.
Interestingly, we also saw fewer launches after the 2008 recession. Then design brands chose to release new colorways instead of new designs due to economic pressure. The climate crisis could have a similar effect, forcing developers to reevaluate release cycles in a world that is consuming resources at a rate far beyond its means.
At student exhibitions (freed from the commercial realities of the design industry), militant projects like Goliath Dyèvre’s “The Big Assembly” presented design in a world overflowing with things, exhibiting found objects presented in new forms . The HSLU Lucerne School of Design has taken a bolder approach by exhibiting a meditation on this theme, showing literally nothing, as pictured.
Miele, known for their passion for repair and durability (parts are available for over 15 years after product discontinuation) invited us to their “Longevity Lab”: a space that celebrated their limited edition spare parts in an exploded installation.
The Latvian Academy of Fine Arts has created an installation with two knitters mending under the slogan: “If you want to fix the world, start by mending your socks”. In October 2020, 85% of Gen Z respondents in London said they had repaired broken property in the previous year, compared to only 47% of over-55s. Is a renewed focus on longevity the key to unlocking the next generation of consumers?
The provenance of materials is now an important consideration for consumers and designers. Therefore, designers are turning to waste streams to create new materials. Take Fernando Laposse intricate veneers made from Mexican corn husks, or Vegea create textiles with waste from the wine industry.
Many of these projects are experimental and struggling to become commercially viable, although that is changing. Based in Santa Cruz Foam Cruz uses shell waste to create eco-foam and has just declared Leonardo DiCaprio and Ashton Kutcher as key investors.
In Milan, we saw this trend take on new urgency. In an era of resource scarcity and collapsing supply chains, local waste has become an increasingly safe and attractive source.
Stonedust (usually an inconsiderate side stream) was given a “laboratory room” displaying material experiments as part of a collaboration between SolidNature and Sabine Marcelis. Meanwhile, electronic waste was hand forged into dazzling glass tiles by Studio Plastique.
Ask a relevant question about waste following a disaster, Karma Dabaghiprofessor at the Lebanese American University, presented “Shards of hope“, a series of eight unique vases mouth-blown by artisans in Sarafand, southern Lebanon, from recycled glass from the Beirut port explosion in 2020.
Local projects have mainly focused on industrial waste streams, but this project has highlighted the untapped potential of waste generated by disasters and conflicts. Could it be used as raw material to support communities and help them tell their stories?
The metaverse unfolds as a place of exploration and refuge and a means of escape from turbulent times. Interestingly, the digital aesthetic of this trend seeped into the physical spaces and objects at this year’s fair, especially the more immersive 360-degree installations.
One of the most successful examples was “A Life Extraordinary” by Dutch company Moooi and LG. The surreal, multi-sensory exhibition that took place online and in IRL produced a hybrid aesthetic of a strange world.
We’ve seen strong surreal influences in molten floors at Moooi, warped realities at Glo Hypernova and a mirrored cabinet at Whirlpool, either offering an escape from reality or reflecting the chaotic nature of our times.
Continuing with the surreal theme, Stella McCartney explored psychedelic experiences in her exhibit. Visitors experienced the trippy magic and beauty of mushrooms in an immersive mirrored room, illuminated by sculptures made from recycled materials and a soundscape created from bioelectric signals from plants and fungi.
This week, one of the members of Google claimed that there was a ghost in the machine, which (somewhat oddly) echoes tech design trends in Milan. In reaction to the almost total saturation of technology in our lives, we have seen brands trying to create a softer side and a deeper meaning to our relationship with machines.
Technology has taken on human forms and gestures; Ideo, LG and Moooi collaborated with a choreographer to create a dance scent diffuser called Piro– a robot escaped from a Detroit auto plant, asking if there’s “more to life.” Piro polishes up and joins design house Moooi, inhabiting a space filled with many other beautiful objects as he dances for joy.
A collaboration between Yamaha and students from the Lausanne University of Art and Design (ÉCAL) explored sound machines who use technology to enhance the experience of playing with music. Personal interactions with music now largely focus on the digital experience and lack the warmth of physical rituals (think carrying around your walkman or slipping a record from its sleeve). We particularly liked Jisan Chung’s wooden and fabric “Sound Frame”, which detects objects placed inside and plays corresponding music.
Home appliance brands are claiming the smart home space by exhibiting AI “assistants” that display impressive functions to help us streamline life at home, with an uncanny level of personality and ubiquity that we had never seen before. A smart fridge wished us a pleasant evening with our South African Sauvignon Blanc.
Sensitive or not, these projects push us to question our relationship to technology. But whether anthropomorphizing our gadgets with more human-like interfaces is a step in the right direction remains to be seen. Or should we rather demand more boundaries between us and our machines?
Get your house back
During the pandemic, our homes have taken on a new meaning, transforming into gyms, offices, schools, and living rooms. But hours spent zealously baking sourdough, learning math just fast enough to teach our children, or desperately wishing for green ground have erased notions of “domestic sanctuary,” forever changing the way we relate to our space now not so private.
The disruptive effects of the pandemic have created fertile ground for designers to cultivate progressive new solutions for the home. In Milan, we witnessed a wide range of explorations that spanned the themes of future diets, aging populations and cohabitation.
The Ikea Festival was a compelling example, Marcus Engman, Creative Director of Ikea, said: “It’s not about things, it’s about people.
The exhibit depicted the living conditions of three families and was underpinned by an ethnographic base and significant human insight (gathered from their thousands of home visits per year). We particularly liked the playful depiction of a first home, namely a disco mirrored bed. This research reflects that often, in a first home, the bed is the epicenter. It means more than just a place to lay your head at night: acting as a desk, social space or dining table.
Another highlight was Electrolux’s GRO concept kitchen. The kitchen was designed to reflect the discoveries of a EAT-Lancet report that defines the ultimate diet for a healthy planet. The kitchen ecosystem is designed from the ground up to inspire people to eat more sustainably. For example, the refrigerator has been completely redesigned in modules intended to store mostly fruit and vegetables, with an integrated Nordic smoker to flavor plant-based meals.
Feltrin De La Miranda, meanwhile, exhibited accessible furniture that would accommodate the future elderly selves of homeowners. A hidden disassembly mechanism allows for ergonomic seat and back height adjustment without compromising the aesthetics or durability of a beautifully crafted chair.