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Future furniture

5 May 2011



Mark Simpson reports from Milan’s major furniture show, Salone Internazionale del Mobile, where he finds designers playing it safe.


The Salone Internazionale del Mobile, which celebrates its 50th year in 2011, has become the biggest event of its kind. What starmted as a humble collaboration between a few like-minded Italian manufacturers and attracted around 12,000 visitors in 1961, is now a truly international event.
The Salone draws around 300,000 visitors to Milan taking over the whole city for a chaotic, inspiring week, swelling its population by 20 per cent.

The world’s top manufacturers jostle for attention and display their latest designs for an eager audience of designers, agents and press. The centre of attention is the fair itself within the Rho Fiera, a vast complex of exhibition halls opened in 2006 and designed by the Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas. There are around 1,400 exhibitors in 1.5 million square feet of exhibition space. Salone Ufficio, which was held this year after a gap of three years, focuses on design for the office market and occupies two huge halls. The theme this year was ‘the office as creative hub’.

Attendees can experience what new thinking is on display and whether manufacturers are offering designers and occupiers innovative responses to the changing work environment and new technology. The office furniture market is more competitive than ever with shrinking profit margins. Product innovation and design should be how manufacturers set themselves apart from the pack. So who is ahead of the curve and who is playing catch-up?

This year, the exhibitors seemed to be less international than in previous years. This may be due to the large firms cutting back on costs and perhaps having less new product to bring to the market. Several displayed updated or refreshed existing product.

Ergonomically designed products are becoming increasingly important in an agile workplace. Today, we work in a variety of settings and desking systems have become simpler in design to the point where they are little more than benches.

Humanscale is a US firm that HKS has used extensively of late. 
It manufactures a range of ergonomic seating and lighting products for the office market. Humanscale’s Freedom chair is recognised as one of the most ergonomic on the market. Another model, Liberty, has been specified by HKS on a number of recent projects. This year in Milan, the company showcased the World chair designed by Neils Diffrient. This chair is already the winner of a Red Dot design award and has been designed as a simple, low-cost work chair, which is fully responsive and, as such, has no recline knobs or levers. It automatically customises recline resistance and lumbar support for every user.

Sustainable design is something occupiers are increasingly concerned about. They demand greener buildings with sustainable products and furniture inside them. More and more progressive manufacturers are bringing increasingly innovative products 
to market.
Humanscale launched its Horizon task light at Milan. The fitting uses new ‘thin wave’ LED technology with a lamp life of up to 60,000 hours. Made of predominantly recycled aluminium, it uses only 
11 watts of power and is 95 per cent recyclable.

Bisley is perhaps the best-known British manufacturer of storage systems. Like many, it has noticed the trend towards reduced bulk storage available in the office and the gradual disappearance of the desk pedestal. The company has developed new products to reflect the changing office landscape including the Bits mobile storage system, personal storage lockers and Glide, a new storage unit launched at Milan.

This unit has a minimalist aesthetic and utilises a space-saving sliding door mechanism which can incorporate an acoustic panel finish as well as timber or composite door and top options, offering a welcome move away from bland metal finishes.

Boss is a British firm with a range of products spanning soft seating and conference furniture. Its recently launched Starr chair is designed for conference, training and dining spaces. Lightweight and stackable, it is nevertheless robust. It is produced from almost 70 per cent recycled content and is also 100 per cent recyclable.

Some visitors came away with the impression that although there was a lot to see, a lot of it they had seen before. Innovation perhaps is something that will take time to filter through once the market recovers. Occupiers are still in general very nervous about investment and manufacturers in turn are playing it safe for now.

Mark Simpson is director of interior design in the London 
office of international architecture firm HKS