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Maria Porro on Supersalone: a special, courageous, cohesive vision

STIR speaks with the president of recently concluded Salone del Mobile event about being the first woman to take up the role, growing up with the fair, and the success of its 59th edition.

by Jincy IypePublished on : Sep 17, 2021

"We are closing this edition of the Salone del Mobile.Milano with great satisfaction and huge emotion. We did it. Thanks to all the hard work everyone put into it: the companies who hedged their bets on it, the curator Stefano Boeri and all the team of co-curators, and the organisers, the riggers, the designers, and the cultural and communication professionals who all believed in this event… Deciding to go ahead with this “Supersalone” took a good dose of courage and meant taking on a lot of responsibility – for the system as a whole and for the entire supply chain, which needed a physical and concrete occasion, not just symbolic and digital, to press the accelerator for a restart which – as we saw this week – is already in gear. We also had to guarantee the best possible conditions in terms of safety for our visitors,” announced Maria Porro, President of the Salone del Mobile.Milano, as the 2021 edition came to an end on September 10.

04 mins watch A summary of the Supersalone | Interview with Supersalone President, Maria Porro | STIRworld
A summary of the Supersalone Video: Courtesy of Salone del Mobile

"We invested and planned, with the focus on quality, sustainability and the digital dimension, and the upshot has been that our enthusiasm has been clear for all to see, our ability to create a system and look beyond business yet again, to provide a global experience, albeit in a different form, at which what really counted was innovation, commitment and cohesion. We lit the fuse and sparked a chain reaction that has involved the entire international design community, the city of Milan and the sector as a whole. We are now looking to the future, with a renewed appreciation of the value and the history of this collective heritage, keen to embrace the new challenges by getting straight to work on the 60th edition of the Salone del Mobile.Milano, which will be held from April 5 to 10, 2022," she added.

In an extensive interview as part of the STIR at Supersalone series, Porro throws light on the myriad perspectives and strategies that lead to the planning, commencement, and smooth functioning of the Supersalone, growing up with Salone del Mobile, with design as a language of communication.

Jincy Iype (JI): As President, what went into this year’s edition of Salone del Mobile, the Supersalone? What have been the biggest challenges, surprises and blessings in disguise that arose from the hybrid format?

Maria Porro (MP): The biggest challenge was to keep up the high relevance of Salone del Mobile.Milano and do better than its previous editions, to improve and evolve. This was made possible thanks to a new concept and a hybrid fair format, an exceptional team of curators and the fact that it was the first major and extensive design exhibition to open its doors after the pandemic hit year. The cross-cutting, physical-cum-online format made the planning and setting tougher yet more interesting, and we were delighted how companies and designers embraced it wholeheartedly. More than 60,000 people attended this year’s fair, exceeding all expectations in terms of visitor flow and set the seal on the recovery of the city, an entire system and the country as a whole.

President Maria Porro addressing the crowd at the inauguration of Milan Design Week 2021| Interview with Supersalone President, Maria Porro | STIRworld
President Maria Porro addressing the crowd at the inauguration of Milan Design Week 2021 Image: Luca Orsi

In other words, Supersalone came together through a courageous, cohesive vision, as truly a “super” and special edition aimed to serve as a promoter of and a catalyst for design-related activities, thoughts, and feelings, allowing the entire sector to arrive at an optimistic and brand new start.

JI: How has the fair, under your leadership reinvented itself and why was that reinvention necessary in the first place? What were some expectations that you were made aware of?

MP: We wanted to give a signal of re-departure to the entire system after such an extended interruption, reaffirming the centrality of Milan and the Salone del Mobile.Milano on the international design, cultural and innovation scene. Salone del Mobile has always been a global hub where manufacturers, designers, artists and architects, along with the general public get together, to endorse and celebrate the role of being the capital of design, of design culture, due in part to the powerful synergy between the business event and its many collaterals.

Supersalone is and was a unique occasion, a one-off event, powerfully and immediately attractive and communicative. It is open every day, not just for professionals this year but also for lovers of design who don’t necessarily belong to the industry; this time, we made sure that it was not just a commercial event but persevered to foster organic cross-pollination between all involved and meaningful extroversions. After such a long period of social and physical distancing, Supersalone was planned as an opportunity to actually meet, discuss and promote discourse, as a wholesome celebration of design. 

A glimpse of the fair’s inaugural ceremony | Interview with Supersalone President, Maria Porro | STIRworld
A glimpse of the fair’s inaugural ceremony Image: Francesco Rucci

JI: You are the fresh face of Salone, the first-ever woman elected as the President of the world’s biggest furniture fair. What is your take on becoming a symbol of a year in the pursuit of design?

