My Milan Design Week 2017

This is designer Jasper Morrison’s 1″ chair for Emeco (without the back and the seat of course), but it is not the first thing I saw, and this is not how my Milan Design Week 2017 began.

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This year we arrived a week early, at the heart of the Milanese preparations for an event that I believe is very close to the city’s heart. And so while they dusted their shelves, we trained and trammed and walked to a list of museums, shops, cathedrals and parks – places that sort of fade into the background once Milan Design Week hits the city.

This was an afternoon only a day before design week. Lazing upon a carpet of sun-soaked wildflowers in the big park at Monza. The nearest piece of furniture design at this moment must have been a vandalised park bench, but I don’t think it was even a thought in my head.

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The first of the hotels happened to be in the shadow of the giant of soccer-love, the San Siro stadium. Milan’s new purple metro (M5) line now reaches right till the stadium, which is a blessing. The Milan marathon passed through this very road on the day we had to check out. It was a nightmare finding a gap between the multitude of runners to cross this little road. Till a confident Italian man, cigar on his lips and iPad stuck to his fingers, smoothly drifted through all the runners without a crease on his Armani. I’ll remember the sight of that.

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And since we had a whole week’s time, Lake Como was ticked off a long pending list of short trips from Milan. I always imagine lakes to be such where one sees all edges of the coast. But maybe those are ponds. Lake Como is a massive, trouser shaped water body. The picture below probably just about covers the hem of one of the trouser legs. My high point was a walk around the villas on the edge of the lake, plus that much recommended boat ride by fellow have-beens. Bellagio, the crotch of the trousers and also host to George Clooney, shall have to be saved for a later trip.

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On another free day, I decided to visit the Armani museum – Armani/Silos as the name goes after the silos from which the building was reformatted. These here are the Armani offices across the street from the museum. I stared for a while at a window with a warm table lamp, for the duration of a Carrefour-express green apple.

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The museum itself is a delight; light concrete walls and flooring with Armani’s colourful clothing extravaganzas to contrast. One of the collections mentioned him being inspired by the neck details of certain Punjabi kurtas, which is admirable considering the contrast that European clothing is. I particularly liked the accessory room, guarded by Armani clad boys who’re just about shedding their teenage baby fat. The display is the one (below) with the green glass shelves.

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At the large Leroy Merlin store near Abbiategrasso on the green M2 metro line, many cross sections of wood, in lengths running into tens of feet. Such pleasure to shop for material in such an organised manner. This is what shall take India many years to catch up on as we organise our chaos one step too slow at a time.

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Since the purple M5 metro line passes through the Cimitero Monumentale, Milan’s grand cemetery, it emerged on the to-see list fairly effortlessly. If I didn’t know cemeteries hosted dead people, I’d think this one was a sculpture graduation show, or even classical typography class. It is interesting to see how sculptors, families and those left behind interpret loss and try to communicate it visually, and structurally. In the end, as someone didn’t really say, it is only art that remains.

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Behind these doors lies another destination that I shall not forget easily. In the heart of central Milan, a church with a side chapel that is lined with skulls from floor to ceiling.

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And it looks like this – the Chiesa di San Bernardino alle Ossa. I read about a myth where one of these skulls is that of a little girl, who leads a sort of dance of the dead on a particular night of a particular month. Thankfully not April.

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Further to cathedral hunting is this one by Gio Ponti – Chiesa di San Francesco. The second picture is actually of the extension done later by another architect, but I like how the visual language is maintained. These windows and grills are grand. I’m sure someone has documented the grills of Milan. They’re beautiful – a history of metalworking. If you look hard enough, as I realise, its all just a big classroom, everything. Everything.

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Almost a week after stalking Milan’s non-design design things, it is design week morning and we move to a nice little Airbnb. The definite advantage is location, and self-cooked breakfast. This year was our third Salone del Mobile. My studio was part of a really big exhibition called Salone Satellite: 20 years of new creativity. But more about that at this link on the studio blog.

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I get a bit nostalgic about this scene on the opening morning of the Salone. In 2014, we worked very hard to get here, to set up, and to exhibit amidst giants. And so it is always nice to be here. Milan, in my opinion, is a big extended hand for designers. It doesn’t judge or discriminate. There is only encouragement, and motivation. No matter what the European industry undergoes financially or politically, this embracing design culture runs in Italian blood. For that I shall always be respectful, and thankful.

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We jump straight into the big pavilions with the big brands. Its better that way since everyones fresh and its great to see the displays without the general public crowd. Mornings are great for conversations too. Owing to India being a great emerging market at the moment, I think curious European brands like to speak to Indians. The picture below is a small crop of the Vitra stand. Vitra has the best display team in my opinion. I watch them more for their presentation than their remarkable products.

