The new era of interior design is all about old ways of working, with luxury brands embracing ancient artisanal techniques at Milan Furniture Fair.

By BECKY SUNSHINE

THEMES OF NEWNESS and sustainability reigned supreme at Milan’s annual furniture extravaganza, Salone del Mobile (also known as Milan Furniture Fair), held this year in June. At the same time, many designers looked to master craftsmen and women, and the traditional techniques and materials they use, to forge new frontiers in design.

In recent years, as the meaning of luxury has been somewhat diluted by large-scale production, the meaning of craft has similarly evolved. No longer associated with a homespun aesthetic, craft is now seen as more akin to art: something handmade by highly skilled fabricators using time-honoured traditions. In this context, craft refers to objects created by generations-old artisan communities, sought out for their slow design ethos and commitment to working in the manner of their ancestors.

Jonathan Anderson, creative director of Spanish luxury house Loewe, has a keen interest in this definition of craft. The brand’s “Weave, Restore, Renew” installation at Salone used traditional artisan techniques to breathe new life and meaning into something that might have otherwise been discarded. As part of the collection unveiled in Milan, 240 baskets were sent to artisans across the world to repair by incorporating Loewe leather strings. The beautiful, painstakingly repaired baskets speak to the mastery of the weavers, and also provide a much-needed antidote to excessive consumption.

Colville’s vegetable- dyed rugs are made by Turkish women weavers using ancient traditions.

Sé, the furniture brand founded by London-based Pavlo Schtakleff, works collaboratively with external designers to create collections. A partnership with the California-born Swiss-based designer Ini Archibong has been particularly fortuitous, with voluptuous furniture pieces and a contemporary take on chandeliers coming to fruition. Recently, the brand moved its glass production from the Czech Republic to Murano, Italy. That shift has enabled Archibong to realise the ambitious 25kg hand-carved Gaea Pendant light, which was shown for the first time in Milan this year.

“Ini had worked in Murano before, I hadn’t, but we knew to make something as complex as the Gaea light we had to be there, collaborating with those artisans,” explains Schtakleff. “The principal thing I learned was to be flexible with how the material performs in the hands of the artists making these pieces. Each one is hand-carved, every detail is one movement. It’s a conversation between Ini, the master crafting it and the material.”

The move to Murano was also, as Schtakleff puts it, about “doing our bit” for an industry hit by both the dwindling desire of young people to take on these traditional skills and skyrocketing energy prices. “The crisis in Ukraine is one thing. Ovens are on all year, so running costs are threatening the viability of many businesses,” he says. “But I also wonder where the next generation of craftspeople are coming from.

“When you see what these artisans are capable of, with skills that go back to the 13th century, I want to help protect that in whatever small way we can.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Milan-based Colville, the luxury clothing and homewares brand founded in 2018 by Lucinda Chambers, former fashion director at British Vogue, and Molly Molloy, former design director at Marni. Showing for the first time at Salone, the collection featured handcrafted side tables and exquisitely coloured bowling-ball-like glass vases, as well as long-haired, hand-knotted Super Shag Angora and lambswool rugs made using 100% vegetable dyes, crafted by a community of women in Selçuk, Izmir in the west of Turkey.

Working with women’s social projects is part of Colville’s core ethos, and Molloy was keen for this community to hold onto its traditions and support itself. “We had a vintage rug in our showroom,” says Molloy. “A Turkish friend of mine identified it as being from the village of her childhood. She said it was a fading craft, but the possibility of working with these women meant keeping these skills going and creating work opportunities.

Right: The limited-edition Requiem Globe by Lee Broom takes inspiration from the drapery on ancient statues. Left: Loewe’s Milan show featured an ancient Galician fringed-straw technique called coroza. Opposite: CC-Tapis rugs created by Tibetan master weavers

The artisans can only produce a certain amount — one rug takes about a month to complete — so it slows down the process, which is such a beautiful thing. It’s important to understand how precious these traditions are. We must keep talking about them before they diminish.”

Contemporary rug company CC-Tapis, also headquartered in Milan, was founded with an aim to preserve centuries-old traditions of hand-knotting wool, silk and bamboo. Each carpet is made by a community of 400 Tibetan master weavers in their homes in Nepal. In 2015, the brand set up CC-for Education, a non-profit foundation that aims to provide a complete education to the children of weavers in Nepal, and in doing so break the education gap and empower the children to make their own choices about their future. This year, CC-Tapis launched new work by British designer Bethan Laura Wood and superstar architect Patricia Urquiola.

British designer Lee Broom’s “Divine Inspiration” installation presented six new lighting designs informed by modernist and midcentury places of worship. Of the products on show in Milan — each one so subtly beautiful — Requiem was especially moving. Made by Broom’s own hand, every piece in the Requiem series is formed by draping cloth dipped in plaster over a light source, then setting it in place with lacquer. The finished product sits somewhere between art, sculpture and couture, and brings to mind the intricate folds of clothing in some of Rodin’s works — achieved through a similar process of dipping fabric in plaster and draping it over nude sculpted figures.

Broom says the series came about as he realised he’d become less involved in the hands-on creation of his products since launching his brand 15 years ago. “I wanted to reverse things and create a limited-edition collection like my first collection in 2007, but also have more hands-on involvement than ever before,” he says. “I like the fact that whoever buys a Requiem piece will know that I made it entirely.”

Judging by this year’s Salone del Mobile, the future of contemporary design looks bright: it’s a place where luxury goods, technology and tradition can coexist, and artisan communities around the world have the tools to thrive.