Design Weeks: a brief history

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Milan Design Week: the biggest

For about 15 years, in various cities, not necessarily major metropolises, events revolving around design have sprung up, inspired by Milan Design Week, the mother of all design weeks. The Milan Design Week arose spontaneously, from below, as a sum of side events to the Salone del Mobile. Until the late 1980s of the current century, Milan Design Week did not exist. There was Salone del Mobile, the third week of September. September is still summer in Milan, but the weather is warmer and more pleasant than July, so it’s a good moment for outdoor evening events.

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Pallucco at Mattatoio, 1989, Milan Design Week

The “Fuorisalone” 

During the Salone del Mobile, companies and architects were hosting private dinners. At the same time, brands looked for alternatives to exhibit outside the Salone del Mobile, so they could create more creative setups.
Although the original event, Salone del Mobile, was a trade show for selling products, the display factor was always very strong. A research that spread outside the exhibition halls, where companies were transforming commercial events into cultural events. The choice to exhibit outside the Fieramilano halls, in fact, came from the need to escape from the inevitable constraints of a trade fair pavilion to set free the creativity of the setups.

Fuorisalone, then, literally ‘outside the Salone,’ is a search for creativity at 360 degrees. Here, display and setup were not details or consequences but essential parts of the event. After all, as early as 1988, Pallucco collaborated with set designers and directors of photography of international stature. Thus, over time, exhibitions focused on displays led to a new event philosophy, where the exhibition counts as exposure, independent of the sale. Exhibitions counted as branding, then, in times when branding was not yet so important.

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Gli abiti Ferrè x B&B Italia, Superstudio, 1984

Not only Milan

Events related to the Salone del Mobile or furniture fairs are not exclusive to Milan. In Cologne, for example, during imm cologne, fascinating exhibitions took place along the river as early as the late 1960s. Among them, for instance, was Visiona, a study of contemporary housing by Verner Panton, commissioned by Bayer. Cologne, moreover, was one of the first cities to have a well-defined circuit of side events at the furniture fair, with a name, Passagen, and a guide. Stockholm and Copenhagen also already enjoyed a very buzzing atmosphere, as far back as the 1960s. The exhibition at the Bella Center in Copenhagen is part of the history of design exhibitions, and today Copenhagen knows a new youth with 3daysofdesign. The Stockholm fair went from the 1960s to the present day, and since 2002 it has been joined by Stockholm Design Week.

Discover the booths at Milan Salone del Mobile 2024

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Visiona 2, design by Verner Panton x Bayer, imm cologne, 1970

Events ‘from bottom’

Both Milan Design Week and the other events spread throughout the cities share the feature of originating ‘from the bottom.’ They are, in fact, private initiatives with private capital. For example, the first edition of Paris design week, back in 2000, involved design showrooms in the city and a few small, specially created exhibitions. Side shows at imm cologne involved showrooms, alongside spectacular exhibitions, such as Visiona, which, indeed, was curated by Bayer. This brief introduction wants to clarify how early Design Weeks, which may not even be called Design Weeks, were spontaneous and without any institutional presence. They usually emerged as a side event to a trade fair, in times when design was a word still associated with living and its surroundings. 

Milan Design Week today has grown by leaps and bounds, seeing the stratospheric figure of more than 1,000 events. In the late 2010s, the City of Milan also began to take an interest in the institutional aspect. However, there is still no public funding of any kind for Milan Design Week; it’s always solely private sponsors and individual initiatives from the bottom up, without central planning.

Today: institutional events  

From the 2000s onward, these kinds of events began to spread around the world. Today, World Design Weeks, the association, groups 42 Design Weeks and Festivals taking place in as many countries and cities. The network of events connects creative urban festivals in growing metropolises and their partners, such as schools and businesses representing the design industry. Design events aims to promote design collaboration and develop the creative sector’s economy. Also, to share knowledge, resources, and best practices, fostering the exchange of talent and ideas, sustainable development and growth of individual design events.

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Installation by MVRDV at Dutch Design Week

Better by design: a study

The World Design Weeks association, therefore, conducted a study among its members, as the first phase of a program with a twofold objective. First, to provide stakeholders with a clearer understanding of the benefits that design festivals bring to their cities and territories. Also, to share knowledge among the various organizations, and provide guidance to monitor and evaluate the impact of design weeks on local areas. The report focuses on the collective perspectives and knowledge, analyzed through a detailed survey of members and the 28 festivals that participated in the survey, as well as an analysis of case studies. The report outlines a snapshot of World Design Weeks in 2023, and establishes a basis for ongoing evaluation and development of best practices. Finally, the report analyzes five case studies from across the network.
The result is a defined framework examining the economic implications of design weeks and the benefits a design festival can bring to the creative industry.

Discover Milan Design Week 2024

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Better by Design, a report by World Design Weeks

Discover Milan Salone del Mobile 2024

To learn more about the Milan Design Week, you can read the book History of Milan Design Week, published by DDN, 


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