MP: I grew up with design, and I began learning about it as early as I learned to speak! Design has always been a language for me as opposed to being a creative industry. One of my first memories is with my grandfather Carlo while preparing the veneers used to cover our systems, and me as a child rummaging in this large metal container of waste, to play with these enchanting wooden papers.

I visited Salone del Mobile almost every year since I was born: my whole family, my grandfather, my father, and his cousins, worked so hard for this special time, the most important moment of the year, and the kids were brought in on Sunday to see the outcome and to visit the fair. I am filled with emotion and honour, to be its President now, and the youngest ever. At the same time, I feel at ease because I naturally belong here: I am glad to represent the sector where my family has been operating for four generations, to be able to work and speak in design, advocate and advertise for it.

Curator Stefano Boeri and President Maria Porro at the opening ceremony | Interview with Supersalone President, Maria Porro | STIRworld
Curator Stefano Boeri and President Maria Porro at the opening ceremony Image: Diego Ravier

JI: "We are pouring our hearts into organising this “Supersalone” because we believe it’s crucial to go back to meeting each other, conduct relationships and see for ourselves the products that our companies have carried on creating”. Can you highlight, in the same context, your vision for the fair and how it was translated?

MP: Last year we felt a lack of a collective vision that catered to the direction of the entire sector with preened detailing. This year’s event allowed us to find out the latest products and the prospects for the future, and impressively put them together in a short span of three months. We took on a tough challenge with a great sense of responsibility. The issue of safety was key, and so we worked with all the regional institutions and bodies involved to ensure a totally safe experience for our exhibitors and visitors, starting with the green pass. The new Salone del Mobile.Milano platform with its palimpsest of events, live streamings and dedicated content ensured involvement of that part of the design community that was prevented from travelling due to the restrictions.

JI: What were some highlights from this year’s program? What were you most excited about?

MP: As planned, it was a surprising and rich Supersalone, that was underscored by innovation, sustainability and circularity, creativity, cultural exchange and a seamless digital experience - a true workshop of experimentation and cross-pollination.

Inside the fair | Interview with Supersalone President, Maria Porro | STIRworld
Inside the fair Image: Andrea Mariani

The Lost Graduation Show, curated by Anniina Koivu was dedicated to some phenomenal works of young design graduates of 2020 and 2021, from 48 design schools in 22 countries. The Makers Show devoted itself to self-producing designers from all over the world including ateliers, studios, laboratories and start-ups while Take Your Seat / Prendi posizione greeted visitors with aplomb, with an interesting roster of chairs from the 50s to the present day, studying their underlying aesthetic, evolution, and contributions to society at large.

My personal favourites were the Open Talks conversations, debates and talks by designers, architects, artists, scholars and managers from all over the world, from Humberto Campana to Alejandro Aravena and Carsten Höller, and for a break, the Identità Golose Food Court where Michelin star chefs created edible, gourmet magic.

JI: How does Supersalone contribute to the larger themes of inclusion, diversity, design transversality and green commitment? What makes you believe that it has the potential to change the course of future design possibilities?

MP: The Salone del Mobile has always been the pole of attraction for innovation and is also an example of being able to constantly innovate its contents and communicate with the world. I am confident that it has a lot of potential to continue its path in changing the future of design, as was evident this time around too. This year we were able to step beyond being just a furniture fair for manufacturers – we built ourselves as a platform where design discourse could take place, where creativity in product and furniture design was applauded.

Forestami, a planned forest of 100 trees runs from the entrance to the insides of the fair, as one of its sustainable strategies | Interview with Supersalone President, Maria Porro | STIRworld
Forestami, a planned forest of 100 trees runs from the entrance to the insides of the fair, as one of its sustainable strategies Image: Andrea Mariani

I believe that the “Supersalone” approach is crucial in striving for better and more responsible development and productions. As part of the strategy for building the fair, priority was given to hire and reuse materials and components, in order to cut material waste as much as possible. All the materials and components of the installation conceived by Andrea Caputo and Lukas Wegwerth – long parallel sets designed for the specific goods categories, and by Stefano Boeri Interiors who focused on the communal areas like the food courts, arenas and lounges were created using a reduced quantity of chipboard panels (1,230 mc), made from 100 per cent recycled wood, which are being channelled back into the production cycle with a view of circularity. This basically saved 5,53,500 kilograms of CO2 from being emitted into the atmosphere. Everything has been designed to be dismantled and subsequently reused: the display systems; the lounge areas, the benches and the chairs.

JI: How do you think the worldwide pandemic impacted the design industry, and the international furniture fair? What have the past months taught you?

MP: A pandemic of this scale had to come along for us to pay stronger attention to our Earth, its health and declining climate. This was why we were conscious of the underlying but foundational element of sustainability at Supersalone.  

