FURNITURE designers know that if they want to hit the big time on the international furniture scene, the annual Milan Salone del Mobile is where they have to be at.
Also known as the Milan Design Week, it is the world's largest furniture trade fair of its kind. Last year, more than 1,200 Italian and foreign designers exhibited their products to the more than 290,000 visitors who showed up.
Over 300,000 visitors from 160 different countries are expected at this year's fair, which starts on Tuesday and lasts till April 14.
The fair draws renowned names such as Ross Lovegrove, who will be showing a collection of chairs with legs resembling seashells; Patricia Urquiola will debut an armchair alongside a couch by Philippe Starck.
The Singapore flag will continue to fly too, with the Singapore Furniture Industries Council (SFIC) leading a group of young designers who will showcase their works at Singapore Lah! The Unity in Diversity Showcase at Tortona Design Week, which is part of Milan Design Week.
Among them is furniture designer Jarrod Lim, who is no stranger to Milan Design Week. Some of his pieces shown at past editions of the trade fair were selected for mass-production by international companies such as Bonaldo and Sintesi, both from Italy, and Innermost from the UK. His furniture pieces are also sold in stores such as Design Within Reach, The Conran Shop and Lane Crawford.
This year, he will launch a new label, Hinika, inspired by the Japanese phrase itsuno hinika, which translates roughly into English as "Someday"; the collection comprises chairs and tables.
He has chosen Milan Design Week as his launch pad. "I feel it is the best opportunity to launch the brand, present the new products and to reach the right audience," he said.
He has a plan set out. His primary goal is to meet new distributors and touch base with new stores and with architects and interior designers.
Mr Lim, saying he is also looking to land large-scale projects in hotels and commercial spaces, added: "Ultimately I want to build the brand globally and generate a solid, international distribution network."
SFIC president Ernie Koh said Milan has always been considered a leading fashion, design and furnishing capital. "It has a deeply-rooted culture in design, making it a hot spot for discovering new design trends. Singapore's presence in Milan elevates Singapore designers and design houses to marketing their designs to European buyers and companies."
Melvin Ong, founder of Desinere, is a second-time participant at Milan Design Week. His eight-month-old studio also took part in Designtide Tokyo last November.
Besides furniture pieces, he and his co-founder Supertini Tjiang will be showing a collection of plates with a tembusu tree motif on them. They are his take on icons of Singapore other than the Merlion.
Mr Ong said: "Apart from the international exposure and learning from other studios, we hope to find distributors, buyers or retailers for our smaller products and also possibly to meet interesting studios and individuals to collaborate with."
Another Singapore Lah! participant is Yang Tah Ching, the founder of Studiorigins, who is launching MIX+, a line of outdoor furniture incorporating planter boxes in the design. Some pieces from the collection were previously shown at the International Furniture Fair Singapore in 2010.
After two years of finding the right manufacturers for the furniture, he said he believed now was the right time to debut the line on the global stage in Milan.
The self-described novice in the market said: "Milan will test my entrepreneurial skills in the business to sell design and furniture." He hopes to meet the right customers, potential buyers and manufacturers, who will give him a better understanding of what is needed in the other parts of the world, so that MIX+ can deliver the right products and services.
Design studio Creativeans is showing its new collection of table accessories called Adapt, which comes in a variety of designs and colours. Then there is also Artifeg, a collection of lamps with shades in synthetic rubber.
Creativeans' managing director Kimming Yap said: "From the show, we can gather feedback from the international audience, test the market and project new trends and developments in the world of design."
Other studios in the Singapore Lah! group are Acid Studio, which is showing a foldable and stackable table, NextOfKin Creatives with its motorcycle-like rocker and Space Sense Studio, with a modern-age bookcase.
The SFIC's Mr Koh said: "Works for Singapore Lah! were selected based on fresh presentations of Asian cultures, experimental application of textures, new philosophies and ideas that challenge our current habits."
To help designers defray the cost of participating in such an overseas show, the DesignSingapore Council (DSg) has its Overseas Promotion Partnership Programme, which has supported more than 300 designers with grants since 2004. The funds have enabled them to present their creations in international and trade platforms such as the Milan fair, Maison & Objet and Rooms Tokyo, and gain international market exposure, recognition and business leads.
SFIC has participated in the Milan event since 2009; this year, it is focusing on promoting and profiling Singapore's design capabilities, an area it wants to grow in upcoming years, said Mr Koh.
In previous years, the SFIC set up a Singapore Pavilion in the main Milan exhibition venue to group together its contingent's products.
The sales have taken an encouraging upward trajectory: They leaped from $60,000 in on-the-spot sales and $1.8 million in follow-on sales in 2008, to $500,000 in spot sales and $3.4 million in follow-ons just two years later.
Among those who have done well in previous showings is Lanzavecchia + Wai, a collaboration between Italian Francesca Lanzavecchia and Singaporean Hunn Wai. The duo, making a return this year in their fourth Milan outing, are launching two carpets and a table made of edible candy.
Mr Wai said response at their previous showings were "beyond expectations". The pair have since fostered close relationships with the editors of design publications and directors of design brands; their work has been acquired by museums and they have garnered commissions from brands such as Alcantara, Mercedes Benz and Samsonite.
They were also named by Newsweek magazine among "Designers of the Future" and nominated for the "Life-enhancer of the Year" title for their MonoLight magnifying lamp in this year's Wallpaper* Design Awards.
Riding on their success, they are hoping for good press exposure and to pick up insights into market trends to plan the road ahead for the studio, said Mr Wai.
Air Division, Studio Juju, Nathan Yong Design, Outofstock were also success stories at previous editions of the Milan fair.
Air Division, for example, worked with France's Ligne Roset to come up with a series of products including the Pebble Table, Paper Table, Marcello Chair and Paraffin tea-light holders; designer Jason Ong worked with Driade to design the Living in Clover Suspension Light in 2009, which is enjoying popular sales worldwide.
Designer Nathan Yong who has gone on to design for brands such as Ligne Roset and Mogg after showing at previous Milan Design Weeks, is giving this year's fair a miss, as he believes he already has a strong database of contacts.
Outofstock is returning this year, not with its own show, but as a presenter for a new product for Ligne Roset.
For the first time this year, the SFIC is showing works by Singaporean designers at a satellite event. Mr Koh said that in recent years, Milan has grown its design outreach to incorporate various events for a stronger and more vibrant Design Week.
In response, the SFIC is focusing on the furniture-design talents in Singapore and highlighting their ability to be a bridge between Western companies and their targeted Asian markets, an area with growth potential.
Through Singapore Lah!, the SFIC aims to put Singapore designers on an international design platform and facilitate this cross-matching.
He said: "The SFIC recognises that design is a key competitive advantage and a driver for the growth of the furniture industry in Singapore, and has dedicated efforts to position Singapore as the design hub of Asia."