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The Madame of Shows, A Powerhouse That Has the Potential to Intimidate Anyone in the Business

A travelogue from our friend Mary Burgers, creative director of Vancouver-based Burgers Architecture, on design finds on her recent trip to Salone del Mobile Milano.

powerhouse breakfast Italian coffee shop espresso cup gelato

By Mary Burgers

If we’re being honest, it should not have taken more than a decade of working in interiors and design for me to plan my first visit to Salone del Mobile Milano.

I miraculously booked one of the last hotel rooms in the city, at the Sonder, and purchased an overpriced, last-minute ticket to fly to Italy within weeks of the show's kickoff.

Am I overwhelmed by the roster of events and endless off-sites and parties and things to do while there? You betcha. But I follow the advice of my seasoned industry friends who have attended Salone for years: there is absolutely no way to see it all. My plan simplifies almost immediately: I will wander, I will eat, I will enjoy aperitivo, and I will plan as much as I can—but I will not be overwhelmed in Milan.

I know I am about to experience the Madame of Shows—a powerhouse that has the potential to intimidate anyone in the business. As the largest trade fair in the world, with 2,000 exhibiting brands and 550 young designers from 31 countries (and an expected 300,000 registered visitors) Salone del Mobile is a force to be reckoned with. She is extravagant and she is totally extra. Milan Design Week takes over the entire city via galleries, abandoned factories, palazzos, private apartments, courtyards, plazas, and gardens. And then there is the trade show at the Rho Fairground: 186 acres of pavilions featuring slick booths and the return of Euroluce after a four-year hiatus.


Day 1

woman in sunglasses peaking into photo plaza with letters on pedestals landscape lightting

I land, unpack, and find myself walking towards the Duomo di Milano, following packs of perfectly dressed Italians. It’s early evening… façades are covered in colorful florals, banners flutter in the street, and party music is tinkling in the air. I wind up at Spazio Gessi, an old cinema completely transformed into an enormous health and wellness pod featuring the newest in Gessi kitchen and bathroom design. I’m handed an Aperol Spritz and wander through towering cascading waterfalls and vertical gardens. Waiters offer me risotto appetizers and silver trays of bruschetta. The red carpet isn’t just for me… this is what it will be like for the next week for us all. I manage to take a photo in front of the Salone sign in the city, Proof of Life!

Day 2

It’s just before noon and I’ve already walked 15,768 steps before lunch. It’s very easy to be distracted by people watching, by the endless architectural details—old and new—a robust Italian perfectly slicing Mortadella, or fashion models in front of the Duomo. I decide to explore Brera, the vibrant core of Milan Design Week.

My first stop is the Palazzo Del Senato which is the backdrop for Kohler’s elevated bathroom experience. "The Creator’s Journey" features works by a group of female artists and an installation by sculptor Janet Echelman.

It was worth waiting at the doors of the 18th Century Palazzo Citerio for the Phillipe Starck x Dior collaboration featuring the Louis XVI Medallion Chair. We stood in the dark and watched dozens of graceful, streamlined chairs suspended from above dance to changing light patterns artfully in sync with a piano composition by Soundwalk Collective. I most certainly did not expect to be entertained like this in my lifetime by a collective of chairs, but this is Milan.

Natural stone specialist Solidnature presents "Beyond the Surface" in the gardens and basement of the neo-Romanesque Casa Maveri. The line is about an hour long even with my pre-reserved ticket, but this oasis-like dreamscape by OMA is worth the wait. I will be talking about the garden installations by Sabine Marcelis and Iranian artist Bita Fayyazi, as well as a stage and podium by Studio Ossidiana for weeks.

The outdoor Poliform furniture exhibit at Piazza Paolo VI has the perfect charcoal-gray landscaping pebble that I need to somehow transport home. I visit Cea, Cielo, and Frankie for bathroom inspiration and then feel inclined to stock up on soaps and bath salts at Officine Universelle Buly 1803. I’m grateful everything is in Italian at Libreria del Mondo Offeso because I can’t afford the time to be lost in books in this perfectly curated bookstore. I stop for a little lunch at Café Brera and am overly enthusiastic about both the burrata and the people-watching.

Day 3

Visiting Alcova in the former Porta Abattoir on Via Molise immediately reminds me of the atmosphere of Dutch Design Week. Its founders are Valentina Ciuffi (Studio Vedèt) and Joseph Grima (Space Caviar), who is also the creative director of Design Academy Eindhoven. I love the offbeat range of innovative and sustainable materials paired with contemporary craftsmanship. The show, which features many emerging talents, feels freethinking, diverse, and wonderfully layered with grit and beauty. "Expériences Immobiles" is a sensory and olfactory installation that mimics industrial buildings in northern France and encapsulates glass vessels offering the scents of perfume brand Les Eaux Primordiales. I need an afternoon revival and order an espresso underneath friend and fellow Vancouverite Lukas Peet’s debut Vector lights for A-N-D suspended above the main outdoor bar. The latter part of my day feels traditional and historic; first a sighting of a mosaic dating from 1779, then dinner with some industry friends at 321-year-old Boeucc in the elegant Palazzo Belgioioso where I realize I have been making risotto wrong my entire life.

