Hi-Tech Home Visions at the Milan Design Expo

In the last decade, as wild financial growth was accompanied by an explosion of ostentation, the world of high-end furniture—perched between pragmatism and corporeal comfort, and enjoyable primarily in the confines of one's home—remained a bit less giddy. Today, as the rest of the luxury industry is stripping away layers of bling, the home-furnishings world is focusing on creating a satisfying post-crisis life. The products reflect both an ongoing infatuation with high-tech progress and an urge to live on a more intimate, modest scale.

Such impulses were abundantly clear at the Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan, the design world's most important annual event, where thousands of designers, retailers, manufacturers and spectators gathered from March 22 to 27. With baroque gestures out of vogue, the most striking wares on display betrayed these two urges: toward experimental technology and a simpler, handmade esthetic.

The Dutch collective Droog Design staged a large show of nine designers committed to keeping conceptual furniture down to earth and approachable. A standout was Next Architects' ready-made bookshelf, which gently mocks the practice of using knowledge as a status symbol. The shelf has a built-in, hinged, trompe l'oeil fa ade of books featuring impressive titles that can be covered as you acquire real books (price on request; droog.com).

Fendi's "Craft Punk" exhibition turned the low-tech theme into visceral entertainment. Over three days, 10 designers created new products in front of visitors' eyes—all from materials discarded from Fendi's factories. The most winning work was by the young Spanish star Nacho Carbonell, who assembled fairy-tale "Beasts" using only molding wire, Fendi leather scraps and a staple gun (sculpture, approximately $9,600; nachocarbonell.com). His surreal objects seemedlike pets, avatars of our desire for domestic comfort.

At the other end of the spectrum, young talents including two Polish designers, Agnieszka Lasota and Oskar Zieta, boldly embraced advanced technology. Lasota straddled the boundary between art and furniture: she enclosed antique tables and a mirror in heavy polarized-glass "sarcophagi." With the push of a button, the surfaces turn opaque and reveal images of a fully set table or an antique photo of a woman looking in the mirror. Zieta, meanwhile, showcased a new process using air-injected steel that is 100 percent recyclable, nontoxic, lightweight and relatively cheap to manufacture. Pieces like the Plopp stool look pretty too ($275; zieta.pl).

The two themes came together in the work of some of the biggest brands. Baccarat enlisted Spanish designer Jaime Hayon to create a limited-edition collection of fanciful vases and objets d'art, titled "Crystal Candy." At Swarovski's Crystal Palace, an annual exhibit of furniture made with Swarvoski crystals, Israeli designer Arik Levy based his installation on the idea of the diamondlike chaton cut (the most traditional crystal cut), incorporating the shape into carpets, furniture, sculptures and even an enormous chamber.

As the Salone showed, the design world's brightest lights are producing models for how to live both thoughtfully and stylishly. Rather than force a choice between these approaches, the message of the fair was that there is plenty of room for an ongoing discussion about which offers the best path forward. In this punishing economic climate, such a debate should serve high-end home furnishings well; it may make it the luxury sector best poised to come out strong on the other side.

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