The annual Salone del Mobile furniture fair in Milan in April was a more subdued affair than previous, as the poor economic climate took a toll. But streamlined budgets did not translate into less interesting or less boundary-pushing products. On the contrary, it looked like emerging designers and established companies had spent time, money and energy on research and development, particularly in the kitchens and bathrooms sector, which is always looking to find new ways to make us use these essential spaces.
One of the most impressive kitchens on show came from the Campana brothers. Modelled on a Swiss army knife it's functional and versatile, incorporating washing, cooking and dining areas. It includes three retractable hardwood-panelled sections covered with smooth eco-friendly silestone quartz.
The trend for interesting and often natural materials continued with generous use of glass, wood and stone; there were even some Smeg refrigerators covered in denim. Perhaps the brand that best exemplified this was Minacciolo with its 'Natural Skin' kitchen covered in knotty pine panels. The company's Min? kitchen had everyone excited by its industrial good looks. Their booth was one of the most original, too; several walls were made out of wooden crates filled with ripe, red tomatoes.
Italian kitchen manufacturer Elmar's new Cross Island interpreted the trend for blending kitchen and living areas, but in a more unusual and elegant fashion. Centred on an incredibly slim steel trestle table with an integrated hob and sink, it put forward the kitchen as a place where you cook and eat but also work.
Perhaps the most futuristic kitchen came from Italian brand Toncelli, which incorporated Samsung's touch-screen technology to present the angular and glossy Prisma kitchen. Its gleaming worktop has an integrated touch-screen computer, perhaps not a surprise given that kitchens are becoming spaces to work and hang out.
In the world of bathrooms, Japanese design studio Nendo's collaboration with Bisazza Bagno was a poetic exploration of the power of boxes within boxes. Nendo design director Oki Sato's idea was to conceive a space that was intimate and lent itself to meditation and communion with oneself. The result is a minimalist range of rectangular bathroom pieces and accessories (vases, clocks, shelves and mirrors) made out of larch wood and ceramics and is suitably unadorned and calming.
Swiss bathroom manufacturer Laufen (celebrating 120 years this year) put on a highly memorable exhibit featuring multiple upended toilet bowls filled with lights and hundreds of basins placed together like a puzzle and reflected by hanging rectangular mirrors. The organic lines of its new Palomba collection was inspired by nature (rocks, shells and water) and designed by in-demand duo Ludovica and Roberto Palomba. They also showed some geometric urinals and dividers by French designer Toan Nguyen.
Elsewhere colour dominated, something new in the sometimes monotone world of bathrooms. Industry giant vitrA showed many of its basins in startling hues of pastel green, blue and pink (see Hit List, Page 14), and German bathroom experts Burgbad, the biggest bathroom producer in Europe, offered an exciting palette of colours and finishes, putting the design of the bathroom space squarely in the hands of the customer. Their concept is that there is design solution for every space, whether your bathroom is large or small. Its new range - Bel - is flexible and can be installed quickly and easily and is a move away from their more high-end storage pieces they are famous for. If you need a beautifully crafted bathroom cabinet that can withstand moisture, look no further. This year they launched a glitzy gold cabinet that would not look out of place in the home of a Hollywood star.
Bathroom pieces by young Dutch designer Thomas Linssen impressed. Picking up on the current leitmotif of traditional activities migrating to other areas of the home, he approached the design of a bathtub as if he were making an object for the living room. Part bath, part throne and even part boat (the oak frame gives the tub its sculptural shape), it's a magnificently crafted celebration of the art of bathing.
Get up and Grohe
Turning on a tap is a simple act, one we do many times without much thought. Not so for Paul Flowers. As senior vice-president of design at German bathroom accessories giant Grohe, Flowers takes a much deeper approach: how can the design benefit the environment, incorporate innovative technologies while keeping up a pleasant appearance? 'We create experiences which go beyond the product. Quality, technology and sustainability are fundamental pillars of our company,' says Flowers (right). Grohe only recently went beyond faucets and fittings to launch a range of spa products, setting a new industry trend to create a lifestyle experience. There are fluffy towels and robes, scented candles and luxe body creams that you can indulge in while listening toa Grohe's very own music collection. 'People want a luxury home-spa environment so creating a whole Grohe experience was a natural progression.'