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MILAN – Bathrooms that beg indulgence. Tiles that reduce pollution. Lighting that mimics a rainbow.
Extravagance, social consciousness and innovation are strange, but alluring, bedfellows at the Milan Furniture Show and the myriad side events dedicated to design that wrap up Sunday, ending a weeklong celebration of domestic bliss in its many forms.
The burgeoning event was originally conceived to promote Italian furniture making, which is withstanding the recession better than many industries, and now encompasses also design, fashion and architecture.
And as all these disciplines converge, so does utility. More and more, pieces can be shifted from room to room, and from home to office.
Global sales of luxury furnishings last year rose 3 percent to 18.5 billion euros ($24 billion), according to a study by Bain&Company for the Altagamma association of luxury designers. That's behind the 10 percent growth of the luxury industry as a whole, largely because emerging markets like China still haven't gotten around to redecorating their interiors, which Bain says gives great growth potential to the sector.
The sprawling event gives ample space for everyone from established designers like Phillipe Starck and Ingo Maeur to unknown newcomers to showcase their new creations.
Inside a darkened room, tiny LED lights create halos that seem to bend when a hand reaches through. The effect is one of a rainbow, this one manmade with by the Tokyo/Milan design studio IXI with technology by Toshiba. Here, crystals mimic water droplets and the LED lights the sun. The one-off installation created for design week is called "Soffio," Italian for breath.
Lighting fixtures remain a central theme during design week, from the elegant to the fanciful.
The prestigious French crystal maker Baccarat engaged some of the industry's luminaries to interpret lamps, chandeliers and lighting fixtures for this year's furniture show.
Brazilian brothers Fernando and Humberto Campana incorporated rattan, bamboo and silk in a series of exotic lamps. For their Fusion collection, the encased a greenish blue crystal bulb within bell-shaped rattan shade that suggests the Maghreb. And a clear crystal bulb nests within bamboo cocoon in a table lamp that evokes Asia. Phillipe Starck designed a series of elaborate 24-light chandeliers, one featuring three glass deer heads in full antlers, while Arik Levy created a modernist 4-level frozen pattern chandelier.
Munich-based Ingo Mauer had a wholly modern interpretation on the chandelier. His "Flying Flames" evoke floating candles fashioned from red or black circuit boards with an electronic flame rendered in LEDs, each suspended from the ceiling. The 32-light creation was shown spectacularly in front of a reproduction of Leonardo's Da Vinci's "Last Supper."
No more is the bathroom strictly utilitarian. Increasingly, it is a sanctuary for indulgence, more spa than pit stop on the way to the office or out for the evening.
Design firms are taking note of trend, and have begun to enter one of the fastest-growing luxury furniture sectors, worth 2.8 billion euros globally last year.
Kartell, the Italian design leader, launched its first-ever collection intended for the bathroom, teaming up with the Swiss fixture maker Laufen and designers Ludovica and Roberto Palomba.
"I noticed more than two years ago that the bathroom is becoming more and more important," said Kartell president Claudio Luti. "Now, people want to find the comfort there that you have in the rest of the house. It becomes total living."
The Palomba design team used Laufen's latest technology, a ceramic called SaphirKeramik that is 30 percent lighter and easier to shape, to create graceful bathtubs and washbasins and sanitary fixtures.
The tub and sinks are freestanding and floor-mounted for a clean and spare look. Overflow drains can be hidden, and Kartell has designed colorful disks that fit over external faucets to incorporate utility.
The fixtures are paired with transparent cabinets, shelves, stools and towel racks in Kartell's signature transparent plastic — also in warm colors like orange and blue — that allow many configurations to customize the space.
Design is getting more ecological. Consider that it may not be the family car that is contributing the most to pollution. Buildings are responsible for 40 percent of energy consumption and one-quarter of carbon gas emissions, exceeding industry and transport sectors when it comes to pollution.
Architect Mario Cucinella has been pushing the agenda of sustainable buildings and this year presented a conceptual project with tile-maker Marazzi aimed at focusing attention on the importance of clean air. Titled "Pure Air," the 6-square-meter (7-sq. yard) cube installed at Milan's state university was filled with purified air and covered with hexagonal black stoneware tiles produced with an energy efficient process. Inside, both air and noise pollution are filtered out.
Cucinella said he wants to promote the idea that new architectural materials — like tiles that absorb humidity — can help tackle the growing problem of pollution.
"For me the idea is to say, 'Come to breath pure air,' " Cucinella said. "I am not interested in making an extravagant building to show off my architectural ego."
For those not looking to build or embark on major remodel, the design week offered other stylish, sustainable solutions.
Bologna-based designer Alessandro Israelachvili set up a temporary store filled with furnishings made from recycled objects: lamps shaped from a 1970s desk telephone, an old-fashioned electric iron and even a washing machine centrifuge.
A group of young designers from Serbia presented creations based on their interpretation of a "memory box," an exercise meant to reflect on Serbia's drive for EU membership while confronting its role in the 1990s Balkan wars. The theme was the basis for a national contest promoted by Serbia's investment and export agency to promote young Serbian designers abroad. Each of the winning creations was inspired by necessity and had a spare simplicity in both the design and execution. Most were made from wood, a resource plentiful in Serbia.
Sasha Mitrovic created "Matrioshka," a system of seven nesting wooden storage units that recall the Russian doll of the same name. From a container measuring 110X86X63 centimeters (43X34X25 inches), which can easily fit in even a compact car, emerge smaller cabinets, drawer and shelf units with painted facades that stack together to create a wall unit.
Mitrovic said he was inspired by the ingenuity of the matryoshka dolls. "You open the door, and don't know what to expect," he said.
Stevan Durovic, 25, showed off a switch-less lamp shaped, a large sphere that turns on and off when rotated. The light has a full-moon effect, accentuated by a spare dark base that recedes into the darkness. And Ana Babic, 26, was inspired by the Ferris wheel to create a whimsical, rotating storage unit consisting of five tool boxes.
Versace Home collaborated with the Haas brothers from Los Angeles to create black leather furnishings with golden accents that ooze the Versace DNA, evident in the names: The Stud Club and The Bondage Bench.
An armchair is covered with studs, reflecting Donatella Versace's rock 'n roll spirit, while a bench is wrapped in belts, which the collection notes say "plays with the sexuality of fashion and design." The legs of the pieces are clad in honeycomb-shaped brass for a flashy look even in a darkened room.
For the show, Roberto Cavalli created a melange of tableware incorporating his animal prints, while Bottega Veneta commissioned American artist Nancy Lorenz to create 25 unique boxes inspired by the cosmos. The pieces are covered in the high-quality Bottega Veneta leather, and Lorenz used materials such as gold, silver leaf and mother of pearl to create abstract images that recall outer space.
The lines between design, fashion and architecture continue to blur.
Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas shifted scale to create 11 pieces of furniture for the U.S. industrial design house Knoll. The "Tools for Life" pieces, meant for home or office, include a dynamic counter — a stack of three horizontal beams that can be transformed from a screen-like unit to cantilevered shelves and benches that invite people to sit, climb and lean in. The end result is a social/intellectual romper room.
Italian eyewear maker Safilo engaged architect Michele De Lucchi, who created a natural pinewood structure fitted with plaster casts of ancient figures wearing eyeglasses. Safilo CEO Roberto Vedovotto said the company's participation in the design fair is meant "to underline we are fully part of the world of design."