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And then out of the blue, Starck. He’s such a clown. But what a remarkable clown. I have utmost respect for his brain and the thoughts it unleashes at special moments.

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And then a few colours and details that catch my eye around the stands. I think I have now developed an ability to not look at something. Not looking is not depending solely on sight. Sight is only a singular dimension. So when people ask me what I liked best at the Salone this year, I cannot describe it. Because experience is also a dimension. I cannot explain it.

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Details from the Bouroullec brothers, Serralunga, Emeco, Normann Copenhagen – just a few other brands I admire and follow.

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And on one of the initial days of the design week, the Milan metro staff decide to go on strike. It was a fantastic morning, I have never seen so many Milanese walking together. Hunting for taxis, buses, friends. We decided to skip going to the main fairgrounds that day. And ended up seeing the wonderful exhibition by Formafantasma about their lighting explorations at Spazio Krizia.

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In one of the hundreds of design exhibitions in the city, I also liked this cabinet of collected objects by the Italian traveller-designer-scholar Virginio Briatore. This is a tea strainer he purchased in India.

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I shot this lamp because I had been seeing it all across Milan’s public spaces for a week. And then I happened to see it used in a window display by Adidas. It is such a wonderful piece of Industrial design, and one so desirable. The Italian perspective to design includes a thorough lesson on imbibing desire in objects.

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Back at the fairgrounds the next day and viewing more of the Bouroullecs, and also Nani Marquina. I admire Nani Marquina as a brand very much. She works much more with India and Pakistan than the United Nations. And in the process of her beautiful collaborations, creates such wonderful rugs, carpets and dhurries. The one in the picture below is a carpet by Jaime Hayon, based on his illustrations. And made in India.

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I visited the Tolix stand for two solid reasons – one was to see up close the products by one of my favourite designers Sebastian Bergne, like this extendable shelving. And two, for the wonderful presskit that Tolix was distributing in a nice illustrated canvas bag. The bags being handed out by brands has become an alternative design domain within the Salone del Mobile. I even documented them when I was first there in 2013.

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More details along the long corridors of the Rho fairgrounds – a nice light by Matteo Thun, a chair for children and a well coordinated cushion on the right colour of sofa.

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We’ve made many friends while exhibiting twice at the Salone Satellite exhibition, which is part of the main Salone del Mobile. One of them is Dossofiorito, a passionate Italian studio that very evidently loves plants and design. Here is their new product, a multifunctional space enhancer called Etta. It is produced by Zilio.

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Also good friends and fellow exhibitors from 2014, Geckeler Michels is a talented team of from Berlin. This is their Acme chair, first presented at Salone Satellite 2014, and now produced by Fredericia.

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As the last thing on the fairgrounds, we visit Salone Satellite 2017 – the young designers exhibition that has grown to become a wonderful platform for showcasing young design under the guidance of Marva Griffin Wilshire. This is one my favourite products from this year’s exhibition – a wall display to showcase your favourite records. It is designed by the Amsterdam based studio Spitsberg and is self produced.

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As we join the crowds of design and aperitivo loving people hopping from one design to exhibition to another, the first important destination is the Girotondo exhibition at the Triennale di Milano. The exhibit was a well researched and presented documentation of design for children across the past century. A delight for design visitors and children alike. I liked that Pinocchio was a central character throughout the exhibition. A panel explained how modern Italians may have come to find the Pinocchio story embarrassing in the current age. I find that interesting.

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A collection of rocking horses. Plus a boy and grandmother.

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I particularly liked the book section and made note of several titles. Somebody has done a great job of putting all this together. You can follow the illustrator of the book on the left – Emiliano Ponzi on Instagram. The one on the right needs no introduction.

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This is a tapestry by designer Laura Daza as part of the project “Designing Grand Tour” presented as part of the Design Language festival at the Civica Scuola Interpreti e Traduttori “Altiero Spinelli”. I liked this piece very much. The project itself is worth a read, and the work that has resulted by other designers who are a part of it is remarkable as well.

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Meanwhile on the phone, Matteo Thun likes my picture of his lamp. That makes me happy. I like his work a lot, especially the villa at Capri. Speaking of celebrity designers, we also happened to shake some famous hands at this design week. First it was an afternoon with Sebastian Bergne. Then, a fortunate hello with Rosanna Orlandi. Lastly a chance meeting with Piero Lissoni, who we were introduced to by the design fairy godmother Marva Griffin herself. I cannot describe the pleasure of these encounters.

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The line up for the Nendo exhibit. Sunny and the line snaked on forever. 2 hours later, it was quite worth it. I like seeing the work of established designers like Nendo, but its more interesting to spot younger unknowns who may or may not ever be seen by the global press and users.

