Dashboard plastics have morphed into futuristic easy chairs. Tailgate reflectors into jewel-like garden lights. Stretchy fabrics worn by bobsledders into sofa slipcovers. Tennis-racket frames into featherweight dining chairs.
It was off with the old, on with the new - the cross-fertilization of ideas from high-tech industries - at the 35th annual Milan Furniture Fair. And the more than 150,000 visitors who came to stare at the furniture found themselves instead paying more attention to the material they were made of.The "new materials" were the most interesting aspect of the fair - which ended Monday - said Alberto Meda, one of the leading figures in Italian design.
Meda's prototype carbon-fiber chair, produced with the plastics giant DuPont in 1987, is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. So the slogan "Plastic, a New Treat" of the Droog Design Foundation, a young company from Amsterdam, the Netherlands, exhibiting in Milan this year, seemed a bit dated.
But Marcel Wanders' knotted-carbon fiber chair for Droog was ground-breaking and gravity-defying nevertheless.
Developed in the Netherlands with the Aviation and Space Laboratory at the Delft University of Technology, the chair was the result of knitting together high-tech fibers and drenching them in epoxy resins so that they hold a shape.
It has an exotic, airy look, like something Mies van der Rohe might have created if he had worked in macrame in Morocco rather than leather in Germany. The prototype is $1,500; the finished product, expected later this year, should cost a third of that.
If the Belgian designer Pol Quadens has his way, one day we may all be buying furniture by weight, like vegetables. Quadens, who works in carbon fiber, the lightest, most tensile material, has developed a solid-looking dining chair that weighs about two pounds. His C06 chair will be at Cumberland International, 305 East 63rd Street, New York, in October for about $900.
Right now, star appeal comes cheaper than museum-quality plastics: Philippe Starck's Miss Trip chair for Kartell, with a beechwood back and beechwood legs that screw into a pastel plastic seat, is $230 at the Moss store at 146 Greene Street, New York.
Miss Trip was more evolutionary than revolutionary - a sign of the trend toward mixing materials. (Other designs at the fair featured plastic with wood, aluminum with plastic, and glass with just about everything.)
High-tech materials, said George Beylerian, a design consultant to Steelcase, the office furniture manufacturer in Grand Rapids, Mich., "give furnishings an updated look. People feel they're going into the 21st century."
At the moment, so-called mutant materials are de rigueur in the furniture and fashion industries. On the catwalk the fashion designers Miuccia Prada, Tom Ford at Gucci and Marc Jacobs featured highly engineered synthetics. But currently there are two drawbacks for furniture made of avant-garde materials: The items are generally made by hand and are expensive to produce.
"Using carbon fiber to make a chair is a long process - you might as well use gold," said Beylerian, who during the 1970s helped Kartell, the Italian company known for its plastic furniture, produce its breakthrough stackable chair, designed by Joe Colombo. (It retailed for $40, which in today's prices is $100.)
Beylerian said a $1,500 price tag for a lightweight chair was "an outlandish price to pay. You're buying it purely for the love of technology."
In hopes of making more affordable products, young European designers like Jasper Morrison, who established the wood-and-metal minimalist look of the early 90s, are turning toward polypropylene and aluminum. Morrison's indoor-outdoor stacking Lima chair comes in acid green and sky blue and will sell this summer for $200 through Modern Age at 102 Wooster Street, New York.
Christophe Pillet, a rising French design star, said: "If you choose to work in wood, it is very charged with historical values and nostalgia. Metal is very hard and industrial. But plastic is free semantically."
Targeting a younger clientele, Pillet created a body-hugging easy chair out of a polyurethane that is mainly used for car dashboards, and a $400 table with a removable tray top for eating in bed. "Young people today live in compact, not overornamented space," he said. "I have very little furniture and clothes; only lots and lots of paper."
With limited space, furniture - even for the study - has become more flexible. The London architect Ron Arad has freed bookcases from their moorings with his Wheels shelves - three sizes of steel, aluminum and plexiglass cases that can range freely through the house without leaving a trail of Dante and Dostoyevsky. And there are free-range light systems, as well.
Designers and manufacturers are eagerly anticipating the wireless home and portable lighting. Piero Gandini, an owner of Flos lighting in Italy, predicts the advent of battery-powered rechargeable lights. "Everyone is working on it," he said. "We must solve this problem because wiring the house is one of the biggest costs in building."
The British designer Ross Lovegrove has a solution: sun power. He says his outdoor Solar Bud lights can store sufficient daytime energy to light a garden at night. The battery holding the solar charge lasts for five years, he said.
Not since the 60s has there been so much talk of emotions and daydreams and creating environments where people can feel happy (until they get the bill). The American artist and designer Kris Ruhs blurred the boundaries of art and design with his installations of candles, hanging on a metal curtain, surrounding silvery metal chairs. (They can be customized for $30,000.)
Individualization is the buzzword du jour. But the design that attracted the most attention at the fair was a new system by Artemide, an Italian lighting manufacturer, that allows consumers to "paint" rooms with striated "sensurround" light.