Milan Design Week 2024: the fine line between art and design

Chronicles of peaceful incursions of design researches and practices into the world of contemporary art (and vice versa)

Once again, April wins the prize for the most intense month within the Italian artistic panorama. The Milanese art week (8-14 April), centered on the contemporary art fair Miart, immediately gave way to Salone del Mobile and Fuorisalone (15-21 April), while almost 300km away the inauguration of the sixtieth edition of the Venice Art Biennale was taking place. Insiders have cursed the crazy idea of overlapping these two giants that have been driving the sector of art and that of design for years, forcing many people to choose between the Italian and European capital of design and the biennial exhibition of the Venetian lagoon (which will however continue until November, but we all know that being there during the pre-opening days is a symbol of a certain status quo within the art world).

On the wave of a growing trend that began a few years ago, Milan Design Week 2024 has provided Italian and international audiences with many opportunities in which the dialogue between design and art has been particularly close. There’s a wide circuit made up of exhibitions and cultural initiatives spread throughout Milan, from the heart of the city to its outskirts. As every year, collectible design galleries showcased a wide and diversified offering where the boundaries between design, furniture, decor and art are blurred. Both Nilufar and Rossana Orlandi, sacred monsters of the Italian design capital, presented personal exhibitions of the Como-based design duo Draga&Aurel, among the most relevant exponents of art-design in the world. Art-design is a trend born about ten years ago that merges the functionality of design with the codes of art, resulting in objects that transcend standard categorizations. In the premises of Via della Spiga, among historicized designers and contemporary talents, the curated selection by Nina Yashar, founder of Nilufar, unveiled a few gems halfway between art and design. Arthur Duff presented a new series of neon luminous sculptures, while Lola Montes unveiled her latest creation Ceramic relief paintings, that draw inspiration from the idiosyncratic works of Lucio Fontana and the classical ceramics of Luca della Robbia. The atrium of Nilufar Depot, a former silverware factory located in the Farini neighborhood, served as the stage for 12 Chairs For Meditation by Andres Reisinger, the Argentine digital artist famous for his dreamlike scenarios. The installation, designed to encourage visitors to partake in introspective meditation that created an experience detached from the constraints of time, was composed of a new collection of chairs adorned in pristine white, a 6×6 mosaic depicting twelve levitating apples – this number traditionally represents perfection and cosmic balance -, and a bespoke musical piece composed by the artist.

Andres Reisinger, 12 Chairs For Meditations, Ph. Alejandro Ramirez Orozco

A few steps from the historic home of Nina Yashar’s gallery in Via della Spiga, the cutting-edge exhibition space Circolo has created an interesting dialogue between the pioneering works of international contemporary artists – Mandy El-Sayegh and Tracey Emin – and the bold voices of four Italian designers: CARA \ DAVIDE (Cara Judd and Davide Gramatica), Duccio Maria Gambi, Marco Guazzini and TIPSTUDIO (Imma Matera and Tommaso Lucarini). With Don’t Get Too Comfortable, the collector, curator and founder of Circolo, Nicole Saikalis Bay, delved into the research of contemporary designers who, through shapes and materials, challenge conventional notions of functionality and aesthetics. As shown for instance in the Tessere collection by CARA/DAVIDE who have established a particular visual rhythm of the surface through the traditional mosaic technique, or in the Stress Limit project by TIPSTUDIO that investigates the limits of matter. In the surrounding rooms, the public was invited to discover the works of exceptional international artists such as Nari Ward, Kim Yun Shin, Lee Bul, Catherine Opie and many others, in a collective exhibition in collaboration with the leading international gallery Lehmann Maupin at its first presentation in Milan. The Masterpieces (and Tulips) exhibition curated by research-based gallery Movimento, famous for its original and innovative installations, and hosted by the BKV Fine Art gallery, revolved precisely around the role of collectible design that should “blur the boundaries between art and design”, for many a mere simplification of a much broader realm of creativity. Masterpieces (and Tulips), by bringing together a colorful and diversified bouquet of contemporary designers, sculptures, paintings and books from the 18th and 19th centuries, and contemporary works by prominent artists such as Lucio Fontana and Mario Schifano, in fact aimed at providing visitors with the unique opportunity to delve into each discipline through the lens of the other, challenging preconceptions and prejudices. It was a beautiful journey between past and present, and between classicism and the most extreme frontier of contemporary design, that we hope will open the way for new contaminations and further experiments.

Galleria Gracis, Lauren Thompson, ph.Giovanni Varlonga

A sophisticated combination of modern and contemporary art identifies the activity of the Gracis Gallery, which on the occasion of the MDW hosted the solo show Tetrastella – Geometry in Design by Lauren Thompson, a designer and artist based in Los Angeles. With a solid background in the understanding and use of materials, Thomposon presented a series of granite sculptural works, which in their smallest configurations can also function as coffee tables. Tetrahedral structures with splendid colored veins that outline the perfect union between the typical eccentricity of nature and the structured rigor created by man, were placed in an immersive environment with mirrored walls that conveyed the feeling of being in a science fiction scenario. A completely different atmosphere pervades Fondazione ICA Milano – Istituto Contemporaneo per le Arti which on 10 April, in conjunction with Miart, inaugurated the solo exhibition Formafantasma. La Casa Dentro. In this exhibition, Formafantasma investigates through their sophisticated lyrism the theme of collective and individual memory in a nostalgic and warm return to the past. Criticizing the rigid dogmas of modernism, such as rationality and sobriety, the Italian duo has created an eclectic collection of furniture in which the metal tubing meets decorative motifs, silk ruffles, flowers and embroidery, creating a striking contrast.

When talking about eclecticism in contemporary design, we cannot fail to mention Ronan Bouroullec, who for years, alongside his career as a designer, has carried out a flourishing artistic activity linked to painting and drawing. For Mutina, a famous Italian tile manufacturing company that for years has been carrying out an artistic project that goes well beyond the seven days of the Fuorisalone, he created Osso & Bottone, a tile collection whose shapes give life to an evocative play of solids and voids, and a series of wall sculptures (Adagio) and vases that fall into the broader project Editions, which combines the authenticity of the artisanal production of ceramic objects with a contemporary look and feel. The installation developed in the spaces of the Casa Mutina showroom, in the garden and in the loft of the adjacent Spazio Cernaia, where visitors found themselves catapulted into an ethereal and elegant white space. A sort of Eden where the silhouettes of vases and wall decorations designed by Bouroullec – some already included in the permanent collection of the Center Pompidou, Paris – lost their functionality to be simply admired (and of course photographed).

Gaetano Pesce, Nice to See You, installation view

Finally, the Nice to see you exhibition, the last of the late master of Italian and international design Gaetano Pesce, was a jubilation of colours, shapes and materials. The entire retrospective within the illustrious setting of the revered Pinacoteca Ambrosiana placed its roots in a belief that accompanied Pesce for much of his career, namely that nowadays objects must not only satisfy the qualities of functionality and form, but also bear a message. Clear examples of this statement are, among others, UP 5&6 (1969), Friendship Lamp (2023) – a handshake displayed under an ancient representation of the crucified Jesus -, Il Pugno (2023) – two large chained hands clasped in a fist – and Il Vaso Più Indispensabile (2020) – a vase shaped as the womb of a woman, a clear metaphor of motherhood. Drawing from the codes and languages of his research, Pesce presented iconic pieces and new works with a double meaning, “[…] one that is of use and one intended to make you think”. What if the last great Italian design master has finally put an end, once and for all, to the age-old conflict between functionality and signifiance?

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Agnese Torres
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