Pull up a chair

Salone del Mobile reviewed by Tiffany Lambert and a conversation with Nina Yashar of Nilufar, Milan’s ultimate design destination. Photography by Paolo Barbi

Tank _summer 16_salone _1After a 20-year hiatus, the XXI Triennale International Exhibition returned this year with the theme “21st Century: Design After Design”; it was staged in the neoclassical Palazzo dell’Arte, designed by architect Giovanni Muzio between 1931 and 1933. 

The Salone del Mobile – the Milanese bellwether among what has become, over the years, a global circuit of design-minded fairs, trade shows, and biennials – is both a showcase and a social hub, overturning the conventional separation of work, leisure and artistic display. For visitors who descend in droves upon Milan for the Salone, looking is serious work, but it is also a type of intoxication. A journey through the week-long happening is like being poured from one glass directly into another. On the schedule is a smorgasbord of parties, events, exhibitions, lectures, presentations, breakfasts, brunches, lunches, dinners and cocktail hours devoted to celebrating design.

Tank _summer 16_salone _2Left, the Kram/Weisshaar SmartSlab tabletop, made of a durable ceramic composite impervious to scratching, microbes and weathering, discreetly integrates heating and cooling sensor technology into its underbelly. Right, more than 40 international designers participated in this year’s Triennale, including this sound landscape of temple bells from Toyama, Japan.

This year was the 55th edition and, like all Salones in recent memory, it provided a close to encyclopedic survey of the ways to make and show design. It ran the gamut from choice to second-rate, overtly trendy to clueless, excellent to pedestrian, sometimes egregious, and often with hazy delineations from one to the next. The whole thing was a glaring reminder that the subject of design is too broad to fit neatly into any single scheme of classification. It also invited comparison between two tendencies conventionally considered to be at opposite ends of the cultural spectrum: on the one hand, sales and schmooze, and on the other, critical discourse and intellectual exploration. From the main Fiera site, northwest of the city in Rho, where over 372,000 people came to see 270,000 square metres of the latest furniture and domestic goods, to the scrum of shows (collectively called the Fuorisalone) tucked into nearly every pocket of Milan from vacant factories and garages to palazzos and side alleys, the future of design flickers and hums, sometimes brightly, sometimes loudly. 

The Salone holds a mirror to a world dominated by uncertainty: definitions of the current economic, environmental, political, technological and religious climates are by no means crystal clear. Neither is bringing order to the Salone’s viewing options. Once categories are formulated, they soon begin to crumble and converge. But productively so. Evident in the works on view at the Salone was an insistence on the transitory nature of interpretation and on the value of ambiguity. 

In the 18th-century Palazzo Clerici, beneath Tiepolo’s mythologically themed frescoes, Kram/Weisshaar’s SmartSlab Table provided a technological vision for the way we might cook and dine in the future. Its thin, ceramic-composite tabletop employs hidden sensors to both heat and cool the surface, raising intellectually pointed questions about the implements and rituals surrounding the cultural practices of dining. Anyone who ever questioned whether the world needs another table might have their answer. 

In the room next door, high tech gave way to a sculpture of twisted metal by Dutch artist Wouter Paijmans surrounding Oak Inside, a series of handcrafted wooden furniture pieces from 2011 by Christien Meindertsma with Roosje Hindeloopen for Thomas Eyck’s brand t.e. The preview installation is the first of a ten-chapter exhibition called 10 Years of Thomas Eyck, opening this December at the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen.  

Among the fair’s other tableaux, A Matter of Perception at Palazzo Litta included the Swiss company Punkt, which offers directed, singular devices for a world fed up with the distractions of multiplicious gadgets. Punkt presented student projects from Lausanne’s ECAL University of Art and Design that brought clarity to everyday objects such as a printer and a radio. An extension cord by Lucas Frank cleverly wound inside a simple storage case to adjust for the cord’s length, paring down its functionality to a minimum interaction. When Objects Dream, another ECAL presentation, took a decidedly playful if one-liner approach to reinterpreting the function of everyday appliances: a digital still life zoomed in or out on a screen as you pulled on or released a physical tape measure; pressing down on a toaster prompted crackers and coffee-filled cups to pop out on a screen (replete with sound effects) instead of the expected slice of toast.  

