A Day at the Epicenter of Global Design

A look inside the largest designer furniture event in the world.

What started out as a vehicle for promoting Italian furniture makers in the 1960s soon exploded into the world’s biggest international showcase for design. Today, over 2,500 companies and 300,000 visitors from 160 countries congregate in Milan, the city known for its fashion and football, to spot trends, strike deals and mingle.

While many of the city’s upper-crust neighborhoods host scattered events and installations as part of the Milan Design Week effort today, the Salone Internazionale del Mobile (or Milan Furniture Fair in English) located outside of the city remains the core of the festivities. We spent a day walking the nearly 4,000,000 square feet of exhibition space for a taste of the latest in home and office furniture design keeping the famous words of Milan’s most famous resident designer, Leonardo da Vinci, top of mind. La semplicità è l’ultima sofisticazione — simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

The Search for the Next Great Designer

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At an event dominated by the most established players in the industry, Lexus is helping foster the next generation of designers through their annual Design Awards. Since 2012, the initiative has encouraged both students and aspiring professionals to submit project ideas that align with each year’s theme for the opportunity to bring their concepts to life while working alongside legendary mentors.

Of the thousands of applications submitted for this year’s “senses” theme, 12 finalists were chosen to show their ideas in Milan as part of the Lexus’ design experience. Four projects in this group were awarded up to 2.5 million yen to cover the costs of prototype production and were provided with three months of mentoring from established experts like furniture designer Max Lamb and video game designer Robin Hunicke.

We caught up with one of the four finalists, Spanish product designer and student Marina Mellado Mendieta, to learn more about the evolution of her concept. Her advanced lighting project LUZ consists of two RGB LED strips connected to an open-source micro-controller and a wireless TCS sensor, which monitors and captures the colors and light intensity of the external environment. By adapting inside lighting in response to the lighting of the outside world, LUZ is meant to improve the well-being of residents while also serving as a engaging statement in home design.

GP: How did the idea for this project come about?

Marina: I started to notice the impact a lack of sunlight was having on my mood as well as my friends’ while spending two years in north Poland. So I thought let’s try to build a lamp that interacts with nature. Mostly I wanted to remove the barriers between the inside and the outside of the home.

GP: How long did it take you to go from a concept to a working model?

Marina: A very long time. Even longer than from working model to production, because you really need to take it and talk to people who are really impacted by a lack of sunshine and you have to listen to them. They chose these colors you see the lamp display. I basically designed this with the customer. Not for the customer.

GP: What did you learn from the homes you tested the prototype in?

Marina: First of all the shape. Finding the right shape was a big question. People respond to the circle because it looks like an eclipse or the sun. It feels like a natural element. I also took the huge prototype to many houses in Poland, placed the sensor by the window and asked people to write down the RGB values that they wanted when it was sunny, cloudy, at night etc. I discovered that many preferred shades of blue in the evening after work to stimulate their mind. When it was cloudy outside, they clearly wanted the orange and yellowish hues of sunshine. My relatives in Spain however didn’t like these colors. So I decided to build an online community where people from all over the world could share their LUZ light preferences.

GP: What was the most valuable part of having a mentor like Max Lamb as part of this process?

Marina: Thanks to Max I figured out the manufacturing process. He has so much experience. He was direct about what I needed to work on and told me things straight away.

When we first met, he pushed me to go production given that I already had a 3D-printed prototype. He also suggested I create a smaller version of the LUZ beyond by original square-meter design so that it would make sense in homes of different sizes.

I was really nervous about the production process, but he coached me on how to create the perfect relationship between the designer and manufacturer. For example, the rim of the lamp is made in the exact same way rounded window frames are made. It was so difficult to find a partner who could do this well. He encouraged me to do more research and speak with manufacturers until I found someone who could do exactly what I wanted. Thanks to that, I now feel free to take on any project I can think of in the future.

GP: Do you think you’d be a different position now if you hadn’t been part of the Design Awards Program?

Marina: It’s launched my project, turning my idea into a real life product. Without it, I’d still be working with a simple 3D-printed prototype.

Curious to know more? See the development of the LUZ project for yourself via the video below.

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