Anyone walking into the showroom of Italian furniture maker Moroso in the centre of Milan, Italy, during this year's furniture fair that ended on Sunday, was greeted by a monolithic red sofa in the centre of the space surrounded by a series of folding screen partitions adorned with simple and black abstract calligraphy work. The long, sinuous sofa was the work of Chinese architect Zhang Ke and bore the poetic name of 'hidden dragon' while the whole installation was called 'The Way of the Water Dragon'. This is, after all, the year of the dragon.
On press day Ke, founding director of Beijing-based company standardarchitecture, who was exhibiting for the first time at the Milan Furniture Fair (or Salone del Mobile as it is called in Italian), said that Moroso had wanted him to design a sofa that resembled a dragon, but that he wanted to make something more elusive and scarcely perceptible.
The sinuous and irregular forms of the sofa, held up by only four thin metal legs, make it appear as if it is floating, and do indeed give it an enigmatic air. Though it can be accessed from all four sides, its wave-like structure encourages lying back or intimate and huddled conversations with friends. As I sat in the small niche at one end of the 'dragon' basked in a glowing red light and listening to the haunting notes of Shigeru Umebayashi's theme tune from Wong Kar-wai's atmospheric film In the Mood for Love, I realised this was not so much a seating system as a mountainous island made for (day)dreaming.
Elsewhere at the fair Chinese contributions were thin on the ground and not as memorable. The Chinese may have been at the event in droves this year, but more as consumers and buyers than designers. In fact there were stories of big international design brands hosting events for Chinese buyers and guests one night and for everybody else the next.
However, there were signs that this year may be a turning point, and that in the future China's talent will be better represented. One hint was the Slow Seating exhibition brought to Milan by government initiative Beijing Design Week.
It showcased 80 chairs - some new, many not - selected by Wenzhou-based designer Zhu Xiaojie. The idea behind the show was that the chair is fundamental to human endeavour and sitting is something to be savoured, that it can reconnect people with the past and what is meaningful.
Another significant aspiration of the exhibition was to crush the common Western preconception that Chinese design and mass production go hand in hand and relies on copying. Accordingly, the level of artistry and technology was high, but the design language at times dated.
Three of the chairs stood out for their rich forms and back-stories. The first was Jeff Dah-Yue Shi's sophisticated and geometric bamboo Jun Zi chair, which gave a new twist to a skill and craft that has been around for centuries. The second was Neri & Hu's collection of extrude stools. These high-gloss contemporary seats (which double as end tables) were inspired by the rich visual language of bamboo shoots and lotus roots, auspicious symbols that often feature in domestic spaces. Another seat striking for its accomplishment was Nip-Khu Lien's contribution. Its sinuous curves made out of wood had confidence and playfulness, and brought to mind Ron Arad's iconic Ripple Chair for Moroso.
Also at Slow Seating was a beautiful chair made out of moulded bamboo paper. The designers, who were from China, Serbia and Germany and work between Milan and Hangzhou, were also showing at Milan's trade fair in the section for emerging talents called Salone Satellite. Their 'From Yuhang' project showed the results of two years of research into the traditional crafts and materials of the Yuhang district in Hangzhou and included pieces made of bamboo paper, porcelain and water silk floss. The most delectable item was their L?series of bar and coffee tables made from rounded porcelain and smooth beech wood, but also intriguing were their woven-bamboo lampshades. All their creations had a timeless quality and seemed to awaken a deeply human need to touch and hold and keep.
Another big Asian story at this year's fair was the re-emergence of Japanese design and manufacturing after the big recession of the 90s, the smaller recession of 2008 and the devastation wreaked by the earthquake and tsunami last year. It is almost as if the natural disaster has galvanised the Japanese into action, albeit reflective action.
Some of the highlights were beautiful collections of very spare tableware by Dutch duo Scholten and Baijings and Teruhiro Yanagihara for Japan's oldest porcelain manufacturer Arita; an ethereal floating lamp produced by Tokyo-based glass manufacturer Mihoya Glass and designed by Korean designer Yeongkyu Yoo at Japan Creative (a show that brought Japanese companies and craftsmen together with a roster of international designers); and Japanese architect Tadao Ando's first chair for Danish manufacturer Carl Hansen.
As an architect who usually works with concrete it was interesting to see Ando's furniture. The results were a sculptural and majestic S-shaped lounge chair resting on a rather-too-wide cream metallic stand.
Relatively new Japanese brand Karimoku New Standard, headed by Yanagihara, tapped into the trend for all things simple and in wood. It exhibited both existing collections and new prototypes in a delightfully scuffed but refined century-old apartment in the centre of the city. Their new products offered their characteristic combination of simplicity and attention to detail. Cases in point were Tom?s Alonso's round and rectangular A-frame tables, which are elegant and can be folded flat for transport; and a stool called 'Tones' by Belgian designer Sylvain Willenz, which has three legs in different colours.
At the accessories end of the spectrum Lucien Gumy's 'Berra' desk-top card stands used the metaphor of mountains and landslides to create a simple mechanism of sliding blocks that keep paper in place.
Elsewhere, Japanese design practice Nendo had about a dozen projects that included collaborations with big brands and manufacturers such as Moroso, Arketipo and Established & Sons, a solo show and several shop window displays. Not all the contributions were entirely memorable, but their all-black collection for K% was impressive.
The venture is a collaboration between the Japanese design house and Singapore's K Projects (with Nendo's ultra personable co-founder Oki Sato as design director) and the pieces were spare, imaginative and refined. The fact that they were all black and exhibited in a large warehouse spot-lit space concentrated the mind on the complexity of some of the techniques or forms used.
Particularly dazzling was their 'Melt' chair, which has a sinuous backrest that forms both the armrest and two of the chair's legs, and their 'Heavy' low tables, which feature concrete tops on thin metal legs (the concrete has been mixed with paper to make it lighter).
A highlight this year was Danish company Kvadrat's exhibition dedicated to Hallingdal 65, its first (and still one of its best-selling) textile, designed in 1965 by Nanna Ditzel. With seven renowned curators, including Tord Boontje, looking after different geographic areas, it was up to Hong Kong designer Andre Fu (of The Upper House and JIA Shanghai) to curate the Asia region.
Fu, founder of design studio AFSO, chose Singapore's Ministry of Design, which produced pouffes of different volumes, and Malaysian architect Kevin Mark Low of smallprojects, whose chaise longue was one of the best pieces of the show and resembled a rolled-up carpet, touching the ground at only two points.
Like some of the best pieces at this year's fair it gave a new lease of life to an age-old material and showed that good design is often just reinterpreting what is already out there. With skill and imagination of course.