Design briefing: Milan Design Week marks out future creative trends

In its deep dive into the latest furniture and design, Milan Design Week provides the ultimate barometer for upcoming interior trends in 2019, says Imogen Privett

Milan Design Week, with the impressive Salone del Mobile at its centre, has always been an early warning system for new workplace design trends – from the rise of postmodernism with the launch of the Memphis movement in 1981 to the showcasing of new materials and forms in more recent times.  Here are some highlights from Milan in 2019 for workplace professionals to watch out for, with sustainability firmly back on the agenda.

A beautiful ending

The sustainability angle in Milan was spearheaded by a thought-provoking exhibition called Beautiful Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival curated by Paola Antonelli. The exhibition explored our fractured relationship with the planet that we live on, characterising the compromised connection to our environment and increases in extreme weather and natural disasters as a ‘crisis in our humanity’. 120 architecture and design projects from the last 30 years were featured, blending existing work with new commissions including Neri Oxman’s exploration of how melanin – the pigment responsible for producing skin tone – could be applied to architecture, and new ways of upcycling waste by Formafantasme.

Antonelli argued that ‘We always feel that for design to be ethical or responsible it has to sacrifice something. Usually the something…is the sensuality or the formal elegance. But it’s not true’. It’s not an entirely hopeful horizon, with visitors encouraged to accept the eventual inevitability of human extinction due to environmental breakdown. However, life continues; it’s time to decide whether we will continue in the same old vein, or to design ourselves a ‘beautiful ending’ that will leave the next dominant species remembering us with respect.

Always on the move?

Lausanne design studio Panter & Tourron showcased a new collection of super portable furniture. The result of a research project exploring furniture solutions for a globally mobile generation, the five-piece collection comprised a table, chair, pendant light, wall light and screens. Designed to be lightweight and hold their shape using tensile strength, the whole set can be transported either flat or in a tube and weighs in at less than 20 kilograms.

Once in place, the pieces can be assembled without any specialist skills or equipment. The team drew on a multi-disciplinary range of influences, borrowing from tech, fashion and the automobile industry; the screens are made from the same recycled material used to make woven trainer uppers. This might be a new take on portable personalisation.

Under the skin

An industry has been founded on the assumption that your environment can influence the way that you think and feel; a new installation at the Salone del Mobile set out to prove it. A partnership between Google and John Hopkins University’s Arts+Mind Lab, A Space for Being presented three different rooms informed by the principles of neuroaesthetics (a field of neuroscience research being pioneered at John Hopkins). The installation comprised three rooms named ‘Essential’, ‘Vital’ and ‘Transformative’ with variations of lighting, scent, soundscape, artwork, materials and proportion to create distinct sensory experiences.

Fitted out with Muuto furniture to create a common aesthetic, the project aimed to focus visitor responses on the sensory stimuli rather than personal taste. Visitors were fitted with a specially made band which measured their physiological responses as they moved between the spaces, with a neutral ‘reset’ lobby in between the three. While the idea of Google’s all-seeing eye can provoke paranoia, data that can bolster the case for good design can surely only be a positive thing.

TV is dead, long live the TV

Streaming video content on portable devices and the incompatibility of a flat black screen with the Instagram generation’s desire to present a photogenic face to the world has hit television sales hard. 2018 was one of Samsung’s worst years on record for its television division. That notwithstanding, Milan Design Week saw the launch of several new OLED formats. What they all had in common was the repackaging of the traditional living room stalwart as a premium design object, effectively trying to leapfrog over the category altogether. These offerings included Beovision from Bang & Olufson that starts by opening its wings like a butterfly, an offering from Foster + Partners’ that unrolls from a pristine, shining box, or the invisible Vitra vitrine camouflaged as an elegant glass display frame. With a sea of black monitors still a dominating presence in more office landscapes, perhaps there are more elegant solutions in our future?

Bad designer, bad

While Milan is typically an opportunity to celebrate the best that the design world has to offer, Freitag – the Swiss accessories brand – took a slightly different approach. Their installation UNFLUENCER – de-sinning the designer invited designers and consumers alike to confess their design-related sins – or the sins of others. Visitors were prompted to write down their confession on a slip of paper, following which they could either enter a confessional booth to discuss it or attach it to a shared ‘sin’ wall.

While it seems like an entertaining novelty piece, the idea that design ‘sins’ should be openly discussed is not a trivial one; how many people have read a publicly negative post-occupancy study, for example? A FREITAG representative explained: ‘Discussions about bad design – and that means all our own flawed ideas too – wouldn’t just be funnier and more exciting; they would also be more honest and inspirational.’ There is an anonymous confession feed on Twitter if you missed the event; post with the hashtag #UNFLUENCER. See you there.

Scooters get smart

The past year or two have seen an increasing focus on the ‘last mile’ in personal transport. Originally used in the context of telecommunications, the ‘last mile’ simply refers to the last leg of someone’s travel within a city. Chances are, if you commute, then you travel the last mile on a daily basis. Although in theory it should be straightforward, there is a phenomenon called the ‘last mile problem’; public transport doesn’t always take us all the way, parking might not be available, and walking isn’t always convenient or possible. The latest on this last mile journey is PAL. Designed by Layer for the Chinese vehicle company NIO, PAL has a lightweight frame and ‘wheel speed’ steering for an intuitive ride. It’s also smart enabled, with an AI companion enabled by a Bluetooth connection to your phone; this can guide you to the fastest route home and learn from your riding style. Perhaps its most handy capability is the ability to learn your preferred routes and take you to your destination; as long as you can stand upright, that journey home after work drinks might not be so difficult after all.

And if you’re just in it for the pictures

Imogen Privett is a Senior Research Associate in WORKTECH Academy. An architectural designer and researcher, she holds degrees in both History and Architecture. Imogen writes a monthly column on new design trends for the Academy.