How the design industry can set a new standard for IRL experiences

As Italy’s Lombardy region returned to its strictest lockdown level earlier this month, rumors circulated that Milan’s Salone del Mobile would be canceled again. Before the pandemic, the fair – and the huge Milan Design Week that surrounds it – had been the annual flagship event for companies in the furniture and design industry, as well as a global stage for experimentation and design. storytelling for brands such as Airbnb, Nike, Lexus and Louis Vuitton.

As this design event and countless others around the world enter a second year of disruption, it begs the question whether we in the design industry have the opportunity to not only reinvent the purpose of these weeks. design, but also their execution.

Traditionally, flagship design events like the London Design Festival, NYCxDesign and the Salone del Mobile in Milan were anchored around a furniture industry fair, which meant that most attendees were directly related to the industry. of design one way or another. But in recent years, design has moved from a niche sector to a mainstream conversation. It has become a coveted area for business innovation across all categories, resulting in a significant shift from business events showcasing household items to larger creativity festivals aimed at the audiences around them. This is not entirely a bad thing. This sparked more engagement, inspired cities and businesses to get more involved, and created new audiences who were excited about the events. But as interest and investment grew, a more exclusive and merchant design philosophy attracted more the wealthy interested in design that one would expect to see at an art fair, rather than the resolvers of democratic and societal issues that are fundamental to the industry.

[Photo: Lorenzo Palizzolo/Getty Images]

Translate the accessibility of virtual events

The virtual model that many of these events pivoted to during the pandemic appears to have returned design to its more accessible and egalitarian roots by allowing, for the most part, anyone, anywhere, to access it. contents. A stellar example of this is the Vitra sessions, which looks at the pressing issues that have emerged since the pandemic. However, the virtual turn has come at the cost of personal interactions and spontaneous discoveries that can only be done in the field during these events (especially around 2 a.m. at Bar Basso in Milan, as the people will tell you. industry insiders).

Here there is an opportunity, coming out of confinement, for these events to maintain the spirit of accessibility, foster these spontaneous interactions and encourage thoughtful dialogue, while supporting local economic recovery by finding new ones. ways of integrating into the public domain. Ben Evans, director of the London Design Festival, worked closely with the Mayor of London on how the September 2021 event can encourage audiences to safely re-engage, venture out and be inspired all by supporting local businesses. “The London Design Festival is not only a platform for this huge portfolio of design stories, but to help generate and encourage the general public to come and hear these stories, to reinvigorate the city after a long period of locking, ”he says.

In their next edition, citywide design festivals have the opportunity to appeal to their local creative community to come up with ideas for recovery, healing and engagement. The public format allows for greater depth of content that can address social issues – both local and global – and cultural change.

Respond to social and cultural changes

Coming back to the in-person design weeks, it will be interesting to see brands shift their marketing budgets from generously funded physical facilities and collaborations with ‘star’ designers, to supporting a larger creative ecosystem that, like many others, was particularly affected. during the pandemic. With a little ingenuity and research, it is possible to rebalance some of these losses and support underrepresented designers whose narrative and insight will be more culturally connected than another product designed by Philippe Starck.

[Photo: Ikea]

A few years ago, at a time when Ikea’s innovation lab, SPACE10, was exploring a shelter for refugees, the company instead presented a trade show with “A festival of music, design, live shows” In Milan. It was, in my humble opinion, completely irrelevant, if not a huge waste of money. I think they would have had a lot more engagement and longevity, not to mention the seriousness, from exposure to their explorations in mobile and temporary shelters – and in turn, more ROI on marketing spend. .

As an industry made up of some of the world’s most innovative thinkers, design events should lead the conversation about social change. In its essence, design considers the human experience first, and these events should too. One of the curators that brands can draw inspiration from is Joseph Grima, who created the incredible Alcova experience during Milan Design Week, featuring lesser-known designers addressing themes such as sustainable materials strategies and group therapy.

Another example is the Dutch design movement Social label, who created a model for using design to expand socio-economic opportunities for people who have had difficulty entering the workforce due to beliefs or disabilities. Together with designers, they create products that allow previously disadvantaged people to learn a new trade and produce a beautiful, sought-after product. Personally, at the next Salone del Mobile, I’d rather see a collaboration between one of the world’s biggest brands and a social initiative or design exploration like the one above, rather than another installation made for Instagram.

Rethinking the brand’s facilities with purpose and sustainability in mind

The furniture industry has a huge sustainability problem even before it gets to trade events, with interior design transformations playing a role in the building industry helping to 40% of global carbon emissions. At these large-scale exhibitions, companies build booths or experiential installations that may be larger than a house, but are thrown in the trash at the end of the event. Clearly, this lack of long-term thinking is not sustainable. The pandemic has provided an opportunity for the design community to take a step back and think about how we can design experiences that can be reused or leave no trace.

On the trade show side, the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in New York City is leading the conversation on how trade shows can provide more sustainable solutions for exhibitors. In order to reduce material waste as well as shipping and construction costs, they provide onsite better designed systems that are as good looking as gallery walls, but completely reusable. According to ICFF Show Director Phil Robinson, they explored new materials for carpets that are both sustainable and recyclable, and worked closely with the Javits Center to rethink the circularity of all waste produced by events.

The design industry should be at the forefront of designing for a better world, and that starts with where, how and why we come together as an industry. A brand can present a concept, experience or launch a new product that addresses social issues and excites the audience while delivering an effective and successful marketing campaign. We now have a window of opportunity to rethink every aspect of Design Weeks, from installations to interactions. Let’s take advantage of it.


Amanda Kasper is the founder of Alpha Kilo, a creative agency with clients such as Harry’s, WGSN, Triennale Milano, Poltrona Frau and Savile Row. She has served as an advisor to senior executives such as Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia and Huntsman owner and GLG Partners co-founder Pierre Lagrange. A graduate of Denison University, Amanda divides her time between London and Los Angeles.

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