"Has Milan design week become a victim of its own popularity?"

Milan design week seemed to show that the industry has given up on reducing its planetary impact and creating products for regular people, writes Max Fraser.

If last year’s Milan design week felt like a return to a version of pre-pandemic editions, this year’s felt like a hyped-up mega-festival.

It’s difficult to attain reliable figures for the number of individual events that took place across the city (reports range from several hundred to more than 1,000), as well as the main commercial trade event, Salone del Mobile. But whatever the actual figure is, this year the visitor experience had certainly intensified.

There were many times when I felt I had been brazenly “data-captured”

One visible sign of this was the queues. They felt particularly acute this year, presumably off the back of a surge of attendees. According to figures published by Salone del Mobile, visitor numbers increased by 17.1 per cent this year, with 361,417 people recorded through the trade fair’s turnstiles.

Has Milan design week become a victim of its own popularity? I heard reports of design revellers waiting for up to three hours to enter some of the shows. Queues were often slowed by the requirement to register. One’s details are now commonly harvested by brands and there were many times when I felt I had been brazenly “data-captured”.

Once inside, one often slots into a human conveyor formation, shuffling hurriedly through the venue surrounded by people who seem principally concerned with capturing the whole thing on their phones.

Meanwhile, organisers boasted to me about their queues and record attendance, seemingly judging success by popularity, without much concern for how much of people’s time they were cannibalising.

But for punters, time is precious. For many, it’s expensive too; international visitors must increasingly spend a fortune on travel and accommodation, an annual problem that seems to only be getting worse.

On the positive side, many Milanese inhabitants also attend. It would seem this globally important design extravaganza provides one moment in the year for mass inspiration coupled with an outpouring of Milanese glam.

Design is increasingly moving away from providing solutions for the needs of regular people

In its purest form, Milan design week has always acted as an annual window into humanity’s desire for creative expression. It is the primary event for ideas exchange and that is one of the lures that keeps us returning year-on-year, with the added bonus of seeing old friends and making new ones.

However, my concern this year (and in recent editions) is that design is increasingly moving away from providing solutions for the needs of regular people and is instead churning out a disproportionate amount of decorative objects for the wealthy.

My discomfort comes with how willingly the rest of us have fallen into the role of bot-like communicators, inadvertently giving our precious time, attention and data to what often turn out to be superfluous marketing displays.

I attended one showcase by a tech brand and rapidly had the impression that I had been dragged into an internal strategy presentation; I felt nauseous observing the excessive use of virgin materials to build an expensive display of corporate hyperbole. If only the millions spent there could have been spent on something that mattered – housing the men sleeping rough in the tunnel around the corner would be a valiant place to start.

At a different venue, overwhelmed by the enormous use of sheet material to build the temporary walls in the space, I asked about the display’s afterlife. “It’ll mostly be scrapped due to the way it’s assembled,” said a senior staff member. Oh well, never mind, this is someone else’s problem, right?

I had to reassure myself that this approach was surely outnumbered by the week’s many displays of material innovation and sustainable thinking.

For all the talk about sustainability in design, this year the topic felt woefully missing or, at best, tokenistic

For example, industrial manufacturer Hydro’s small-but-perfectly-formed 100R exhibition of extruded aluminium furniture demonstrated the possibility of working with 100 per cent post-consumer scrap; design studio Niceworkshop developed furniture made from redundant formwork previously used for skyscraper construction; and at Salone del Mobile, furniture brand Knoll revived its stand design from last year.

But for all the talk about sustainability in design, this year the topic felt woefully missing or, at best, tokenistic. It still feels like we’re tinkering at the edges when it comes to reducing our planetary impact. My inner mood throughout the week flicked between deep feelings of pessimism to moments of optimism when sharing these concerns with kindred spirits.

In case anyone has forgotten, humanity is careering towards an uncertain future with climate breakdown and inequality regularly surfacing around us. Perhaps Milan design week provides us with a few days of respite from this existential dark cloud, its energy an opportunity for us to collectively recharge.

But do we really want to be remembered for creating more nice stuff for wealthy people to occasionally use?

As a high-end manufacturer once admitted to me: “I am in the business of catching the crumbs that the rich brush off the table.” Is the part of the design industry that is so prevalent in Milan mostly in service to the one per cent and, if so, are we OK with that?

Do we need to make more enormous sofas that are too big (and expensive) for most people’s homes? Could we bear not to launch new stuff on this annual treadmill?

It’s worth acknowledging that we’re currently all complicit – including the marketing, PR and media worlds – for stirring up the hype. For the most part, many of us operate in the capitalist trap of needing to continually feed the machine. In many instances, sizeable investment has been put into energy-intensive materials and manufacturing processes, from which it is costly to rapidly pivot.

The tempering of Milan-fever is overdue

And it’s important to recognise that many businesses are valiantly working to provide employment and preserve crafts that have been perfected by talented individuals. Invariably, the results don’t come cheap.

For as long as there is a market for this, and during this period of economic uncertainty, why consciously bite off the hand that feeds us? Therein lies the predicament.

As the biggest and most influential global gathering of its kind, Milan design week always provides a barometer of the health of the design industry. You might think it’s unfair to point the finger at Milan and I’m sorry if I sound like a party-pooper but, at this urgent juncture in history, the majority of the industry is still focused on the wrong prize.

For all of the spectacle of the week, the fun cocktail parties and industry-wide comradery, the tempering of Milan-fever is overdue and the urgency for meaningful change is now. We need to stop acting as if someone else is going to make the changes to production and consumption that we so desperately need to enact.

The photography is by Kuan Chi Hau.

Max Fraser is editorial director of Dezeen.

Milan design week took place from 15 to 21 April 2024. See Dezeen Events Guide for an up-to-date list of architecture and design events taking place around the world.

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