Image courtesy of Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec
Last week, as it does every April, the design world descended on Milan for the furniture fair, accompanied by thousands of journalists and an army of PRs. As the designers and other VIPs moved from champagne reception to champagne reception in chauffeur-driven cars, you could have been forgiven for thinking that they do very well for themselves, thank you. But on the 50th anniversary of the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, what better time to reveal that the vast majority of them can barely pay the rent? Edgar Allan Poe might have been thinking of the Milan furniture fair when he wrote, "All that we see or seem / Is but a dream within a dream".
In the endless exhibition halls at the Rho fairgrounds, 2,700 furniture brands exhibited their wares over half a million square metres. Many of these lamps, chairs and tables are prototypes produced by designers for free in the hope they will make their money back in royalties. Only the lucky few ever do. I spoke to one young designer who has five items in production with a respected Italian manufacturer – no small achievement. "My royalty cheque last year came to €600," he said. "Half a month's rent."
It is not uncommon for manufacturers to commission exciting young talents to populate their exhibition stands with eye-catching pieces that never hit the market. They may be widely published, win awards and earn the brand a reputation for innovation – and still not go into production. In that case, the designer won't make a penny. Most of the time they don't even get advances. "Ah, but think of the exposure, the PR value," the manufacturers argue. But without ample remuneration, designers will keep passing their lack of earnings down the food chain to their unpaid interns. As the British designer Ilse Crawford puts it: "Designers often end up being voluntary workers for millionaires."
The trouble is that the royalty system was introduced in the 1950s, when Italy was still the furniture manufacturer to the world. In those days, the risks of a royalty-only payment were worth taking. With an entire country to modernise and a rising middle class, a piece of modern design could shift hundreds of thousands of units. But with the advent of cheap manufacturing in China and budget retailers such as Ikea, Italian furniture is now a luxury industry. Not only do they sell less, there's more competition. And yet no up-and-coming designer would dream of turning down an opportunity from a manufacturer, because there are hundreds of others waiting to take their place if they do.
A decade ago, the idea that manufacturers could pay their designers in PR was still credible. A mogul such as Giulio Cappellini could launch the careers of a Jasper Morrison or Marc Newson in the 80s, or the Bouroullec brothers in the 90s, simply by giving them the nod. These days, there is so much emerging talent that companies flit from one hot young designer to the next on a yearly basis. In the fashion-driven novelties market, product cycles are becoming shorter and shorter – another reason why the royalty system (the designer gets 3% of the wholesale price) doesn't pay off. Eero Saarinen, designer of the classic Tulip chairs for Knoll in the 1950s, made only five chairs in his career, and all are still in production. The Munich-based superstar Konstantin Grcic can boast that many this year alone (if you include a stool and a sofa).
It is no wonder that designers see what they exhibit in Milan as marketing – what Mailer called "advertisements for myself" – in the hope that exposure will lead to a job designing an interior, or a bathroom tile, or if they're lucky a limited-edition gallery piece. Because none of this is sustainable – not financially, let alone environmentally – and the facts of the matter seemed to hit home this year. If 2010 will be remembered as the time the Salone's attendance was decimated by an Icelandic volcano, 2011 was the year journalists quizzed manufacturers about their payment structures, posting whatever they could dig up on Twitter.
Milan may be the annual blowout of a multibillion pound industry, but it's a mirage, and not just for the designers. The embossed invitations of lavish parties are often fig leaves over the manufacturers' own awkward finances. But let's not forget that it's also a major cultural event, and there were artefacts worth mentioning. Londoners Barber Osgerby produced a chair for Vitra that wasn't just about styling. The Tip Ton has two seating positions, one tipped forward for upright working and the other tipped back for a more relaxed posture. Designed specifically for schools, this stackable, durable chair might have graced classrooms across the country before the government's axe came down on the Building Schools for the Future programme.
It was also good to see the Bouroullecs' Aim Lamp go into production with Flos. These vine-like spotlights began life as a limited-edition piece for Galerie Kreo in Paris, and while the industry has sometimes viewed gallery pieces as extravagances, for once the argument that they are pre-production experiments turned out to be true. Similarly, I was surprised to see a 1970s classic by the 80-year-old Alessandro Mendini revived by Magis. His Proust Armchair, a rococo heap daubed in pointillist brushstrokes, was an icon of postmodernism, and here it is reincarnated as an industrial plastic chair.
Beyond the fair, among the hundreds of fringe events across the city, a pair of far more youthful Italians were garnering attention. The Botanica collection by Formafantasma, who are actually based in the Netherlands, was a definite highlight. Their installation at the Spazio Rossana Orlandi showed an extraordinary series of vases and other objects whose pretext was that the age of oil-derived plastics had never happened. Made of plant-based polymers and odd materials such as bois durci (a 19th-century recipe of sawdust mixed with animal blood), the collection evoked a lost Amazonian civilisation discovered by Darwinian anthropologists. It's an atavistic eco-fantasy, done with flair.
Finally, the show by recent graduates of the Design Academy Eindhoven demonstrated again that no other school consistently produces such imaginative work. Massoud Hassani's wind-powered anti-landmine ball was inspired by his native Afghanistan, a country rumoured to have more mines than people. Even more impressive was Dirk van der Kooij's use of a retired production robot from a Chinese factory to print out chairs made of plastic from old fridges.
Eindhoven's students are going places. The question is: where? As design schools churn out ever more graduates, their future looks ever more precarious. There are some important lessons to be learned, though. Today's designers need to be tougher business people; they need to negotiate harder and hold on to their copyright. But if there is one moral to this story it is this: design is a way of life that so many people want to participate in, they'll do it whether or not there's a viable living in it. Even some of the manufacturers are haemorrhaging cash to hold on to this