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Great atmosphere, international visitors: The furniture and interior design world is celebrating a big party at the Salone del Mobile in Milan. Luxury always works, sustainability not necessarily, and nothing works without QR codes. Whether the trade fair will generate the hoped-for economic impetus cannot yet be said. 

By Jasmin Jouhar

Alcova, Villa Bagatti Valsecchi

Queues, queues everywhere. On the very first day of the Salone del Mobile, there were long queues of visitors in front of the manufacturers’ stands. It was the same picture in the centre of Milan: queues of people winding through the streets in front of the palazzi and showrooms. Even north of the city, in Varedo, where the Alcova platform presented two villas, people had to wait a long time to marvel at installations and design objects. The trade fair set a record with more than 360,000 visitors, although many Milan visitors do not even travel to the exhibition centre. There were reportedly over 1,000 exhibitions and presentations in the city. So tutto bene a Milano, all is well at the Salone, the world’s largest gathering of the furniture and interior design industry?

The World As a Guest in Milan

In any case, the atmosphere was good. Smiling faces everywhere. Among other things, people were happy about the return of many international guests after the end of the pandemic, especially from Asia. This was confirmed by Christian Drescher, Managing Director of German furniture manufacturer Tecta. “This year’s Salone del Mobile gave us the opportunity to present ourselves internationally again,” says Drescher. This internationality clearly set Milan apart from the trade fair competition in Stockholm or Cologne, which had a more regional character this year. Only the much smaller “3 Days of Design” in Copenhagen in June promises to be similarly international. However, the hustle and bustle at the Milan exhibition centre made us forget that the Salone del Mobile was smaller this year in terms of exhibition space. Large Italian brands in particular have left Rho for the time being and are limiting themselves to showrooms in the city. For Floor van Ast from Dutch manufacturer Arco, however, the Salone remains the place to be: “For us as a small brand, the trade fair is the right place; many of our customers and contacts come together here anyway.” The trade fair has brought them new customers and it was a good decision to take part. 

Not Just a Question of Feeling

But where did the good mood actually come from? Is there any reason to celebrate in the face of global crises and wars? In the face of a world that feels so wrong, as the managing director of a German kitchen manufacturer put it. It’s not just a question of whether the big furniture party is appropriate – given the horror news from Kharkiv or Gaza. After all, the uncertain political and economic situation has real consequences: Many European companies had to cope with massive, in some cases significant double-digit slumps in sales last year. The situation has not improved so far in the first few months of this year: in Germany, bricks-and-mortar furniture shops have been forced to file for bankruptcy and the e-commerce company Ikarus has also gone insolvent and is being wound up. According to Floor van Ast, the market is still “slow” at the moment, partly due to a post-pandemic correction. Whether the Milan furniture fair will bring the hoped-for economic impetus cannot yet be said, immediately after its end. “The commercial success will mainly come in the aftermath of the fair,” says Christian Drescher from Tecta. 

Alcova Design Shop 2024 | Photo: Piergiorgio Sorgetti
Borsani General | Photo: Piergiorgio Sorgetti

Nothing Works Without QR Codes

The long queues are not necessarily good news either. There are friendly young people with tablets at many entrances asking if you are already registered. Without a pre-generated QR code, you often can’t get in at all. The brands want to collect data, which delays the processes – not to mention the fact that you might not want to share your data at all. The displeasure in the design community about this was clearly noticeable this year. Especially as the question arises as to why so many people are queuing in the first place.

Despite the difficult economic situation, a trend from previous years has continued: Companies from outside the industry, often from the luxury segment, are using the Salone as a platform for marketing and brand building. Gucci, for example, showed Italian design classics such as Mario Bellini’s “Le Mura” sofa or Nanda Vigo’s “Storet” chest of drawers in the new signature colour wine red (“Rosso Ancora”) against a poisonous green background – very instagrammable! Saint Laurent, on the other hand, presented twelve hand-painted porcelain plates based on designs by Gio Ponti in an expansive installation. There were so many fashion brands that the magazine “Wallpaper” was able to list the best “fashion moments” of the Salone in advance. 

Storet by Nanda Vigo for Acerbis (1994, reedition 2020)

Competition Does Not Stimulate Business

The car companies (Kia, Lexus, Porsche, Bentley, etc.) did not spare Milan this year either; Google and Amazon were also there again. With huge budgets, the companies occupy the best spots, attract attention and spoil the prices. In view of the horrendous costs for exhibition spaces and hotels, some younger, smaller furniture companies prefer not to exhibit at the Salone. Competition does not stimulate business here. A thought experiment reveals just how absurd this is. According to this, Poltrona Frau would soon be showing a collection of elegant evening wear at the fashion weeks in Paris or Milan and Magis would be sending sophisticated streetwear down the catwalk. Or Boffi could unveil an electric city runabout with a high-end design at the IAA. 

Salone Satellite, Milano 2024
Tecta, Salone Del Mobile, 2024

The Gap Widens Further

Speaking of luxury: another phenomenon was also revealed in Milan. While high-priced to premium products still seem to find buyers, it is often more difficult in the mid-range segment. Here, buyers are feeling the effects of inflation and are postponing the purchase of a new sofa – or are orientating their prices downwards on the market towards Ikea (also present at the Salone, of course). Central European manufacturers don’t even need to compete with countries like China and India; they can only lose the race for price and speed. They have to win over their customers with regional production and identity, reliable quality and service. This is perhaps also an opportunity for ailing trade fair formats such as the “imm cologne”. Instead of focussing on sheer size and the widest possible range, they could concentrate on local brands instead. Especially as many manufacturers prefer to stay away from the hustle and bustle of Milan anyway (see above) and look for other platforms. 

Looking For a Party Crasher

However, the big Salone party also raised another, at least equally pressing question: Where are the answers to the great sustainability challenge of our time? Huge exhibition stands sealed off with drywall and elaborate installations that are torn down again after six days: The Salone often felt as if climate change, environmental pollution and species extinction were just niche problems. Of course, there were manufacturers who tried to be more resource-friendly and, for example, built stands out of scaffolding and designed them with light curtains, such as Arper, Arco or Sancal. But in the mass of Milan presentations, you really had to look for alternative approaches – and were more likely to find them at university presentations, young designers or small companies. Yet sustainable management would be a great opportunity for Europe’s manufacturers: they are closer to their customers and therefore more credible, and can repair products if necessary or take them back after use. Next year, we urgently want to see a few more party crashers among the big commercial players. Then we might even be able to put up with the long queues.

Sancal Stand Unroom Salone | Photo: Maria Teresa Furnari
Salone Satellite, Milano 2024

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