In the downtown 5Vie Art + Design district – one of the city’s liveliest areas; now in its third year on the Salone schedule – the technologically industrial yielded to a lower-tech, ecological mix of Tuscan clay and cow dung. Milk-producing bovines at a farm near Piacenza in northern Italy create the latter that, after having the methane removed and being used as fertiliser, is further repurposed into an odourless terracotta-like material. In Milan it was used to make tableware, toilets, tiles and flowerpots. A collaboration with the Italian architect Luca Cipelletti, this provocative exhibition was simultaneously practical and utterly sustainable. 

While the debate about the nature and definition of sustainable design may continue within the larger design community, it would be hard to argue that Jasper Morrison’s latest collection for Vitra is a beacon of environmental excellence. A foam-filled lounge chair and sofa, and the All Plastic Chair – whose name says it all – are minimal, compact and comfortable, though lacking in any serious regard for the planet. One can only hope that the pieces will have enough staying power to avoid landfills for decades to come. While the collection merits a hesitant warning, Morrison is hardly the worst offender. After all, the designer did introduce the Alfi chair and bench for Emeco last year, produced with a special recycled plastic with added wood chips and made using non-electric, water-powered equipment.

Tank _summer 16_salone _3The W. Women in Italian Design exhibit aims to reconstruct design history by reintroducing female designers to the discussion. Right, an installation from the exhibit designed by Margherita Palli, a Milanese set designer at La Scala.

The concerns of designers and students elsewhere tackled evolutions in the way we might think conceptually about design in the domestic sphere. At least two projects addressed a version of utopian living: Amsterdam’s Sandberg Instituut created The Wandering School, a performance and self-contained community that occupied a former squat in an abandoned slaughterhouse, and at the more ostentatious end, M/M (Paris) showed a domestic living unit for Plusdesign gallery (originally conceived for Dior Homme in 2014). Rethinking the object itself – in this instance, expanding the notion of a lamp – Munich-based Konstantin Grcic and Mirko Borsche devised a light and sound installation, Epocsodielak, for Kaleidoscope project space. The freestanding disco device with a powder-coated steel frame pulsed strobe lights, lasers and fog into a crowd of late-night ravers.   

When looking to the future it sometimes helps to glance backwards. Kenya Hara and Andrea Branzi co-curated Neo-Prehistory: 100 Verbs, an exceptional exhibition at the Palazzo della Triennale, even if there were about a dozen too many ancient, stone arrowheads and blades and a few too few lumens lighting the installations (making some of the labels difficult to read, but also adding to the exhibits’ weighty aura). The curators attempted to distil all of humanity by matching 100 verbs with tools and man-made objects. So, number 13 was “hunt”, symbolised by an Australian Aboriginal boomerang; number 41, “improve”, a crossbred Spanish merino sheep; number 65, “despair”, a replica of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima; number 73, “expand”, an astronaut’s helmet; number 83, “condense”, a Muji compressed T-shirt; number 88, “fly”, a wingsuit; and number 100, “regenerate”, a three-dimensional visualisation of a heart. The scope was broad, but there was profound power in the quiet introspection.

Similarly compelling was the W. Women in Italian Design exhibit, curated by Silvana Annicchiarico, director at the Triennale’s design museum. Its contents – 650 objects by 400 women designers, either Italian or created for Italian companies – were jumbled together in confused profusion. With ceramics, tapestries, furniture, kitchen appliances, office implements, even food, on the walls and floors, hung from the ceiling and stacked and strewn atop grey cylindrical plinths (some of which rotated too quickly), the cramped installation could be mistaken for insensitivity to the subject at hand, though the sheer amount of work on show was high energy and  powerfully invigorating. The show mixed work by big names like Gae Aulenti, the late Zaha Hadid, Martine Bedin, Elsa Peretti, Matali Crasset and Patricia Urquiola, with more anonymous talents to levelling effect. It enabled viewers to peer first-hand into the dustbin of history rather than have certain historical objects from that dustbin pre-selected and picked out for them. 

Near the city centre, the Arita 2016/ project celebrated 400 years of ceramics making in the Saga prefecture in southern Japan, while harking back to Italy’s own history of pairing manufacturers with forward-thinking designers. Sixteen contemporary designers (including Pauline Deltour, Leon Ransmeier, Saskia Diez, Studio Wieki Somers and Stefan Diez) were invited by the Dutch design studio Scholten & Baijings and Japanese designer Teruhiro Yanagihara to create porcelain tableware collections with master artisans from Arita.