Day 4

I’ve set aside today to see the Salone del Mobile at Rho. I am regretting staying at Bar Basso with every other architect and designer until 3 am. Two espressos later and a half-hour drive outside of the city center and I’m cleared at the exhibition entry that is set up like an airport screening, including a full body scan and an x-ray of my bag. Luckily, it’s just my phone, Nikon, water, and a bottle of Advil.

Meike Harde has outdone himself at Vibia with a reimagined fabric lampshade that is made using a “technical knitting” technique that casts a gorgeous glow via four floor lamps and five pendants. I am excited to see Michael Anastassiades’ new work and am immediately smitten with his Blue Skies family of floor lamps that demonstrates an interchangeable lighting solution attached to a marble block. The Black Flag wall light by Konstantin Grcic for Flos can unfold and extend out to over 10 feet. I’m ecstatic to see Dutch designers Esther Jongsma and Sam van Gurp collaborate with Italian brand Luceplan to create a lighting system made with tension cables and counterweights that is so technical but can still cast a soft glow.

Flexform and Poliform are mammoths in the game here. The line to get to see these titans at play is deep, wide, and cult-like. The exhibits are colossal, elegant, and impeccable, from the millwork to lighting to carpets to the selection of finishes.

I am equally smitten with the two Marenco armchairs by Arflex presented in the cutest stripes and as soon as I post them to my social, the 'likes' come flooding in. I text my friend Kaito at Inform Interiors: These chairs are the “New Darlings”.

Later that afternoon, I leave Rho for a quieter experience at the new Paola Lenti venue. The colors take over my day, and I see eye candy everywhere now.

Day 5

A moodier walk today—rain and dark clouds—but I still have the ambition to see as much as I can. I continue walking everywhere, which leads me to the Musei Civici di Milano. I take the time to be impressed by 17th-century work in marble and bronze. There are no bad detours in Milan. I continue to Spazio Maiocchi for its take on the Utopian Design of the 1970s and 1980s and of course, there is a Lancia Delta Integrale parked in the Capsule Plaza. Click, Click goes the camera for Cedric who will appreciate this.

The SOFTSCOPE installation is both a stage and seating area by Swiss designers Panter & Tourron. It is made of XL EXTRALIGHT®, an ultra-light material developed using revolutionary patented Finproject technology, and I want to Pantone Color match immediately as it truly is the most perfect hue of blue.

I walk past a cathedral and light three candles for the most important people I love.

Later, I spot the incredibly charming Marcel Wanders chatting up a gorgeous brunette at Moooi, then head over to see the Cassina exhibit celebrating 50 years of the Cassina Maestri Collection. Alessi has taken over the courtyard of a palazzo and makes cutlery simple and brutalist at ‘Ars Metallica,’ an installation featuring creations by Philippe Starck, Virgil Abloh, and Salvador Dalì. The bodyguards are extra-intense and dressed in head-to-toe all-black Armani. I’m telling you it’s a pleasure to be under their stylish surveillance.

There is a football match and fans take over the core of the city. I move to the side to enjoy my perfectly made Capri sandwich to the sound of thousands of fans chanting and singing.

Day 6

I knew I wanted to see the Prada Fondazione, what I didn’t expect was spending hours there. The No Photos Allowed exhibition ‘Cere Anatomiche’ in collaboration with Canadian Director David Cronenberg is where I spend a lot of my time and yes, it is slightly disturbing but so artfully curated in collaboration with the La Specola Museum of Florence that I need to see more. I have only one day left so I move a little quicker today. The Minotti kitchen showroom is an absolute delight with the Now You See It, Now You Don’t Kitchen. A quick espresso at the Tom Dixon-designed bar, and finally to the Villa Nechi Campiglio which is an Italian architectural and interior gem designed by Piero Portaluppi in 1930 for the Necchi family. (I touched a closet door and immediately was scolded heavily in Italian, which both paralyzed and exhilarated me all at once).

More photos, more gelato, another espresso. The day ends with dinner at a very cute family-run café and a text to Cedric: We Have Not Been Committing to Enough Black Pepper When We Make Pasta alla Carbonara.

The Return Home

Over dinner, my girls ask me, "What was your favorite part of the trip?" And I said, without any hesitation, "The complete originality and expression of the creativity of Milan."

  • When you see a different entry to a courtyard in every archway

  • The hundreds of ways to choose cotton and silks and ways to cross-stitch and embroider

  • The endless ways fabrics and shoes and textures and patterns can be considered for an outfit

  • The way trees and foliage and vines can creep and be clipped and pruned to flower this way and that

  • How pistachio gelato can taste completely different from shop to shop

  • The respect and preservation of ideas past amongst the modern

  • How you can deliver mail to a unique mailbox one building after the other

  • How they thought of that color combination that feels like candy

You know the greatest compliment to a creative person who is behind all this thoughtfulness is not to copy, but to relish in their expression People will say imitation is the highest form of flattery. It’s not. The best thing to do when you see something you like and love is to be inspired to find your own voice. And because my brain thinks this way… have you ever had a child copy everything you do as a game? For example, if you lift a fork, then they lift a fork; if you blink, then they blink; if you’re talking then they quickly talk over you, repeating everything you say. Well, I think this is what happens to copycats. I think we all wind up in a good place, but someone gets assigned to those ones at the pearly gates and follows them around all day and night copying every word, mannerism, and action in real-time every day, infinitely. So find comfort in that. I walked 30,000 steps a day to have this kind of clarity. Milan, my Beautiful Muse.


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