The state of the Milan design scene inched closer to a sense of normalcy with the inauguration of Milano Design City, a new design festival sponsored by the city of Milan that picks up where the canceled Salone del Mobile left off. Over two weeks, September 28–October 10, showrooms, galleries, and studios opened to the public, reanimating projects that had been left in limbo by the pandemic. During the run, one could find the usual FuoriSalone flags hung fluttering outside shopfronts, signaling a product launch or exhibition, though gone were the roving bands of Dutch design students or editors carrying gifted Kvadrat tote bags. Indoors, past the temperature checks and behind N95 masks, the mood was one of cautious optimism.
Overall, Milano Design City wasn’t so much a rehearsal for design week in April—the realities of what an event seven months from now will be like remain to be seen—but rather a collective test of whether the community, and the city at large, could pull off a coordinated multilocation event amidst the challenging circumstances. In short, they can—due mostly to a stringent adherence to safety procedures including compulsory masks, limited guests, temperature checks, and data collection for contact tracing at the doors; measures that have allowed Italy to fare better than other European countries faced with a second wave of the pandemic.
“I think it’s important to look forward, even during this difficult time,” Massimo Orsini, founder of Modena-based ceramics brand Mutina, tells AD. The pandemic had paused the opening of Mutina’s long-awaited Milan showroom, Casa Mutina, where it had planned to present a collection of tiles designed by erstwhile Memphis founder Nathalie Du Pasquier in April. The showroom eventually opened in mid-July, but Design City allowed Mutina to launch its latest project alongside other Italian brands. Marble company Marsotto opened a new showroom in Brera, while furniture brands like Moroso and Natuzzi launched new lines; lighting companies Artemide and Flos put on presentations; and furniture behemoths Cassina and B&B Italia, like many others, released work initially slated for Salone. “We’re committed to showing an important signal of recovery to the city of Milan,” Orsini adds.
But the decision to launch did not come without hesitation. Considering the scale of investment that goes into preparing for Salone, risking everything on an event that would attract a fraction of the attendees was a gamble. “The projects were finished and we had to decide, Do we keep this one for the following Salone or not?” says Valentina Ciuffi, founder of exhibition hub Alcova and curator of Brassless at Nilufar Depot, a survey of contemporary designers tasked with creating new pieces in metal inaugurated during Design City. “Nina [Yashar, founder of Nilufar] was brave. She said, ‘Okay, the designers have been working, it’s too much to ask of them to wait until next year. We will go online and do our best to promote it and call friends and collectors just from Italy to attend.’ Of course, way fewer people, in comparison to previous exhibitions, came. But on the other hand, we were really able to capture the attention of those who did come. And a market like Nilufar is not based on quantity.”
Across the board, exhibitions were smaller, and guest lists were tightly controlled in the hope that concurrent digital initiatives would shoulder the weight of garnering attention. “Now that you cannot have access to a larger audience, physically speaking, we’re shifting towards digital,” says Andrea Cuman, a partner at Studio Labo, the digital studio that founded the FuoriSalone in 2003. Zoom talks, virtual showrooms, and interactive online exhibitions were organized in tandem with in-person events. For example, Ciuffi, who also runs digital creative agency Studio Vedet, created an online portal for late-night Salone haunt Bar Basso, where designers like Martino Gamper and Formafantasma made their very own drink tokens, redeemable for a symbolic “digital cocktail.” And just on FuoriSalone.it alone, says Cuman, “We are counting around 700,000 page views on our website, with 45% of the visits from abroad, primarily from the U.S.” The digital aspect of Milano Design City will be central going forward while international travel is still off the table.
Gone too were the flashy installations designed to attract Instagram attention. “Brands are investing in their showrooms, rather than a huge off-site exhibition to raise brand awareness,” says Cuman, referring to the patterns of investment he has noticed in launches throughout the weeks—and what he predicts will also be the case come April. “At the moment, it’s more convenient for them to buy a plane ticket for three or four main buyers than to create a massive installation that, now, very few people will see. With this kind of selected audience, we are losing the energy and spirit in the city, but at the same time, people from the business world are still happy.”
Even smaller brands are positive about the scaled-down version and are taking advantage of the sparser landscape to make an impression. Maddalena Casadei, art director of Brianza-based metal specialists Fucina, launched Latteria, a line of milled aluminum stools by Keiji Takeuchi, in a spartan shopfront in the Ticinese neighborhood. “Fucina is a small reality that, in a way, has more possibility to stand out when there are not thousands of presentations at the same time,” she says. “I actually really liked this scaled-down event. You have the time to really talk and explain the projects to everyone, which is usually very rare.”
It wasn’t all business, of course; there were projects not beholden to a product cycle that chose to open during the week. A highlight, curator Federica Sala’s 1+1+1 exhibition at nonprofit gallery AssabOne, featured new work from Michele de Lucchi, Pentagram & Friends, and Loris Cecchini, installed within a cavernous former print factory on the northern edges of the city. “We decided to do it now, instead of suspending it till next year,” Sala says of her decision to charge forward, “because it feels more relevant than ever. It was an important message for the city: to be open, to invite people and to share the work.”