Day 46: life in Italy under lockdown. Can Italian creativity redesign the future?

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Stokpic from Pixabay

This week was supposed to be Design Week in Milan, the biggest business event of the year in this business-minded city. Not even Fashion Week, held twice a year usually in February and September, comes close. Last year Design Week generated more than 220 million euro (about US $240 million). I wouldn’t describe it as the Grand Prix of design events, but rather the Monaco Grand Prix. It is so prestigious that designers, architects, builders, bankers, and celebrities from all over the world have poured into the city — and poured money into the city’s coffers — in past years to be part of it.

Design Week began 59 years ago as a furniture trade fair called Salone del Mobile, but it grew over time as appreciation for Italian furniture expanded worldwide. The Salone came to encompass textiles, accessories, appliances, lighting, office systems, kitchens and bathrooms, and became so large that some categories (offices and lighting, kitchens and baths) have been held on alternating years: offices and lighting were featured in 2019 and kitchens/baths were supposed to be this year.

Part of the reason for the growth was a new exposition site inaugurated in Rho (a community just outside the city proper) in 2005. This fairgrounds offers 345,000 square meters of covered space and 60,000 more in open space, a huge expansion from the previous structure in town. The space in Rho facilitated the development of the Salone as a world-class trade fair. Growth also gave birth to a series of activities in town called Fuorisalone — more than 1,200 events were held last year.

All of which has made for a massive traffic jam in human terms. In 2019 more than 386,000 visitors thronged to the Salone from 180 countries, and 250,000 visited Fuorisalone events in the city’s trendy fashion district of Brera. This was the antithesis of social distancing; Milan’s public transport system carried almost eight million passengers during Design Week 2019 (for a metropolitan population of 3,136 million).

The rescheduling of this year’s Salone del Mobile to 2021 because of the corona crisis underscored for many how serious the pandemic was. Now the questions for people in the design sector include:

· In lieu of a trade fair, how to communicate with customers about products (like furniture) with a high tactile component?

· What role should digitalization play in next year’s Salone?

· What does a trade fair look like in the post-COVID-19 era?

· What impact will the crisis have on the future of design?

Communication perforce means social media these days. Some Italian companies have been active in the digital space for years, while others are just now getting their feet wet. Some are using “classical” social media channels, while others are experimenting with webinars and podcasts. Whatever they try, dialogue of some kind is essential, says Annalisa Rosso, editor in chief of Icon Design magazine.

At the same time, she and Icon creative director David Pasquali agree that digital cannot be the solution to everything. “Digital is the first resource and it will have a great emphasis in the future,” they say. “But people have to see each other and interact. So we have to invent or reinvent ways to interact together physically.”

What this will mean for the Salone next year is still up for grabs. The organization of the fair needs to change to avoid huge crowds of people in congested spaces. There might be different ways to display products. Crowd flow might be controlled to distribute the number of attendees at a given time. “Everyone who works on Design Week is thinking about this,” Rosso observes.

Everyone who works in design is also thinking about the impact of COVID-19 on future projects. Rosso and Pasquali note several themes developing:

1. rethinking materials, with an emphasis on those that are inherently hygienic and easy to clean. Pasquali suggests that plastic may have a renaissance, noting mischievously, “Wouldn’t it be funny if much-maligned plastic turns out to be one of the things that saves us?”

2. rethinking the home office. What Italians call “smart working” wasn’t widely practiced till last month, but the need for it is already having an influence on future design. “We have to create a work environment at home on a permanent basis,” says Rosso.

3. rethinking space allocation in general. “I don’t have doors in my home,” confesses Pasquali. “When I was growing up, lofts and open spaces were fashionable. I said to myself, ’What do I need with doors?’ Now I feel a great need for doors.”

4. rethinking the balance between function and aesthetics. Attention has been much more on aesthetics than function in recent years, according to the Icon experts. Pasquali recalls seeing very similar products from stand to stand at recent fairs because everyone was following the same aesthetic trend. “When you talk about function as well as aesthetics, you might have a wider variety of solutions for different functional objectives.”

The economic uncertainties post-pandemic can be seen as opportunities for innovators, Rosso believes. “Italy is known for its creative solutions to difficult problems. We have to free ourselves from preconceived paradigms and develop new solutions. Those who are willing to innovate will be the ones to succeed in the future.”

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