On a cool April night in 2007, I found myself in a dangerous crush of bodies trying to cross a narrow pedestrian bridge near Via Tortona in Milan. This mob wasn’t rushing to a World Cup final or fleeing a natural catastrophe. It was heading toward a group of parties celebrating new pieces of furniture. Welcome to the annual Salone del Mobile, the rock star of design fairs that celebrates its 50th birthday this month in Milan.
It wasn’t always that way, however. In fact, the show started off more humbly than many of today’s attendees might imagine. Salone was founded in 1961 by Tito Armellini, along with about a dozen other leading furniture manufacturers based near Milan. With 328 exhibitors and 12,000 visitors (compared with over 2,500 exhibitors and 300,000 attendees in 2010), the first fair emphasized traditional Chipperfield- and Louis XV–inspired designs, not the modern pieces associated with it today. The organizers hoped to give small- and medium-size companies the opportunity to sell products worldwide, as well as to a larger Italian market.
The Italians had tough competition. When the show first opened its doors on September 24, 1961, Scandinavia was the dominant force in the European furniture market and Germany’s Cologne Furniture Fair (founded in 1949) was the leading international design show. “The Italian furniture manufacturers were in awe of their Scandinavian colleagues and wanted to bring to Italy the same sense of universal style but also the same sense of government-like organization of the industrial sector,” says Paola Antonelli, the Milan–born senior curator in MoMA’s department of architecture and design.
In 1965, however, a significant shift occurred. In an attempt to break the Scandinavian stranglehold, Salone’s founders added a select number of companies that were showing growth in the field of design, including Cassina, Boffi, and Kartell. This was the birth of Pavilion 30, the epicenter of the fair dedicated to modern design, where Joe Colombo, Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, and Gaetano Pesce, among others, pushed the boundaries of exhibition design and the use of plastics in furniture. “Italian furniture manufacturing has always been so important in the second half of the 20th century because the companies are all midsize and family-based, and so they can take some risks,” Antonelli says. “When you are a gigantic multinational company you cannot churn out a prototype without spending an enormous amount of money in overhead.” Often, these companies may have known their subcontractors for generations, she adds. These relationships created an atmosphere where designers from around the globe could get their designs finally produced in Italy.
The 1970s and 1980s were boom years for the show — the biennial Eurocucina kitchen expo and Euroluce lighting show launched in 1974 and 1976, respectively, and in 1982 the Eimu office exhibition followed. In 1987, Salone organizer Cosmit won the Compasso d’Oro, Italy’s most prestigious design prize, which it won again in 1998 for corporate identity designed by Massimo Vignelli of New York City–based Vignelli Associates. Vignelli, a native Milanese, worked with many of the designers that made the scene in Milan. He only wishes the fair had a more lasting year-round effect. “Milan is a rather provincial city,” he says, “but there are two weeks during the year when it’s Salone del Mobile and the fashion show, when it really becomes an international-level kind of a city. That’s how it should be all of the time.”
Many trace the show’s continued success to the move from September to April in 1991, giving it access to the entire exhibition grounds, or to the decision in 1999 to start organizing major cultural events in conjunction with the fair. The biggest revitalization for the show, though, came with the move in 2006 to the 2.1-million-square-foot glass-canopied Rho-Pero fairgrounds, designed by Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas.
In the end, Salone wouldn’t exist if it didn’t help sell products. “Showing there is just part of my business,” says American designer Todd Bracher, who has new pieces for Horm, Swarovski, and Humanscale at this year’s fair. “I don’t see it as a ‘wow’ but instead a necessary and vital part of growing my clients’ business, as well as my own.”