Tank _summer 16_salone _4With a growing collection of shows, displays, parties, and happenings, the Fuorisalone extends into nearly every pocket of Milan. The Triennale has outposts at 16 venues throughout Milan and three outside the city limits. Left, the sculpture is Cerith Wyn Evans’s I=N=V=O=C=A=T=I=O=N (I call your image to mind), 2009. Right, hundreds of pieces displayed on the plinths, or mounted on rotating discs that hung from the ceiling at the W. Women in Italian Design exhibit.

It is impossible to imagine the phenomenon that is the Salone del Mobile happening anywhere but Milan, given the Lombard city’s unrivalled tradition of design, as well as its continued and vibrant conversations between design, art and architecture. Responding to the urgent needs of reconstruction in post-war Italy, Milan became a place of intensive experimental exploration and research in design, laying a foundation for the cultural and commercial revolutions that the city confronted in the 1950s, 1960s and beyond. As a base for so many manufacturers, the city also became a dominant force in the creation and criticism of design. In 1961, the first edition of the Salone del Mobile opened and 30 years later, in 1991, it moved from September to April, giving its position even greater prominence. In 2006 the show moved to the massive Massimiliano Fuksas-designed Rho fairgrounds. Commerce rules at every fair and while the Salone maintains its commercial underpinnings, it has in recent years been elevated to something of a cultural review. The symbolic distinction between highbrow design and practical commercial work has been, and continues to be, blurred by the Salone, which briefly turns the entire city into a Petri dish displaying the many stages of the design life cycle. 

At its worst, the Salone is an overcrowded, expensive way to see a shameful amount of mediocre furniture. But at its best, the Salone is founded on the conviction that design is a public concern. It is engaged in providing a platform for more provocative ideas and a cultural index for where we have been and where we are headed. Among the gathered objects and projects, the variety of what is shown at the Salone works to combine the nonchalant imaginativeness of a dreamer with the pragmatic focus of a realist. That dialectic creates a challenging vision of our world, exposing its contradictions and complexities. Perhaps, overall, the Salone could use a jolt to wake up from what might be perceived as a contemporary slumber. Yet, in its moments of novelty and unexpectedness, the Salone also seemed to open up new territory by providing something frequently missing from the contemporary landscape: a sense of design asa living and evolving form. The overall atmosphere can feel like a comma, yes, but it also feels like a question mark. Design, after all, is often about posing questions before offering any answers. What else might we dream up? §

Tank _summer 16_salone _5An installation, expressly made for children to play and relax in, designed by Margherita Palli and on show as part of W. Women in Italian Design

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Tank _summer 16_salone _6Nina Yashar with a 1960s Italian lamp. This unique design was created by Venini for the ballroom L’Arc en Ciel in Casteggio. The lamp is made using the ballotòn and pezzato techniques; the latter created by the Murano-glass artist Fulvio Bianconi in the early 1950s. 

Nina Yashar has been Milan’s most important design gallerist since she opened the doors of her gallery, Nilufar, in 1979. Since 1989 the gallery has been housed over three floors of a building on Via della Spriga, in the heart of Milan’s Quadrilatero della Moda – the world’s most important fashion district. Since the late 1990s, Yashar has pioneered the sale of design and become as well known for her illustrious friends and clientele, as for her unerringly brilliant eye in indentifying the greatest furniture, both historic and contemporary. In 2015, she opened a new showroom on the outskirts of central Milan, like the pathbreaking Fondazione Prada. This space, called Nilufar Depot, has become a crucial destination for those visiting the city, a luxurious and gargantuan space made up of units – small interior sets – spread over three floors and 1,500 square metres. Created with the architect Massimiliano Locatelli, the space, which feels remarkably like a stage set, is inspired by La Scala, the city’s legendary opera house – a worthy muse for such a baroquely dramatic showroom. Yashar has a unique talent for bringing together the contemporary and the historic – making both sing in harmony with each other.

How did you first come to Milan?
I was born in Tehran and I came to Milan when my parents decided to move here. I was just five years old. I have now been living in Milan for more than 55 years.