Visitors at the fair | Interview with Supersalone President, Maria Porro | STIRworld
Visitors at the fair Image: Diego Ravier

Home has become more “home” and less of a “house”, a cosy place of comfort and refuge, of support and beauty, with your favourite people and possessions. You might agree with me when I say that because of extended lockdowns, we were forced to comprehend the importance of quality living spaces, as well as working, playing and relaxing with loved ones.  

 JI: What were your apprehensions of planning and hosting an event of this scale digitally as well as physically? I ask this because the fair essentially is about products, that need to be experienced in person. What are your thoughts?

MP: For sure the design experience can be only completed through physical contact with the displayed objects. The experience is layered and double-fold when you see, touch and try them – take the example of a chair design – to understand its truest essence, one has to sit in it, feel its skin. However, in the times we live in, we cannot distance ourselves from being “digital”, in business or in life. Imagine if we did not have online meeting rooms or mobile phones with internet… We have learned over the last few months that we can no longer work without a digital presence. It has been established and cemented.

One of the furniture displays inside Supersalone’s four pavilions | Interview with Supersalone President, Maria Porro | STIRworld
One of the furniture displays inside Supersalone’s four pavilions Image: Andrea Mariani

The post-pandemic world will no longer be the same as it was: we have entered a hybrid place where the physical and the digital realms coexist, boosting each other and furthering opportunities and collaborations.  

The digital Salone del Mobile.Milano project consisted of a B2B experience devised to support the strategies of the exhibiting companies, equipped with an editorial section geared to broaden the authority and leadership of the event. This platform is a tremendous opportunity for the companies, a new medium designed not just for presenting products, but for offering services, underpinning and closely interacting with the physical event, a great shared home in which Made in Italy design can unveil its ongoing research and innovation to the world.

JI: Please tell us about yourself – your formative years, your relationship with design and your first memory of it, growing up with Salone del Mobile, being the former president of Assarredo and your relationship with your family and the brand Porro.

MP: Design is my childhood, my present and my future, my work, my passion and might I say, my calling. I was born in a design-oriented family and I graduated in Set Design from the Brera Academy of Fine Arts. Went on to work in theatre, art and large events such as the Olympic games in London and Sochi - as a designer, coordinator and curator. Participating in the Olympics and organising an opening ceremony was a truly engaging and fascinating experience because it brings together so many people with very different roles and skills who manage to work in unison towards a single goal. The passion and level of commitment is unparalleled.

Maria Porro (4th gen) with her father Lorenzo, his cousins Giovanni, Danilo and Fabio Porro (3rd generation) and Arturo Porro (2nd generation) | Interview with Supersalone President, Maria Porro | STIRworld
Maria Porro (4th gen) with her father Lorenzo, his cousins Giovanni, Danilo and Fabio Porro (3rd generation) and Arturo Porro (2nd generation) Image: Maria Porro

I miss the theatre, but I don't regret my choice to leave and enter the family business. I have a beautiful job and I think it's right to be committed to carrying on a story that began many years ago and has continued for four generations. That’s even more true, after my new role for Salone del Mobile.

I started collaborating with Porro company, (co-founded by my great-grandfather Giulio in 1925, developed further by my grandfather Carlo and my father Lorenzo) in 2007 for Material House, the Piero Lissoni Collection which re-interprets by hand/manually in the most representative pieces of the Porro catalogue. This special project was realised with my contribution, as my first proper “involvement” within the family company, where I was the communication and marketing manager, and supervised the development of the new collections.

As far as my nomination for the President of Assarredo, and then of Salone del Mobile, that happened step by step - after serving on the Executive Board at Assarredo, in September 2020, I was unanimously elected President of Assarredo, the trade association for Italy’s furniture manufacturers. Before that in 2019, I became a Board member of  Altagamma, which gathers High-End Italian Cultural and Creative Companies, including one of the design sectors, recognised globally as authentic ambassadors of Italian style.

JI: What was your initial reaction when you received the news of being announced as the fair's President?

MP: I was appointed President at the end of July 2021, as a natural evolution of my commitment in the months before as President of Assarredo. The trust the whole sector and my colleagues showed in me is humbling and I was beyond honoured. Doubles your energy and enthusiasm to face and deal with responsibilities when people believe in you.

Boeri and Porro inspecting the fair on opening day | Interview with Supersalone President, Maria Porro | STIRworld
Boeri and Porro inspecting the fair on opening day Image: Diego Ravier

JI: What can you tell us about the event planned for April 2022?

MP: Even though Supersalone has ended, our work is far from done. We are now planning and creating for the most complex and emotional event of all: the next edition of the Salone del Mobile.Milano planned to commence in April next year. You will be hearing about it real soon!

Click here to read all about STIR at Supersalone, a STIR series on the best of exhibits, moods, studios, events and folks to look out for at Milan Design Week 2021.

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