These 5 Installations in Milan Turned Materials Into the Main Event

I recently read a book in which the author, friend of SU Kelsey Keith, wondered: “What is a burgeoning designer to do when the platonic idea of a table has already been made, and made again?” Her simple answer — to expand the materials palette one draws from — is something that’s been on my mind lately for two reasons. (Well, let’s be clear, material experimentation is something that’s been top of mind since the founding of this site 15 years ago, but for our purposes, let’s consider two recent circumstances.) The first cropped up a few weeks ago as I was reading a posthumous appreciation of Gaetano Pesce in which the author asserted that “no other designers (or artists) have experimented with, much less perfected, newer materials for functional furniture” since Pesce. This statement utterly confounded me; after all, this site alone has featured objects made from kelp, crushed oyster shells, pigmented foam dust, recycled compact discs, salt, paper pulp, aquarium hoses, and more. In fact, there’s a whole section in How to Live With Objects devoted to explaining why new materials and processes are the defining story of the last 20 years in contemporary design. I started thinking about innovation in materials again this past week in Milan when, in presentation after presentation, some of the best work to emerge from the fair came from materials companies who had hired A-plus designers to translate their raw product into something almost implausibly beautiful. From recycled aluminum to post-industrial plastic to a company that’s asking us to reconsider the humble linoleum tile, here are five of our favorite materials-based projects from the week.


Max Lamb

Rachel Griffin of Earnest Studio

John Tree

From left: Inga Sempé, Shane Schneck, Max Lamb

Philippe Malouin

Andreas Engesvik

Norway is way out in front when it comes to sustainability, so perhaps it’s no surprise that one of our favorite material presentations came from the Norwegian aluminum and renewable energy company Hydro. To showcase its new Circal 100R product — the world’s first industrial-scale aluminum made entirely from post-consumer waste — Hydro asked designer Lars Beller Fjetland to curate an exhibition that would demonstrate how scrap can be translated into something beautiful and ready for mass production. Fjetland enlisted seven designers including Inga Sempé, who used two different, slightly irregular nesting profiles to create a table lamp; Rachel Griffin, who built a sleek, undulating room divider from interlocking sheets, joined by an invisible hinge; and Max Lamb, whose lamp includes fins that can be audibly “strummed” like a musical instrument. The crushed aluminum plinths were also a huge crowd favorite.


The London-based Dzek didn’t show off its newest material with a piece of furniture per se, but the brand’s Arquitectura-G–designed staircase covered in Flaxwood tiles was one of the nicest moments of Milan (not to mention a great place to take portraits.) Founder Brent Dzekciorius worked with the Dutch designer Christien Meinderstma — who has been working with flax in one way or another for more than 15 years — to present a beautiful, naturally-hued version of linoleum, in the hopes that it will one day surpass the more popular, more climate-destructive vinyl. “Twenty-first century architectural materials have an environmental mandate that their 19th-century predecessors did not,” the brand says. “Linoleum continues to be overlooked perhaps because its vibrant colors and patterns are more synonymous with the synthetic than the natural. Flaxwood retools a 19th-century innovation, moving away from synthetic aesthetics in order to present a new material language that can properly respond to this moment.”


Martinelli Venezia

Naessi Studio


DWA Design Studio

Zanellato / Bortatto

To be honest, I never really understood before last week what Fenix surface materials were made from, but thanks to an exhibition we happened upon the morning of our last day in Milan, I’m now fully invested in this brand. (Which is, like, the point of these installations?) For this one, curator Federica Sala selected several design duos who are partners in work and in life to highlight Fenix’s materials — made from a mix of paper and thermosetting resins — in conjunction with other surface materials, like Formica. We especially loved Martinelli Venezia’s dining table–turned–table tennis court and Cara/Davide’s nesting chairs.


Durat, which makes a terrazzo-like post-industrial plastic product, debuted an installation called Porta Dei Colori at Alcova’s Villa Bagatti Valsecchi with Finnish designer and color guru Linda Bergroth. Amongst the decaying columns of the villa, Bergroth created hyper-colorful vignettes featuring slabs, tubs, sinks, counters, and more made from Durat’s architectural material. The installation also debuted Durat Plus, the world’s first commercially available solid surface material combining recycled PET resin and recycled solid surface.


There’s never a shortage of marble projects in Milan, but we particularly liked this collaboration between Studio Giuliano Andrea dell’Uva Architetti and the natural stone manufacturer Alimonti Milano. Alimonti typically provides marble to everyone from interior designers to yacht makers, but here the material takes on a distinctly domestic feel, made into side tables, coffee tables, and more in a series called Incastri Edition.