Composite steel-bar furnishings from the Belgian design studio Muller Van Severen on display in the Lambrate district in Milan.

For those who see the Milan furniture fair as a cultural event, and are less interested in the ups and downs of the contract furniture business, it’s all about the fringe. Away from the wheeler-dealing hordes of the Saloni, the city blossoms with design exhibitions that are less commercial and more searching, more propositional. This year, however, there seemed to be less of the curated, thematic shows that have made Milan so stimulating in the past.

Only a few years ago, the area around Via Tortona would have been the barometer of the week, with young designers filling derelict warehouses with experimental work, and the streets thronging with visitors. But gentrification and the influx of giant corporate brands from Ford to Samsung have killed off Tortona as a place of interest. Instead, the shows staged by design schools and recent graduates have moved northeast, to the Lambrate district.

Dutch and Belgian designers have a particularly strong presence in Lambrate, with shows by the Design Academy Eindhoven, the Hague’s Royal Academy of Art, and the Belgian art centre Z33. Sharing a warehouse with Eindhoven’s graduates, the young Belgian design studio Muller Van Severen stood out with its old-school industrial minimalism. These composite steel-bar pieces combining armchairs, bookshelves, and lamps have an appealingly raw elegance. Around the corner, meanwhile, in Z33’s Design Beyond Production show, the work eschews aesthetics for social commentary. London-based duo Cohen Van Balen exhibited 75 Watt, a video piece about a fictional production line in China where the products only exist to put the workers through the moves of a choreographed dance routine. The piece begs the question, which is the product, the object on the conveyor belt or the dance?

Back in the centre of town, at La Rinascente department store, there was a refreshingly non-European take on design. The Afrofuture show, curated by Beatrice Galilee, collected craftsmen, architects, and magazine makers from across Africa in a series of talks and workshops. There were Campari-shaped coffins by the Ghanaian Kane Kwei Carpentry Workshop as well as representatives of the Lagos edition of the Maker Faire. Among these, Cyrus Kabiru’s sunglasses made of odd bits of electronics and other junk were as popular as ever.

The Rossana Orlandi gallery is always a safe bet for work by cultivated young designers, and this year’s crop was no exception. The Dutch duo Scholten & Baijings showed two sets of brightly colourful and highly graphic glassware and crockery, one for Hay and the other for Georg Jensen. Similarly chromatic but less bold was South Korean designer Wonmin Park’s cast-resin furniture. Here the translucent pastels fade into each other in a way that makes a virtue of ambiguity and uncertainty.

Otherwise, much as it was at the Saloni itself, the story of the fringe was one of Italian heritage and back catalogs. Domus magazine dipped into its archives for a show of Ramak Fazel’s memorable portraits of famous designers, many of them Milanese (Castiglioni, Mari, Magistretti, and others). It was yet another reminder of the generation that made Milan the design capital that it is today. While across the city, Fabrica, Benetton’s design institute, was exhibiting work by its young apprentices inspired by Italian heritage sites. Milan is rightly proud of its heritage, but how long can the fair keep trading on the glory days? The answer is as long as it can still lure the international designers that make it a genuine crossroads for ideas and not just an advertisement for itself.