Tamar Shafrir. Design Discourse vs. Milan Design Week

The Salone Internazionale del Mobile di Milano is widely considered one of the most important showcases of furniture and design worldwide. The largest of its kind, it is the annual meeting place for anyone who has or wants to carve out a spot for him/herself in the design world. But, aside from the contacts made, the deals done, the objects sold, can Milan also claim to advance design thinking? Does Milan also shape design discourse and critique for the year to come?

In addressing the key question, “What does Milan do for design discourse?”, a more salient question appears: “What does design discourse do for Milan?” It is fashionable amongst elite critical circles to dismiss the Salone del Mobile as a proverbial haystack and to identify a few niche objects (often prototypes, produced in limited editions in a context of educational backing, public funding, or gallery sponsorship) from the far reaches of the Fuorisalone as the “needles” that merit further attention and praise.

This stance, however, assumes a fertile Garden of Eden full of design objects, functioning merely as fodder for an insatiable yet fastidious critical class. Perhaps the critics must be reminded of two things: one, they also create a product – the text itself, often sold as a fledgling ship weighted upon the ballast of advertising; and two, that for all the crises in the publishing industry, for individual practitioners it remains more financially viable than design itself (where capital costs are prohibitive). When design discourse praises unsustainable working models and rarefied objects, it privileges a detached stance (much like its own) that is possible for the very few. In terms of the industry of design, contacts, deals, and sales are as much the fuel as concepts, but these transactional parameters are rarely subject to the same analysis as aesthetic references.

In a context of financial crisis (in which material waste nevertheless abounds), how can critique engage better with the “bread-and-butter” of the design industry in order to narrate and investigate the entire chain – from the procurement of raw materials and the negotiation of the design process to the machinations of marketing and the technicalities of disposal – to understand what objects really do once the honeymoon period of the pristine showroom expires?

Z33 Debates is a series of in-depth interviews, which take place at Atelier Clerici during the Milan Design Week 2014. With the interviews, Z33 rethinks what design can mean in and for the future. What can design mean for future thinking? What is the value of design exhibitions and biennials? Is there room for a European Design Parliament – a Manifesta for design? What is the role of mentorship and collaboration in design? And, finally, what can Milan Design Week Milan mean for the development of design discourse and critique?

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