A Volvo interior design friend (there were five from that studio – there cannot be any other place with so many car designers gathered at the same time) used this expression: “We designers are like sponges. We walk around here day after day, sucking up impressions… but we never know what we have accumulated before we get home and someone squeezes us."
For those going to see the furniture at the annual Furniture Show – I Saloni – at the fairground just outside Milan, it was business as usual. In town, at the numerous related ‘Fuori salone’ events and presentations, you could trace a new mentality.
'Shared house,’ ‘Co-living,’ ‘Let’s make room for life,’ ‘Smart home’ - slogans with a fairly homogenous message describing the works presented, were more plentiful than ever and very often based on political or sustainable ideas.
Cutting edge technology has its natural place here, ranging from the Samsung Galaxy 8 launch to the most advanced ‘smart city’ proposals. Meanwhile, 3D was very much the theme both at Autodesk, with examples ranging from complete car chassis to beautiful textiles for party dresses, and at Dassault whose theme was again ‘Design in the age of Experience’. Elsewhere, Officine Ruggenti have even sourced enough of the old Fiat 500s to make a business plan out of re-engineering them into modernised electric city cars (purists need not apply).
But at the other end of the scale, more bikes were present than ever before. Ikea had their own range, while minimalist mobile and digital detox purveyor Punkt collaborated with RCA and Ecal in Lausanne - and DAE in Eindhoven - to present three proposals. Offbeat local producer Agnelli Milano brought their contraptions to the show as well, tastefully inserting modern engineering into a classic style.
It was also fairly obvious that the new luxury is exquisite workmanship. Of course we still have brands like Fendi Casa’s “Luxury Living” (Chris Bangle had done an armchair for them this year, and they do slightly vulgar collections like Bentley Home or Bugatti Home), but the really pared-down pieces, where you have to look closely and preferably have some personal knowledge to appreciate the difficulty, appear everywhere. Like a simple chair made by a boatbuilder with 200 years of experience in joining pieces of wood. You may have trouble explaining the attraction, but as long as the user knows what it is and what it represents, that should be enough.
One of Fiat-heir Lapo Elkann’s companies is Garage Italia Customs, where they have done some pretty outrageous styling on production cars, often with the help of wild Alcantara colours for the interior. For this year’s Design Week, Garage Italia used a BMW i3 and i8 as the basis for what they called 'MemphisStyle' cars, celebrating the Memphis Group founded in 1981 by Ettore Sottsass as the absolute antithesis to functionalism and any commercial logic. To cement the project’s authenticity they hooked up with Michele de Lucchi, one of the founding members of the Memphis Group – and the cars’ oblique, horizontal and vertical lines along with hypnotic patterns and vibrant colours were spot-on as a result. So spot-on, in fact, that Adrian van Hooydonk, who came down from Munich, praised Elkann and co’s work, giving Garage Italia Customs some extra kudos.
These wacky BMWs weren’t exactly on-trend colour-wise, though. Colours trended towards soft, foggy pinks, blues, greys, or brown/beige combinations, with a finish akin to applied face powder. Surfaces were often coated to give a soft touch. There were traces of Alcantara again, but in reality there was a surprising variety of materials on show this year; fish skin, paper, weaved metal strings, rattan… and isn’t it high time to include concrete in car interiors? You see it everywhere else.
Citroën surprised in a different way by showing a ‘C4 Cactus Unexpected’ concept in collaboration with the Italian design company Gufram - who had simply revived their Metacactus idea from 2012 and applied the themes to the interior and exterior of the funky hatchback. It nevertheless worked as an installation.
Land Rover did a much straighter, but no less impressive presentation of their own. The new Range Rover Velar was the theme, of course, with a collection of art photos, one complete car and a presentation of collaborators’ work such as Kvadrat textiles and Native Union tech accessories.
Speaking of collaborations, there was also a clear theme of ‘being together’ – highlighted particularly by one of the most talked about presentations this year: Tom Dixon’s collaboration with Ikea. The main product, a modular sofa, was called ‘Delaktig,’ Swedish for ‘taking part.’ To that end, it was designed as an open platform, meaning anyone can move parts around, change the seating, create add-ons… in a way, ideas we have seen in proposals for autonomous car interiors and the same philosophy as cars like the Smart and the Peugeot 1007. Ikea’s collaboration with outside designers (this year they also teamed up with Danish HAY) mirrors what H&M has done in fashion for many years and we may have seen the first signs of car manufacturers thinking the same way.
Mini demonstrated another kind of luxury. Together with architecture practice SO-IL they presented Mini Living, a tiny home prototype that pushes space to the limit while adapting to the demands of urban living. A three-person prefab home was made with a modular metal frame covered in a light-permeable skin that filters and neutralises the air. The lantern-like house sat on a plot of just 50 square metres in the Tortona district. The public queued for hours to experience it.
Mini is one of the car companies you can count on when it comes to ‘Fuori Salone' presentations. If only their cars still focused on intelligent packaging within a small footprint so fastidiously…
Lexus is another. They celebrated their first ten years here with their usual mix of stunning art installations and typically eye-opening results from student competitions. This year the students were asked to “create a whole new value and experience by harmonising incompatible elements”. Some excellent projects resulted and many were very close in feel to other themes we found all over Milan, like the “Having nothing yet possessing everything” entry: a capsule for mobile living.
Appearances by companies like Land Rover, Mini or Lexus have obvious marketing overtones, but there are more subtle messages around too. Automotive interior supplier Toyota Boshoku had designed an all-white luxurious “time and space” lounge, recreating the ideal automobile ride comfort in a home (like the Ford crib for adults). Or, for even more zen, transmission specialist Aisin built their very arty exhibition around the ‘zero emission’, ‘connected’ and ‘automated driving’ themes - the latter achieved with the help of a large oily pool with a special fluid, where a tyre’s contact patch appeared in 3D, forming sweeping arches before falling flat again.
Meditation time in the hustle and bustle that is Milan these days.
Because, in the end, the common thread that strings these themes together is humanity. Taking time for yourself, making decisions yourself, appreciating the human input of others and even being closer to each other. As technology marches on towards 3D-printed, electronically-driven autonomy - perhaps even because of it - we seem to be becoming ever more aware of what humanity there is to be found, or where we fit in among the machines. You see it in the more organic surface finishes, collaborative projects, the focus on quality workmanship, the configurable products and a widespread sentiment of shared experiences (in person, not just on Facetwitstergram).
It now falls to car designers to squeeze their mental sponges until these ideas form into a generation of cars that, despite being packed to the hilt with gadgetry and electronic assistance, still feel tangibly human.