This article is part of our Design special report previewing 2022 Milan Design Week.
Maria Porro, the president of Salone del Mobile, represents a break from her predecessors. She is the first woman to run the event, which is known in English as the Milan Furniture Fair, and at 38, she is bringing a much younger perspective, as well as a nontraditional education. Trained in set design at Brera Academy in Milan, she put her theatrical experience to surprising use over a nearly 10-year career that included helping to stage the pageantry of the Olympic Games in London and in Sochi, Russia.
But Ms. Porro is also an insider who was born into the world of Italian design. The scion of a notable furniture-producing clan, she now serves as the marketing and communications chief of the family company, Porro, founded in 1925. She grew up attending Salone, as the fair is known, and has a deep network in the design world.
“It’s not a job, it’s an adventure,” Ms. Porro, who lives just outside Milan, said of her new position. As she embarked on Salone’s 60th edition, featuring 2,000 exhibitors, she talked about the fair’s storied past and the future she will help shape. (The interview, which took place by phone in May, has been edited and condensed.)
If readers haven’t been to Salone before, what can they expect?
Well, it’s the place where new things are presented. So if you want to see the trends, if you want to see the future, you have to go to Salone, because that is the place to be.
What’s one of those new things?
One interesting trend is the fact that the difference between outdoor and indoor furniture doesn’t exist anymore. The border between inside and outside has been completely canceled by two years of this pandemic. People want to enjoy the outside with the same comfort as they have inside. And they want to have the same freedom that they have outside, inside.
This is the first full-scale edition of Salone since 2019. Does it feel like a significant moment to arrive?
We have been passing through a storm. The pandemic of the past two years has been very difficult for every event, for every fair. At the same time, what a time to focus on houses and homes and furniture — everybody discovered how important it is to be in a good environment, to have the right light in the room, to have the right chair. We rediscovered how important it is to be surrounded by beautiful objects.
But Salone itself also represents the social part of this business, too, correct?
We have a very big opportunity, but at the same time, we have a really big responsibility. People want to spend time together. A big fair like Salone, it’s the meeting of creative minds, the kind that we have been missing too much.
“Sustainability” is the word on everyone’s lips, and it was the focus of the smaller SuperSalone event last fall. What’s new on that front?
We have an installation about sustainability in furniture [“Design With Nature”], which is designed by the architect Mario Cucinella. It will also have an amazing library, with books dedicated to sustainability in architecture, furniture and design. So it will be a hub inside Salone to discuss the next step of furniture and design.
And we decided this year to write some guidelines for the exhibitors, but also the installers, about best practices for a sustainable exhibition. So, this year, they are guidelines — but next year they will be rules. It’s about prioritizing sustainable materials that are recycled or can be recycled, and a plastic-free approach. And we prefer energy-saver lighting systems and shorter supply chains.
How is the fair working to be more accessible to a broader audience?
The pavilion dedicated to young designers — the SaloneSatellite — is in the front of the fairground and it will be free. And this year, Saturday and Sunday [the last days of the fair, June 11 and 12] are dedicated to the public, versus the trade. In the past it was just Sunday, and we thought we needed two days.
More and more family-owned Italian design companies are being bought by larger groups. What does that mean for the industry?
I don’t think it’s a negative or positive trend; it’s a trend. It depends on the group that is buying the company — how much they understand the company. It is delicate and needs to be handled carefully. At the same time, some family businesses, maybe they don’t have a new generation interested in continuing the tradition, or they need capital. So if it is needed to sustain the company, why not? There’s not a single recipe that works for everybody.
Notably, Porro is not one of those companies, and remains privately owned.
Well, my company started in 1925, a long time ago — we’re almost 100. As at many other companies, we’ve seen change across the years. We started as a workshop and then we became a real industry. In the past 15 years, the business has become centered on architectural furniture, like bookshelves, modular storage closets. We think about how the object creates the space.
I think that this evolution was connected to Salone.
In setting up for the fair, we had to design the architecture; we had to design the space. And this changed the way we approached the furniture. But we still produce couches and tables and chairs. You can always write a new song; you can always design a new chair.
Do you think that your being young and a woman is a game changer for Salone?
Yes, I think it changes the game. It’s a very difficult question — in Italy we would say molto scivoloso [very slippery]. I am what I am. And, of course, Salone already has wonderful women like Marva Griffin, who started SaloneSatellite for young designers. Maybe, in the past, these kinds of roles were about being powerful. I think it’s the time to be more open, to listen more and to underline the amazing quality of what we do. What I do is ask a lot of questions. I think this is something that young people try to do. It’s very important in this moment to look forward.
Does training in theater come in handy running Salone?
Absolutely. I think that working in theater, that experience in live events, was very important for me. The pressure is incredible. You have to make it happen — otherwise, everybody in the theater will notice that something is not working in the proper way. What I love about theater is the fact that everybody is working and focused on the same goal, moving in the same direction, from the costumer to the big singer to the amazing director and lighting designer. The same is true for Salone.
And you would know, having attended since childhood. How old were you when you first came to the fair?
I was probably 6. I still remember the old fairground. With the eyes of a child, you appreciate the strange shapes and the colors. And then when I grew up, I started to look at the installations. That’s why I’m really connected with the history, with the heritage of Salone. The past two years have let us rediscover the importance of this event. The fact that it’s something that is temporary makes it even more precious, you know? If you miss it, you miss it. This temporary aspect is part of what makes it unmissable.