Milan Design Week 2024: Everything Everywhere All at Once

Walking around Milan Design Week, I recall a quote of philosopher Guy Debord, who wrote in Society of the spectacle: “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”

What Debord could not have imagined in his time is that most people in 2024 are armed with a mobile phone, a device which is not only a camera, but also capable of transmitting images and writing in an instant to all corners of the world. However, what was once to be thought of a technology to enable unrestricted democratic and global communication doesn’t happen just like that, and so the images most seen went through gatekeepers with their own interests, through the phones of influencers and Social Media algorithms.

Milan Design Week is, in a way, the apex of what designers could wish for: Design is everywhere. So much so that during the event, many Milanese leave their city, renting out their apartments, ateliers, warehouses, swimming pools and any other space you can think of to companies showcasing their designs.

Some of these have been spectacular, some quite good, and some not so much. There was no way to know in advance as the length of the queues in front of some of the installations was disconnected from the quality of what was on show. In an event of this size with so many foreign visitors – over 300.000 – many are overwhelmed, so they queue up where the most marketing took place, where the brand was most advertised, or simply where the queue is the longest. At the same time, emerging design and work with genuine quality often went barely noticed.

Together with Milan Design Week, the Salone del Mobile happened in Milano, Vinitaly in Verona, and the Biennale Arte in Venice, all physically lined up within a short stretch of 300 km along the autostrada A4. During this period, room prices in hotels shoot up to 1000 Euros and more per night, and yet nearly all accomodations are fully booked.

A logic of concentration happens here, reducing all interest to one area and one short stretch in time. This kind of concentration happens in all of Italy, where villages and entire regions are dying out for lack of infrastructure and economic opportunity, while apartments in the economic capital Milano are reaching all-time high rental prices.

This concentration and monopolization in one spot is a concerning phenomenon in the late stage of developed market economies. It was not always so. Italy as a nation is younger than the United States, becoming the Kingdom of Italy only in 1861. Before, the peninsula consisted of many independent areas – kingdoms, duchys and city-states, each with their own economies, partly competing and partly collaborating with each other. Venice lured silk weavers from Padova to build it’s own silk production, Venice and Genoa fiercely competed for shipping and international trade, Firenze became the center of banking and took over Siena, and the Kingdom of Sicily, an agricultural power, collaborated with Genoa for trade, but was impoverished once it was made dependent on the banks of Firenze. Rome and most of central Italy was under the direct rule of the Pope and was taken over by the Kingdom of Italy only in 1870.

After WWII, Italian manufacturers keen to rebuild their industries turned to designers and architects to create products for the world stage. This close connection between creatives and manufacturers mirrored the Italian crafts guilds of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and it was the driver of what would in time become the worldwide recognition of Italian design. It happened in the places where industry started before the war: In northern Italy, closer to the wealthier countries of Europes North and in proximity to Switzerland, Germany and Austria. Industry centered around Torino with Olivetti and Fiat, and around Milano with Campari, Brionvega, Pirelli and many furniture companies.

The Salone trade fair unwittingly mimicked the medieval landscapes of Italy: The large companies had large booths, closed to all sides like castles, while emerging and small companies had small, open booths, like the idyllic farms and villages of Italy ready to receive weary travellers. Also Milano Design Week echoed pre-modern times. Lighting company Flos exhibited at Palazzo Visconti, Loewe at Palazzo Citterio, Porsche at Palazzo Clerici, Armani at Palazzo Orsini. The brand aristocrats of our times are clearly drawn to the environments of the old aristocrats.

Most notable was the installation in the Water House in via Giacosa, a 1920’s building in Trotter Park, showcasing a creative use of disused municipal buildings. The installation by MAD architects in the University Pharmacy Courtyard was remarkable. Artemest presented the works of six interior designers in the magnificent Residenza Vignale. The interiors created a sense of creative connection between past and present, a more inspiring proposition than the mono-brand presentations in other historic residences.

For visitors, the super-concentration in Milan creates a sense of permanently being overwhelmed and short of time. That helps big brands on merit of their easy recallability while making it difficult for smaller companies and emerging designers to get noticed. Milan, to quote a movie title, seems like Everything Everywhere All at Once. Smaller, more considered, and better distributed events are needed to offset this super-concentration and reflect the multi-polarity of the contemporary design world.

I was once again reminded of contemporary super-concentration when passing through Venice, where guest rooms for visitors now outnumber rooms for Venetians and the city tries to stem the unrelenting tourist flow with entrance fees. Another thought of Guy Debord came to mind: “The images detached from every aspect of life fuse in a common stream in which the unity of this life can no longer be reestablished. Reality considered partially unfolds, in its own general unity, as a pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation”. In that sense, Venice has become a victim of it’s own image. The unique beauty the city cultivated over centuries has, in the sense of Walter Benjamin, been replicated so often that it lost its meaning. Venice is becoming Veniceland, an entertainment park with fancy sights, fast food and entry fees.

To end with Guy Debord: “The spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable and inaccessible. It says nothing more than “that which appears is good, that which is good appears. The attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact it already obtained by its manner of appearing without reply, by its monopoly of appearance.”