Design Ecosystem in Milan

{ 🇮🇹 } – Milan: design innovation and tradition in Italy’s second-biggest city

Cathedral Square in Milan. Photo by AC Almelor.

Everybody knows Milan as one of the fashion capitals, but Milan is also a well-established design hub. Design’s relationship with Milan is certainly not a recent one, as the city has long been considered one of the most important design centres in Europe.

But is there anything setting Milan apart from the likes of Berlin, Amsterdam, Moscow, and London when it comes to its design and start-up culture? Surely, as Milan is one of Italy’s main cities, as well as its financial centre, those factors certainly contribute in making Milan’s overall design ecosystem a pretty peculiar one. Let’s find out why.

Between History and Innovation

Even though Milan is not one of the oldest cities in the country, history is abundant everywhere you go. At the same time, Italy’s second-biggest city is also its most vibrant, modern and richest. This makes for an interesting atmosphere and creates the right conditions for a design scene to thrive. Rooted in tradition, but always looking forward – this is definitely an appropriate way to describe Milan. To understand why Milan – which in the past has never been one of the boot-shaped European country’s traditionally influential cities – is now its leading one, one has to look at the recent events which have shaped it.

To better understand why Milan has become such an important hub for creativity and entrepreneurship, not only locally but internationally, one cannot avoid mentioning one of, ( if not the) main economical drive of the city: the fashion industry. Why, and how, has Milan – and not Rome, or Florence, or Venice – become Italy’s (and one of Europe’s) trendsetting capitals? Italy’s second city first emerged as a fashion capital in the 1970s, mainly due to it being more affordable compared to the country’s established capital of fashion at the time, Florence. But while Florence was known for high couture, Milan specialised in ready-to-wear, and eventually trumped Florence and became the undisputed Italian fashion capital.

To understand why Milan claimed the top spot in fashion it’s necessary to mention that this was one of the first cities to industrialise in the country. The rapid industrialisation led to the wider region becoming Italy’s industrial centre, which laid the ideal conditions for the fashion industry that would appear some decades later.

The State of Design in Milan

The rapid (and successful) industrialisation Milan experienced was, as already mentioned, at the very core of its future establishment as a centre of fashion, first, and subsequently design, mainly of furniture and products. Today, the words ‘Milan’ and ‘design’ are so intertwined that talking about Milanese design is a thing. But what is implied when one speaks of Milanese design… ?

In Milan, design is, first and foremost, a language. Regardless of the particular niche, chances are that you will be able to tell if a particular product, graphic, piece of clothing or furniture has been created there.

Trams in central Milan. Photo by Andreeew Hoang.

Over the last decades, Milan has managed to establish itself as one of the global centers of design; here, ideas and languages were born that went on to spread around the world and which fostered the very development of design itself. Some of the world’s most important design studios and schools are based in the city, and it is here that some of the true masters of design were born or grew professionally.

It is impossible to talk about Milanese design without mentioning one of its best representatives: Massimo Vignelli. You don’t need to be an expert to know about him: his works and teachings have reached cult status, and he is widely considered to be one of the greatest designers of our time. He famously said that “The life of a designer is a life of fight against ugliness”, and that is what he’s fought for his entire life (he passed away in 2014).

For Vignelli, “design is one”, meaning that a designer can (must) design graphics, furniture, products… anything, basically. Sure, all the different niches require additional knowledge and competences, but at the very core, a designer can be a universal figure. This was true especially of himself, as there was no area of design he didn’t try his hand at. Even though Vignelli has spent most of his life living and working in the US (where he famously designed the New York City subway visual identity), his legacy is very much alive in his native country of Italy and so a whole generation of designers was born inspired by the values and work of this late design icon.

The Local Design Community

Milan is truly where it’s when it comes to design events. Let’s start with the obvious — Milan is home to the world-famous Salone Internazionale del Mobile (Italian for ‘International Furniture Fair’), by far the largest and most important yearly event dedicated to furniture design. The Salone has been running since 1961 and was originally focused solely on furniture created in Italy. Today, the event is visited by almost 500.000 people during its six-day duration, and the number has been increasing constantly every year. Of course, Salone del Mobile is just the icing on the cake of the design-focused cultural offer one can find in Milan. Lots of smaller-scale events, which keep the scene fresh and help upcoming studios and solo designers emerge and get their name out there, happen regularly throughout the calendar year.

When it comes to meetups, one is just spoiled with choice in Italy’s second city. One does not need to look too far to find a plethora of loose or more structured get-togethers that bring together like-minded creatives in all the different fields of design.

Where to Work from in Milan

So you happen to be in Milan and you don’t want to work from your hotel room, Airbnb, hostel or friend’s place. Well, you’re in luck, because this city offers plenty of good choices for the remote worker of today, regardless of whether you prefer a sleek and modern co-working space, or a nice and cozy café with plenty of room (and sockets!).

Let’s start out with the co-working spaces: a quick Google search will immediately point you in the right direction as most of what’s available is worth a mention, but we’ll say that the places that deserve the most attention are COWO (which runs more than ten different spaces in Milan), YoRoom and Coworking Lab.

More of a café person? Well, Milan is in Italy after all, so obviously you won’t have a problem finding a place that suits your needs and tastes in this European metropolis. As you’re all probably aware, coffee (well, espresso) culture in Italy is (still) very strong, and what that means is: enter the café, order an espresso, consume it and leave, all whilst standing at the counter. The whole process usually doesn’t take more than five minutes, but naturally, as Milan is a modern European city which, you can also find plenty of laptop-friendly cafes where you can take all the time you need to slowly sip your caffeinated beverage of choice whilst getting some work done.

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Gianmarco Caprio / Content & Community Manager @ Phase

Content creator, editor and community manager at Phase.