MILAN -- Thirty-five years ago in Milan, Italian furniture designers fired the opening shot in a war against the dowdy living rooms and dull bedrooms of post-war Europe. They started a furniture show for the best new stuff around.
Half art gallery, half innovative but practical furniture show, the 00 Salone del Mobile, or Salon of Furniture, blew the stodgy chintz crowd out of the water with chic, modern designs.
Back in 1961, the show was a revolt against conformity. Today, it's a sophisticated prediction of what will be available to you in a year or so, when the quality furniture manufacturers who show at High Point, N.C., retool for the trends.
The show's top designers this spring aimed at an international consumer who is socially conscious, politically correct, nonsexist and not necessarily part of a nuclear family. This consumer, a citizen of the global village rather than of a specific country, is ecologically oriented, avid for natural materials and sensuous interpretations of the natural world, conscious of but not restricted by ethnic and national background. And surprise! The consumer has a sense of humor and a lively interest in individualizing the domicile to reflect an eccentric, personal view of the world.
You and I, according to Milan's research, are making home a place to play, work, retreat and enjoy on a level undreamed of 35 years ago. But we're trying to do it with the same old sofas, chairsand shelves that worked for the Eisenhowers.
Enter Milan's designers, who are pushing the limits of manufacturing technology to achieve furniture that will work in the consumer's new cocoon.
They see this consumer as interested in furniture that can adapt to many needs by folding into several configurations. Storage and work surfaces expand, contract and adapt to different heights. Breakfast bars and chairs metamorphose into beds for the occasional guest.
Bernini's dining table flips to form a super-sized, sleek banqueting surface and then meekly reassumes its Clark Kent identity as an everyday 4 by 6. Vibieffe's chairs dovetail to form unusual groups: one way for ordinary life, another for entertaining.
Seating, from the basic chair to the fat sofa, is designed to take up minimum space, clean easily and please the eye. Cosmit, the show's organizer, calls it adrenalin furniture: pieces that aim at eliciting emotions through ingenious use of color, shape and texture.
Most encouraging, for those in a small apartment and on a small budget, is the trend away from throwaway furniture toward pieces that will last and can be added to as needs and finances change.
It adds up to a view of the home as a bastion against the rigors and tensions of modern life, a safe place where the furniture is part of the cocoon of sensual tranquillity.
Snaidero's OLA kitchen illustrates just what Milan means by flexibility. Red as Marilyn Monroe's lipstick, lusciously curvy, it's at ease with every occasion from a child's birthday party to a gourmet dinner.
Rossi di Albizzate's She chairs and Tube sofa are in the same category; they invite, they adapt. Reminiscent of the swimming amoebas that were in the first wave of modern furniture, they are a prime example of Milan's design at its most playful. In the same just-for-fun mood are the very practical folding Umbrella chairs and soft, plastic Lips hangers from Zerodisegno.
Demographic studies, which show a rising consumer appreciation for responsible consumption, have Milan's designers jumping on the green products' bandwagon with innovative evocations of the natural world. This year's show flaunted designs in ecologically conscious woods, recycled metals and glass.
Fiam Italia's Shell glass table, designed by Danny Lane, is the sort of green furniture that drew big crowds. Built of thick sheets of glass, it's evocative of the sea and cries out to be touched and used. Molteni & C's slim, curved chests of drawers, which also invite the fingers to explore the natural beauty of the walnut revealed by the craftsman, are a sophisticated homage to the tree that gave them birth -- utterly simple, except for the wood.
Fabrics for the sofas and chairs shown by several manufacturers of modular furniture were radiant powdery blues, greens, oranges and lemons that seemed faded to a soft glow by the sun -- a great relief from the minimal beiges and grays that have dominated the scene for the past couple of years.
The longing for home as a place where family history exists peacefully with an evolving future was reflected in superb reinterpretations of classic pieces from the past, like Selva's Venetian Baroc-Commode 5220, veneered with hand- sawed cherry, lime and walnut, and a dead ringer for the chest you wish your grandmother had had in the hall. Nearly every century from the 18th on was represented in careful reproduction, with a significant preponderance of early 20th-century moderns like Stickley.