And how did you become involved in design? Were you always engaged with it?
No, when I started my business I dealt in antique carpets. I opened a gallery in Milan selling carpets in 1979. My father was a carpet dealer, so for my gallery I decided to deal a specific type of carpet – antique kilims. I dealt carpets for 15 years, selling carpets that were not well-known or available on the market. 

I actually became involved in design and dealing furniture by chance. I used to go regularly to New York to find antique carpets and on one of my trips there I discovered a [Märta Måås-Fjetterström] carpet that came from Sweden, so I decided to travel there to research it further. My trip to Sweden lasted three days but by the first day I had already bought 20 Swedish carpets! So I had two free days in Stockholm and a friend offered to take me around the city showing me furniture. That’s when I started to buy some Scandinavian furniture. I bought works by people like Alvar Aalto, Bruno Mathsson and two or three others. When I returned to Milan, I put on my first exhibition of Swedish carpets and I showed some of the furniture I had bought too [this was the iconic 1998 exhibition Tappeti svedesi e mobili scandinavi]. My friends who saw it told me the furniture was amazing. I didn’t know anything about it – I had just bought it by chance. So this was my very first foray into design and it was my starting point, because now I work with many pieces of historical design, as well as contemporary projects by designers.

I had started with Scandinavian historical design, but after two or three years I also started to deal in American, Italian and French design. I have published more than 14 books and the first eight are specifically about pieces of international design. [Yashar’s catalogue for her show, Crossings, which combined antique Persian rugs with Finnish lighting and Mongolian textiles, is a collectible in its own right.]

Tank _summer 16_salone _8Left, at Nilufar Depot, a ML04 sofa and an Atollo table, both designed by Massimiliano Locatelli in 2016, alongside a 1960s Italian lamp by Angelo Lelli. The first items of furniture that Yashar bought were Scandinavian-designed, like this Domus Deluxe seat (right) by the legendary Ilmari Tapiovaara made in 1960, but follows the design of his iconic 1947 chair for the Domus Academica in Helsinki. 

Tank _summer 16_salone _7Since moving to the Via della Spriga space in 1989, Yashar has developed a rich sensitivity for international design. Although she is a connoisseur of the Italian greats – from Giò Ponti to Ettore Sottsass – her collection is profoundly international, including Brazilian examples like those shown above. Left, the 2-2 armchair (H model) was designed by José Zanine Caldas in 1949 and sits in front of an octaganal Pétalas table made of jacaranda by Jorge Zalszupin from 1960. Above them hangs a 1977 Italian ceiling light by Vico Magistretti. Right, at Nilufar on Villa della Spriga, an elegant mix of mid-century and international design: an armchair by José Zanine Caldas from c.1950, Italian 1970s wall lamps by Vico Magistretti and, on the right, is a Brazilian-designed Onda bench by Jorge Zalszupin from 1970. 

You’ve collaborated with fashion designers in the past – what is your relationship with the design of clothes?
Miuccia Prada is a very good friend and she is one of my best customers, but I have never done any projects with her. I mean, I have never collaborated with her in terms of work. I did do a collaboration with [the former creative director of Tod’s] Alessandra Facchinetti because I curated a fashion show for Tod’s two or three years ago. I showed some furniture as an installation for the fashion show, and it was very interesting. Alessandra asked me to help her create a domestic environment where people could see the fashion show rather than seeing it in an antiseptic space. We put in chandeliers, sconces and furniture, so that people could see the show in a different context than they usually do.

Tell me about your project If Giò Only Knew with Martino Gamper.
Martino Gamper was the first designer I worked with when I began showing contemporary design and he was the very first designer that I chose to show, nine years ago. When I met him at that time, I had bought his major work, 100 Chairs in 100 Days, from him. It’s an amazing work, which really sits between art and design, and has already been shown in nine or ten museums around the world. One of the first pieces that we created together was If Giò Only Knew. For that, I gave Martino furniture from the Hotel Parco dei Principi, which was designed by Giò Ponti in 1960. Martino deconstructed the furniture and created new pieces from it. These works have also been shown in many museums.

