• Milan furniture fair: A solid showing

    For many in the world of home decor, the carnival of design that is the Milan furniture fair presents a very clear mission: Make a statement.
    Just as on the runways of the city's famed fashion shows, the nearly 2.3 million square feet of furniture booths at the Salone Internazionale del Mobile are vital stages for designers and manufacturers to say something, in this case about how we might live better at home: Celebrate the beautiful, question convention, find artistry in simplicity, adopt new technology, live greener. Be bold!
    At this year's fair, which closed Sunday, the collections of 2011 made plenty of statements. Most of them ended with periods rather than exclamation points.

    The number of new collections premiering from major companies noticeably declined from 2010, with many exhibitors emphasizing last year's designs in new sizes or colors. The ecstatic palettes that punctuated 2010 have been subdued for 2011. Spirited patterns florals, geometrics and free-form abstracts disappeared almost entirely, replaced by a striking barrage of solid hues, as though manufacturers expect consumers to approach decorating as an exercise in color-blocking.
    That all might sound like a collective downer, but it wasn't. Whereas the furniture fair seemed to hail the end of the recession last year with a surge of work that almost dared customers to celebrate, the 2011 collections showed some much appreciated restraint. Couture looks were made more accessible, manufacturers renewed their commitment to function, and in many cases, line refinements produced furniture that more people might actually want to put in their homes. Milan got real.
    At the Moroso booth, the Paper Planes chairs that premiered last year in a busy, highly graphic upholstery adorned with miniature crystals were back on display, this time in solid colors minus the bling. The lack of decoration left the emphasis purely on the modern high-back silhouette, which is ultimately what makes the chair noteworthy anyway.
    In new designs, Moroso's standout was Biknit, the "big knit" chair and chaise by designer Patricia Urquiola. The designs look like woven textiles, gargantuan in scale and set atop chunky wooden bases.
    That wood was a trend too. Oak and walnut replaced powder-coated steel as the materials choice, as booth after booth showcased upholstered chairs and glass tables set on wooden legs, ceramic side tables set on wooden bases, and bookcases and bedroom furniture in natural wood finishes.
    Oak inlays in four shades created a gorgeous geometric puzzle across a new chest of drawers and an armoire from the Italian firm Porro. The design, by the Swedish studio Front, looked angular yet soft, the play of the wood grain and the offset position of drawer pulls adding the slightest touch of irreverence.
    Declaring trends can be a dicey proposition when more than 2,700 companies are showcasing collections at the fair and hundreds of other designers have created their own stages at showrooms and independent exhibitions all across Milan. Look long enough and you can find multiple examples of pretty much anything. But among the major players, some common threads to emerge:
    Outdoors move in. After designers spent years creating outdoor interpretations of indoor furniture, more appeared to be moving in the opposite direction, creating interior pieces that feel as though their inspiration came from the backyard. Gervasoni went so far as to name its new collection InOut and to declare every table, chair, sofa and chaise to be worthy of the living room or the deck. The Paola Navone designs blur the line well, and as staged in the company's Salone booth, a dining table topped with giant turquoise ceramic slats seemed as plausible in a breakfast nook as on the patio.
    Technology advances. Designers continued to invoke advanced materials and fabrication techniques to create pieces that were remarkably thin or lightweight, graced with seemingly impossible curves or equipped to handle the latest in consumer electronics. At Euroluce, a lighting exhibition staged every other year with the furniture fair, Flos showed the Net table lamps by Philippe Starck with Eugeni Quitllet. The fixtures cleverly incorporated iPad or iPod docks as well as display stands; while the electronics recharge, they can be displayed as electronic picture frames or perhaps streaming video screens.
    The rumpled look lingers. Inklings of a trend last year gained steam with the premiere of more over-scaled chairs and sofas covered in upholstery that has been bunched up or crinkled to an extreme, a rumpled look that would be sheer torture for the tidy minimalist. Designing for manufacturer Edra, Fernando and Humberto Campana led the way with the Grinza chair, whose upholstery options included one that should be called Sharpei.
    Traditional technique remains alive. The Koi chair from London-based Innermost was one of the pleasant surprises in the exhibitions staged in Milan's Zona Tortona neighborhood, away from the main fair. Jarrod Lim, who worked for two years in Urquiola's studio before starting out on his own, said his inspiration for Koi was the fish-scale pattern found on wrought-iron gates across Singapore, where he now lives. Those hand-crafted iron pieces are being supplanted by machine-made aluminum gates, Lim said, so his intent was to revive the material, the design and the craft by translating the fish-scale pattern into wrought-iron furniture for outdoors. The dozens of welded arcs feel hefty and substantial yet look remarkably light, almost effervescent. The result is tough yet elegant, simple yet complex, a bit of past brought into the present.