“The biggest, brashest and most hysterical event in the international design year.”
The New York Times on Salone del Mobile, April 2011
The crowds that throng Milan for the city’s annual furniture fair know they are part of a tribal celebration—the tribe being the international community of design. Like show business and politics, design is a small, self-contained world, and when the denizens of that world get together for a bash the importance of individual effort to large communal movements becomes clear.
Part of what gives Milan its uniquely muscular design profile—in contrast to the fanciful quality of Paris or the manic trendiness of New York—is its long history of industry and manufacturing. Yes, Milan is a fashion center, but it’s also where Alfa Romeo built cars, Innocenti built motor bikes and Campari bottled spirits; it’s where textiles have been manufactured for centuries and furniture has been key to the local economy since the 1800s. It’s where the Italian Stock Exchange is headquartered and the Italian publishing industry. And of course it is home to Armani, Versace, Gucci, Prada, Valentino and Dolce & Gabbana.
Milan, in short, is a city that makes stuff.
The Salone del Mobile began in 1961 as a trade show for Italian furniture makers intent on expanding their market. After World War II much of Milan was in ruins. Allied bombing had hollowed out whole sections of the city and the post-war building boom—not just in Milan, but across Italy—kept furniture manufacturers operating at peak capacity for years. By the 1960s, however, Italians were done rebuilding, and the furniture makers faced sharp reductions if they did not cultivate new markets abroad. Salone del Mobile was conceived as a way of luring foreign buyers to one-stop shopping in one Italian city.
A photo from 1961 shows the furniture magnates who joined forces for the fair—a line-up of suits and ties, wide trousers, receding hairlines and bushy eyebrows. This could be a group photo of Tuscan vintners or of movie producers from Cinecitta, but no, these are the pioneers of Italian design, which means, at a certain level, the founding fathers of the tribe.
As Milan hosts again the biggest design circus on earth, it’s good to remember that for all the frivolity, color and ephemera, the origins of this event (and this industry) were people bouncing back from global catastrophe to link arms and build something beautiful for the world.