Tank _summer 16_salone _9Left, at Nilufar Depot, a Lino Table 02 by London-based Martino Gamper for a 2016 Nilufar edition. When Yashar met Gamper in 2004, he was still a student at the Royal College of Art. Since then they have developed a strong relationship and much of Gamper’s work is sold exclusively at Nilufar. Right, a 1920s Mongolian carpet from China and a Turkish carpet from the last decades of the 20th century lie in the entrance of Nilufar Depot, a nod to Yashar’s beginnings dealing carpets.   

Was that controversial?
No, the family of Giò Ponti came to the show and they said Martino had perfectly interpreted Ponti’s philosophy and narrative. But, anyway, Martino didn’t deconstruct real furniture; most of the pieces were the walls and doors of wardrobes. I had more than 250 wardrobe doors in this amazing blue Formica colour that Giò Ponti had chosen for the hotel. We didn’t destroy real pieces of furniture, but only doors that nobody would have done anything with. 

How do you chose the objects you deal in?
My first instrument for choosing pieces is my intuition and my heart. Usually, I don’t really like pieces that are somewhere between art and design because I like to choose very honest pieces of design. For me design is furniture, design means functional furniture. I don’t like to sell chairs that can’t be used, chairs that are sculptures or tables that you cannot use. 

I have a wide range of types of customer and I myself, am never completely oriented one way or another, so I have projects that are very intellectual and I have projects that are much more specific – engaged with precious materials, say, bronze or brass. Through it all I try to maintain a sort of fil rouge, which is my point of view. I choose projects that might appear to be completely different or eclectic, but then I present them all together. What I really like to do is to mix contemporary and historical pieces at the same time – that is my favourite thing to do. But I have no mathematical formula for choosing which projects I take on. 

Why did you decide to open Nilufar Depot?
I opened Nilufar Depot on 13 April 2015. The space was originally conceived as a warehouse, but when I opened it for last year’s Salone del Mobile, all my customers and friends told me I was crazy to use the space just as a warehouse and not as a showroom. 

I was very unsure of what to do, because the building’s not very central; I worried that nobody would come here to see it. But I followed the suggestion of my dearest friends and customers, and I decided to use it as a huge showroom that is open every day to the public.

We had a lot of interest on social media last year and many people were making tours through Milan: they were going to the Prada Foundation, my Depot and the Triennale. So I decided it was a good idea to keep it open. We receive many visits from interior designers and many international customers come. It is a brilliant moment for Milan I have to say. Nilufar Depot has become, una meta – a destination, a place to go. 

After Salone, what’s on the horizon?
In the near future, I am organising a SQUAT in London in collaboration with Shalini Misra in a private Mayfair apartment for three months. SQUAT is a regular project that I do; this is the fifth version. I take an empty, domestic space – a house or an apartment – and I completely decorate the interior. Lighting, carpets, furniture, everything! Then we invite people to come and see the space. The first two SQUATs that I did were in Paris; the first was in a residential area on Avenue Victor Hugo, and the second one was in a beautiful hôtel particulier –that was the most amazing SQUAT I’ve ever done! Because the building we did it in [the 17th-century Hôtel de Miramion] was 1,500 square metres in size...

Wow!
Yes! It was on the river near Notre Dame and it was a really astonishing space. After those two I did a SQUAT in Beirut, not exactly in a domestic space, but in a sort of a domestic gallery, and the fourth version I did was in Milan, in one of the new buildings by the Caputo architects, in collaboration with Alida Forte Catella of Coima Image. The next one is in London. § 

Nilufar SQUAT is at 70 South Audley Street, London, from 7 June until 15 October 2016

Tank _summer 16_salone _10The units at Nilufar Depot create speculative interiors in the manner of theatrical stage sets. Here, an ode to Giò Ponti: the chair on the left is the iconic Augustus armchair, manufactured in 1950 by Cassina for the first class ballroom of MS Augustus, an ocean liner. Next to it stands Ponti’s walnut-wood cabinet with reclining doors from c.1936. The pair of armchairs and the display cabinet were designed by Ponti in 1950. The ceiling lamp comes from the Hotel Gallia in Milan and is a particularly important piece, manufactured from brass and Murano glass by Barovier&Toso in the 1950s. Around it hang Cherry Bomb Pendant ceiling lamps by the US designer Lindsey Adelman for a 2016 Nilufar Edition, adding contemporary flourish to Yashar’s history lesson.