When attempting to visualize the diverse country of Italy, it is easy to gather only images of ancient ruins where gladiators once shed blood, extravagant galleries abounding with work by famous artists like Michelangelo and Caravaggio and countless lavish baroque and romanesque churches. For the most part, Italy is seen as one big homage to the past. While the country has done an impeccable job at preserving history, we cannot forget that it is also home to cutting-edge design.
Milan is widely regarded as a global capital in industrial design, fashion and architecture. Beyond the historic gothic-style Duomo and the charming Brera district, you will find contemporary galleries, museums and showrooms featuring some of the most innovative ideas and artwork in the world.
The idea of Milan as a progressive hub can be traced back to the early 1900s Futurist movement, sparked by the Italian poet, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who was sick and tired of his country being stuck in the past. The social and artistic motion glorified modernity, speed, industrialization and progress, and rejected the glorification of the past. While this avant-garde movement was fairly short lived, it heavily influenced forthcoming movements that shaped Milan into the contemporary city it is today.
Post-war Italy looked to industry as an opportunity for renewed prosperity, and to creative design to unify all of its productions. In 1933, architect Giovanni Muzio designed the Palazzo dell’Arte, which served as the headquarters of the Triennale di Milano, an exhibition that highlights decorative and industrial arts as well as modern architecture held every three years. For over 80 years, the Triennale has been an icon for cultural and economic life, and an engine for important international dialogue between society and the arts.
In the 1950s, Milan sprung Italy even further into the present. From 1952 to 1955, the revenue from Milan’s fashion exports almost quadrupled. In addition to the growing fashion scene, modern skyscrapers, such as the Pirelli Tower and the Torre Velasca were built, and forward-thinking artists such as Bruno Munari and Lucio Fontana migrated to the city. The city also became known for the Fiera Milano, Europe’s largest permanent trade exhibition, and Salone Internazionale del Mobile, one of the most prestigious international furniture and design fairs.
Some of the most prominent hot spots for design in Milan include the Triennale Design Museum, 10 Corso Como, Studio Museo Achille Castiglioni and the countless showrooms for designers such as Venini, Flos, Alessi and Dilmos. The Triennale Design Museum opened within the Palazzo dell’Arte in 2007, and is the first museum in Italy focused on industrial design.
Unlike the typical museum with a fixed collection, the Triennale is a space with continuously changing exhibitions, some focusing on culinary design, infographics, iconic Italian designs from the 20th century, graphic novels, sustainable urban architecture in Africa and others featuring the work of major artists, such as Keith Haring and Roy Lichtenstein, and designers like Giorgio Armani and Louis Vuitton. In addition to the diversity of exhibits, the museum also houses an amazing bookshop, cafe and outdoor picnic area. Ten Corso Como is a shopping and dining complex that shows and sells works of art, music, design and cuisine. The complex was founded in 1990 by gallerist and publisher Carla Sozzani, when it started as an art gallery and bookshop. By 2009, it expanded to accommodate a fashion store, cafe, small hotel and luscious rooftop garden. Ten Corso Como is known as a “radical union of culture and commerce,” and its maze-like succession of small showrooms is meant to promote slow shopping. The complex is also known as one of the most innovative establishments in terms of retailing and marketing.
One of the best kept secrets of the design world is the Fondazione Achille Castiglioni. After his death in 2002, the famous Rationalist industrial designer, Achille Castiglioni’s workshop was perfectly preserved. His daughter currently gives daily informal tours of the space. When you enter the studio adjacent to Piazza Castello, you enter a whimsical world of knickknacks, vision boards and original designs. The opportunity to get a glance into Castiglioni’s world of inspiration and vision is unlike any experience you could ever get while at a museum or gallery. This is a must-see for design lovers.
Milan may not possess the classical beauty of Rome or Florence, but what it lacks in historical charm, it makes up for in progress, culture and innovation. Nowhere else in the world will you feel the same energy, and nowhere else will you find the same love and dedication to the art of design.