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Like previous years, I liked visiting the Boffi exhibit too. They happen to be great collectors of vintage furniture and props which they display alongside their kitchen solutions. Presentation is serious business too.

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It’s surprising how Milan goes to sleep the day the design week wraps up. It is as though nothing had happened. I move to my third hotel, which is luckily very central. And as a last short trip outside Milan, I get onto a train to Bergamo just to spend the day. And to shake off all the excess information that keeps the brain from running properly.

Pretty town with a grand hill watching over it. After two funicular tram rides to the very top, a stroll through the Bergamo botanical garden and an evening attendance at a city cathedral, I headed back to Milan.

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As I lock the last door, time for a little picture. Till another Salone!

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Big thanks to ExpressoWifi for a 24 x 7 superfast internet connection. Italy, April 2017 / All Photographs © Harpreet Padam

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I wash the shirt

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For the last time I wash the shirt
of my father who died.
The shirt smells of sweat. I remember
that sweat from my childhood,
so many years
I washed his shirts and underwear,
I dried them
at an iron stove in the workshop,
he would put them on unironed.

From among all bodies in the world,
animal, human,
only one exuded that sweat.
I breathe it in
for the last time. Washing this shirt
I destroy it
forever.
Now
only paintings survive of him
which smell of oils.

Anna Swir (Translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan)

Housefly against a glass window

Strange, unseen forces guide me to go through film festival schedules and select a favourite even before I do the usual YouTube trailer check. Andrei Konchalovsky and his film ‘The Postman’s White Nights’ was such a selection from this year’s Jagran Film Festival at Delhi’s Sirifort. The trailer did not disappoint. It cannot.

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And so last Sunday, as the main auditorium and the adjacent parking lot gorged upon happy Delhi-ites headed to catch a noisy Doordarshan concert, I quietly sneaked into the cavernous Auditorium 3 next door for the film of my choosing.

Ninety minutes in the life of a postman servicing a remote Russian village is not something that would enthral an audience accustomed only to multiplexes, exit plans and numbered seating. Sirifort’s Auditorium 3 tests your love for cinema by questioning precisely these luxuries. One cannot come upon a more challenging venue to align your back, neck and eyes to a screen that assumably floats fifteen feet into the air. And yet Lyokha the postman with his imaginary grey cat ensured that the thought of discomfort did not enter my mind.

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Konchalovsky has captured the remnants of a certain Russia that never left my mind as I grew up amongst the daily roars of MIG engines, the maps of the USSR, Sputnik Digest and the memorable Illustrations of Mikhail Belomlinsky. But much like the funeral of an old character in the film, that Russia is on her last breath.

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The story of the film is exactly like the life of its characters, it goes nowhere. There are simple incidents and moments that hold little more importance than the anxious struggle of a housefly against a glass window. More can happen, but it doesn’t – and that is as important as it is beautiful. Was the climax of the film when Lyokha oars the boat through the slow green silence of the folding back waters? Or when Lyokha and Yura sit beside the lake as a rocket launches in silence behind them? Or was it the time little Timur smokes a cigarette for the first time? Maybe that’s not the point at all.

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Stills are screenshots from the film trailer / Fauna map of USSR courtesy: etomesto.ru / Cover Scan from Sputnik Digest by Novosti Press Agency / Sailor Illustration scan courtesy ‘Lions and Sailing Ships’ by Raduga Publishers

A wedding in Orissa

‘My favourite city!’ – the CISF security guy at Delhi Airport presents me with a wide smile as he notices the destination on my boarding slip. Certifying that the night breeze in Ranchi is out of the world, maybe I notice a tinge of envy in his eye as he hurries to zap his metal detecting wand around the next sweaty passenger. Probably another morning export to Ranchi. Like me.

I’m going to miss that breeze though. My train from Ranchi is only an hour after the flight – onwards to Rourkela, where I attend a friend’s wedding. So this aerial view is the only Ranchi I see on my very first visit to the eastern paradise lands of Jharkhand, and Orissa too.

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The wedding is amongst the Oraon tribe, one of the several aboriginal inhabitants of the land thats nurtured them much before there were steel factories and maniacal mining ministries. And thats about all the history I’m interested in. Have always found it better to reserve the brain for present day observations and things that catch the eye. Like these little rituals of hands greeting the earth and rice being coaxed into wine.

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On the day before the wedding, a bright bus transports us, the bride’s family and friends, to the groom’s village. Its like an orientation program. Both families meeting each other and spending a day together on a farm. Under the shade of trees, with food cooked from just plucked vegetables, blended with ancient rituals and garnished with some of those games which never found their way to the big cities.

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Where I come from, they don’t even call them weddings anymore. ‘Marriage’ sounds almost legal, as if it were a selfish announcement concerning only the two protagonists involved. ‘Wedding’ on the other hand sounds more like community, more conscious of the moment and the ceremonies taking place.

