The what and why of the Milanese design week

  • Words

    Christophe De Schauvre

The Salone Internazionale del Mobile starts today in Milan. The world’s most important design fair transforms the northern Italian city into a design circus in which every self-respecting designer brand or designer wants to perform. But why does this annual event cause so much swell? An introduction to the epicenter of design.  

Contrary to what you might suspect, the core of the Salone del Mobile is not in the Milan city center but, just outside, in Rho. This is where the Fiera Milano trade fair and congress center is located: more than 200,000 square meters of exhibition space and the place to be for every self-respecting furniture brand to display their latest products. For the 56th time there will be more than 2,000 stand holders this week to present their latest furniture and interior accessories. The Salone del Mobile is essentially a trade fair: a professional market where the manufacturers promote their new collections to a select group of distributors, buyers and retailers who put together their range for the coming year and place their orders. Professionals, because recreational visitors will only be allowed a visit during the weekend.


The importance of the Salone has to do with the long tradition of the Italian furniture industry. This is mainly concentrated in the area between Milan and Como and when the fair was first organized in 1961, it was pure about promotion. Even though it evolved quickly to an international event, this balance is definitely not a thing of the past: the figures show that only 30% of the exhibitors are originated from outside of Italy.

Yet this does not detract from the media interest or scope of the Milan design fair. Think of it as the biggest party for the manufacturing industry and commerce, with marketing, uplifting stands and parties of all kinds as a binder. The benevolence of the entire design sector therefore exerts a strong attraction on designers who like to take advantage of it: new contacts lead to new collaborations and who knows new furniture and that is repeated every year.

These mutually reinforcing (design) power have, over the years, created a mechanism that could no longer be contained by the exhibition and congress center Fiera Milano. Exhibition stands had to be bigger and bigger; space is therefore becoming scarce and so the prices very high. Smart and leading companies such as the Italian company genre Moroso, Kartell, Alias, Flos were already looking forward to the city center, and that was something that did not go unnoticed by COSMIT, the organization behind the fair. That is why, since 1998, they have organized a multitude of events and exhibitions together with the trade fair under the name Salone Satellite. And there still seems to be no limit to expanding – the success of the annual design meeting: increasing marketing budgets and greater media attention – what are the trends, the novelties – reinforce the annual offer in the design industry. While the trade fair attracts 300,000 visitors during that one week, that share for the city amounts to half a million people in a city with a population 1.3 million.

What we have just described as a feast for the manufacturing industry and commerce still binds the entire city. Milan during the Salone is rather an extravagant design circus in which one wants to outdo each other with the most striking acts, the most talked-about spectacle pieces and the line between furniture and trade fair has become a soft rope on which no brand can keep the balance. The trends, the novelties … you can still find them at the fair, but there are the commercial, market-driven results of months of development. The installations and presentations in the inner city do not take into account what is marketable or commercial, it is about displaying, inspiring, innovating and money is no object. And the local middle-class benefits from this. The inventiveness to stand out sometimes leads to crazy tantrums: ice cream parlors or car workshops are temporarily taken over by a designer brands or groups of designers, empty shopping galleries are being converted, the Dutch label Droog even once presented under the title of ‘screw me’ in an old-fashioned DIY-shop, designer Maarten Baas once even turned a banal apartment into …


The annual design week has long since passed just furniture, even though the trade fair and congress building continues to attract professionals, they will always link their visit to an inspirational safari through Milan’s districts of Tortona (the French brands), Brera (Italian brands) and Lambrate (run by Dutch and Scandinavia). Not only because there are generations of (high-potential) designers who organize their own presentations, whether or not supported by their respective design school, even multinationals that stand as far away from furniture possible, surprise the visitor with installations. In recent years, brands such as Nike, the Japanese multimedia group Sony, H & M’s minimalist fashion label Cos and Ikea have spared no effort to make something outrageous. Talk of The Town in Milan is therefore the highest goal; because what is bouncing around the city will dominate the world through social media, design blogs and vlogs and with some coincidence also the classic media.

For one week, Milan is a megaphone for all that is trendy and that will be buzzing for months on end. The thousands of visitors who visit the city especially for the design week are immediately infected with instalatia nervosa, a FOMO-related nervousness about design installations. Because, Fomo or Fear of missing out, is the fear of missing something important or fun and the highest level of infection you risk in Bar Basso in the Viale Abruzzi. There are dozens of cocktail bars in Milan that are hipper and better, but Bar Basso is the birthplace of the Negroni Sbagliato and is also an institution in the design world. Nowhere else will you find a higher concentration of experienced designers and professionals in Milan than here. If during the design week a bomb will be dropped on the outside terrace at Bar Basso at night, a large part of the international designer’s energy will be erased from the French brothers Bouroullec to Jasper Morrisson, James Irvine and Tom Dixon or our very own Bram Boo. The latter has even named a side table, he created for Indera, the bar. To get a drink, ordering takes ages, going to the toilet even longer, but the night shops and green spaces on the Viale Abruzzi are therefore perhaps the greatest winners of the Salone del Mobile.

Day 7

De laatste dag in Alcova. Om 10u30 staat er al een lange rij klaar. Een meisje zegt me dat ze gisteren een uur heeft aangeschoven en toen ging het dicht om 18u30. Nu staat ze er opnieuw. De aanhouder wint. Een Nederlandse…

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Day 6

Gelukkig miste Jon Stam zijn vliegtuig vrijdagavond (overbooked) waardoor hij ons deze ochtend nog kon helpen opstarten; want de rij voor de poort wordt elke dag langer en langer. Zoals verwacht zijn het vandaag veel Italianen: van geïnteresseerde liefhebbers tot families met…

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Day 5

De straat waar ons appartement ligt – de Via dei Transiti – is deze ochtend veranderd in een versmarkt, die wat charmante Italiaanse taferelen oplevert. Om 11u start bij Z33 een DESIS Philosophy Talk, gehost door Virginia Tassinari, met Jon Stam, Tamar…

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Day 4

Om 8u ‘s morgens staan we klaar aan Alcova, want we hebben een afspraak met de cateraar die overigens netjes op tijd is. Er is wat op til natuurlijk. Vandaag brengt de raad van bestuur van Z33, samen met minister van Cultuur Sven…

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Day 3

Na de drukke aanvang is er eindelijk een voormiddag vrij, dus is er even tijd om enkele van de 15 must sees volgens DEZEEN te checken. Van metro San Babila wandelen we door het ‘verlichtingsstraatje’ – Corso Monforte met Flos en Artemide…

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Day 2

Op een boogscheut van onze presentatie ligt onze verblijfplaats. Het appartement ligt in de ‘Via dei Transiti’.  Geen betere uitvalsbasis voor het Z33-team dan de Transitiestraat, toch? We nemen ontbijt op het terras – zelfgemaakt en gezond – en  typen tegelijk nog…

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