I clearly remember my first visit to Zona Tortona soon after it started in 2001, the first year I exhibited in Milan.
I had only known local design events, but in Zona Tortona, part of the famed Milan Furniture Fair, there were football-match-sized crowds milling around the street in their thousands. There was an air of subdued expectation and bubbling excitement. All along the street we could see small shows—some impromptu on the pavement, some in rented shops or sheds. Design group Sputnik had laser beams piercing green fog, a wool-lined empty car body cocoon, and projections of copulating frogs on the raw brick wall above.
This was the new alternative, the salone fuori, the creative antidote to the big business of selling furniture inside the official trade fair. It was where the press trolled through both amazing and awful exhibits, hoping to be inspired by exciting new ideas and trends. They all wanted to be the first to spot the new Tom Dixon. The small and independent design companies can move fast and instigate new creative ideas long before the big boys can set up their production lines.
It didn't matter that the work was unresolved or unfinished, as long as it pushed boundaries. It was like the frenzied spawning grounds of fish, where myriad new ideas swirled in profusion with only a few destined to survive and grow. But the mediocre was necessary because within it lay the few gems—the future of the industry. This was every designer’s chance to catch an influential eye, and every manufacturer's chance to catch new talent.
Now, ten years on, the creative atmosphere of Zona Tortona is dying: strangled by the cold hand of corporatism. The press—the lifeblood of the Milan Fair—are casting their net elsewhere to new, more edgy districts such as Ventura Lambrate. There is less and less to write about in Zona Tortona because many of the dull goods on display can already be seen in showrooms around the world. Large corporates have moved in, gobbling up the spaces at inflated prices, trying to get some of the cachet of the old Zona Tortona to rub off onto their commercial image. But in doing so they’re killing the elusive thing they seek.
As if aware of how they are failing, they desperately fan the fading spark by revving up the display itself in increasingly vacuous exhibitions. Where once we strolled through barely converted factory buildings, we now have to queue to register at large reception desks staffed by glamorous girls. We edge past bouncers in shiny suits to enter a lavishly designed and irresponsibly profligate space full of light shows, video screens and thumping music. Somewhere in there we might see a boring product like a floor tile or spa bath, forlornly stranded and out of its depth. This is no longer the fertile spawning ground that is so important to the lifeblood of the industry; it is more like the demise of an infertile species.
It didn't need to be this way. Instead of shunting out the creatives, big businesses could have come up with mutually beneficial proposals, where their backing funded creative partnerships. In the process they would have acquired some street cred and at the same time, designers would have been given some of the opportunities they sought. Sadly, it rarely happens. There is so much potential wasted. After exhibiting at the fair this year, I’m doubting whether I’ll return for 2012. The pervasive corporate dullness does not help me, and it drives away the very people I need to make contact with.
David Trubridge is a contemporary furniture designer based in Hawkes Bay. His latest exhibition at the Hastings Art Gallery is a two-metre diameter wall light called Tipu. The light, made from a new material comprised of plant-derived PLA plastic and flax fibre, was specially developed as part of a research project by Scion and the Biopolymer network in Rotorua