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I taste the flower of the Mahua (Madhuca Longifilia) for the first time. Sweet is too simple a word to describe it – its an alkaline sort of sweet thats on the verge of fermentation, almost innocent if I can use an adjective like that, as if it were one of those primal flavours of the floral world. The bees would know better.

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The day of the wedding begins with drums and community dances. Every woman joins in, hand in hand – there is so much beauty in these moments, almost a reassurance of standing together against an onslaught of cheesy bollywood numbers and music born of electronic equipment.

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Blessings in city weddings have almost evolved into cold envelopes of currency sealed with cheap scotch tape and rupee coins. I like the act of throwing freshly harvested rice over the just married couple, one guest at a time.

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A day after the wedding, we drive out of the city, to a little dam. Somewhere on the way is this beautiful yellow attitude of a tree, daring the browns and greens to self reflect.

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A healthy snack presents itself around noon. I love the way the leaf is folded. Where’s that plastic spoon I’m not even missing?

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The rest of the afternoon, we spend at the family farm on the outskirts of Rourkela. The largest cabbage in the patch today shall be tommorrow’s lunch. Its that simple. And I realise I’m losing this simplicity every single day I spend in the big city. Do you ever think about touching the earth of the place you live in? I may have spend a decade or more in New Delhi, but I may not remember the last time I walked barefoot on its earth. Its a painful thought.

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Looking up is another such story. In the city, we never discuss what shade of blue the sky was this morning. Because its a strange shade of grey we have no name for. The people of the land know its language. Without pressure guages or weathermen or moonphase watches. And I’m busy drawing the curtains of my apartment every evening. Keeping myself in?

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In the evening, we head to the Ved Vyas mela, an annual fair coinciding with a festival. Such a fairground! A choice of giant wheels, or a try at shooting down balloons, or a ride on the dragon train. Maybe everything. Topped off with a special viewing of ‘Roop Badalne Wali Ladki’ (Form Changing Girl) – a magical spectacle in a dingy auditorium without an audience. Its based on science, the ticket seller assures me. Just in case I’m terrified.

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And thats all for this trip. Trip. Isn’t that what they call a hallucinatory experience caused by a psychedelic drug. It could have been the Mahua flower, or maybe it was just a good dose of blue sky – cerulean?

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Orissa and Jharkhand, India / All Photographs © Harpreet Padam

Tired travellers of the seas

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Tired travellers of the seas, resting by the railroad.

Narnaul, India / Photograph © Harpreet Padam

Banquets in the sky

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It would be tough for me to think backwards about what was served in each plate or bowl. I could imagine, of course, but I wouldn’t stop myself from thinking that the rectangular tray from the Lufthansa Rosenthal collection makes for a great soap-dish. Or that the Cathay Pacific Noritake bowl can be a watercolour brush dip. That is not my intention to collect these objects. As a designer of accessories, there is a lot to learn from the airline ceramics industry.

Respecting the tight constraints of airplane space, the basic function of eating & plating and the brand identity to be put forth, each airline has in the past and continues to present remarkably new products for dining in the skies. Not just the ceramics for the first and business class but for the entire domain of eating implements and cutlery as well. Add inflight furnishings, grooming and toiletry kits and you have a design category that literally stretches across continents. The fact that most of the ceramics are required to be white would not make the designer’s task any easier. So you come across great examples of form, shape, the occasional colour, texture and subtle print patterns.

Which is why I respect flea markets and even ebay – they teach and speak, if you’re listening. Products, often surprising ones, land up there possibly at the end of their primary life cycles. Books, ceramics such as these, cutlery, tools, watches, gadgets. To think about why they landed up there is only the beginning of imagining what their contributions to their users and owners was like. Almost to the dawn of the understanding that ownership is a hollow term and belief. Everything moves on.

Photo © Harpreet Padam

Then you find yourself a message

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He wasn’t playing by himself when we chanced upon him that night last week. There was a passing cyclist who had stopped to play his flute to the tunes of the accordion man. It was beautiful music, more so with the soft night breeze and the sea trying to complete the quartet. A car stopped by in audience, a woman in an auto rickshaw asked the driver to pause for a while. A curtain in Shahrukh’s balcony let out a secret sliver of light. Further down the walkway, happy daysleepers launched fire lanterns to the wind, completing the sensorial extravaganza. And then almost as soon as it had arrived, the moment began to fade. The crowd walked away, the bicycle man rode off, the waves crashed a bit harder onto the rocks. We walked on too. But the accordion man played on. Played to himself, to the sea and to the memory of the moment he just created.

Bombay, January 2015 / Photograph © Harpreet Padam