The state of the Milan design scene inched closer to a sense of normalcy with the inauguration of Milano Design City, a new design festival sponsored by the city of Milan that picks up where the canceled Salone del Mobile left off. Over two weeks, September 28–October 10, showrooms, galleries, and studios opened to the public, reanimating projects that had been left in limbo by the pandemic. During the run, one could find the usual FuoriSalone flags hung fluttering outside shopfronts, signaling a product launch or exhibition, though gone were the roving bands of Dutch design students or editors carrying gifted Kvadrat tote bags. Indoors, past the temperature checks and behind N95 masks, the mood was one of cautious optimism.
Overall, Milano Design City wasn’t so much a rehearsal for design week in April—the realities of what an event seven months from now will be like remain to be seen—but rather a collective test of whether the community, and the city at large, could pull off a coordinated multilocation event amidst the challenging circumstances. In short, they can—due mostly to a stringent adherence to safety procedures including compulsory masks, limited guests, temperature checks, and data collection for contact tracing at the doors; measures that have allowed Italy to fare better than other European countries faced with a second wave of the pandemic.
“I think it’s important to look forward, even during this difficult time,” Massimo Orsini, founder of Modena-based ceramics brand Mutina, tells AD PRO. The pandemic had paused the opening of Mutina’s long-awaited Milan showroom, Casa Mutina, where it had planned to present a collection of tiles designed by erstwhile Memphis founder Nathalie Du Pasquier in April. The showroom eventually opened in mid-July, but Design City allowed Mutina to launch its latest project alongside other Italian brands. Marble company Marsotto opened a new showroom in Brera, while furniture brands like Moroso and Natuzzi launched new lines; lighting companies Artemide and Flos put on presentations; and furniture behemoths Cassina and B&B Italia, like many others, released work initially slated for Salone. “We’re committed to showing an important signal of recovery to the city of Milan,” Orsini adds.
But the decision to launch did not come without hesitation. Considering the scale of investment that goes into preparing for Salone, risking everything on an event that would attract a fraction of the attendees was a gamble. “The projects were finished and we had to decide, Do we keep this one for the following Salone or not?” says Valentina Ciuffi, founder of exhibition hub Alcova and curator of Brassless at Nilufar Depot, a survey of contemporary designers tasked with creating new pieces in metal inaugurated during Design City. “Nina [Yashar, founder of Nilufar] was brave. She said, ‘Okay, the designers have been working, it’s too much to ask of them to wait until next year. We will go online and do our best to promote it and call friends and collectors just from Italy to attend.’ Of course, way fewer people, in comparison to previous exhibitions, came. But on the other hand, we were really able to capture the attention of those who did come. And a market like Nilufar is not based on quantity.”
Across the board, exhibitions were smaller, and guest lists were tightly controlled in the hope that concurrent digital initiatives would shoulder the weight of garnering attention. “Now that you cannot have access to a larger audience, physically speaking, we’re shifting towards digital,” says Andrea Cuman, a partner at Studio Labo, the digital studio that founded the FuoriSalone in 2003. Zoom talks, virtual showrooms, and interactive online exhibitions were organized in tandem with in-person events. For example, Ciuffi, who also runs digital creative agency Studio Vedet, created an online portal for late-night Salone haunt Bar Basso. And just on FuoriSalone.it alone, says Cuman, “We are counting around 700,000 page views on our website, with 45% of the visits from abroad, primarily from the U.S.” The digital aspect of Milano Design City will be central going forward while international travel is still off the table.