BY ALICE RAWSTHORN / Frieze.com
The Milan fair has become one of those highly visible yet increasingly ambiguous events, like the Hay Festival in the Welsh Borders, which are sustained as much by their promotional prowess as by their significance within their original field. The problem is that the Salone faces growing tension between its official role as a trade fair (-cum-branding bacchanale) and its unofficial one as a general design forum. Both roles were sustainable in the last century, when furniture – and the chair in particular – occupied more cultural space than other design disciplines, which explains why so many design museums are stuffed with it and why chairs command the highest prices at design auctions. There was a rationale for this. In an age when design innovation tended to focus on physical things, the chair was an eloquent medium through which to trace changes in aesthetics, technology, demographics, social and political concerns. Furniture’s cultural status was also strengthened by its links to architecture. Historically, whenever architects engaged with design beyond their own field, the outcome was often a chair, which is doubtless why Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Hermann Muthesius and the other architects responsible for much of the critical discourse on design in the first half of the 20th century were so preoccupied by them. So were the architects-turned-curators who produced pioneering design exhibitions and museum collections, as Philip Johnson did at MoMA in New York. In this context, why shouldn’t a furniture fair have exerted wider influence within design culture, especially one associated with such mile-stones as Droog’s and Memphis’s debuts? Equally helpful to the Salone’s cause was the support of the burgeoning industry of interiors magazines and blogs, and the ‘Home’ sections of newspapers, which depended on its exhibitors for much of their advertising revenue, giving them a vested interest in the fair’s continued success.
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