To solve these crippling dilemmas, car companies are scrambling to find new ways to reach the public, and many are looking beyond conventional motor shows to do so.

Milan’s annual Salone del Mobile, aka Milan Design Week, is one such avenue. Spread across the style-obsessive northern Italian metropolis, the event, with its focus on lighting, interior and graphic design, reaches further than the typical confines of any motor show.

This year, nine international car brands were represented at the event. While some hired internationally recognised designers to create pieces for them, others chose to create designs in house. Only one carmaker, Renault, showed an actual concept car.

“Milan Design Week has grown in recent years from a furniture trade show into a world-class design exhibition,” said Paul Van der Burgh, director of Lexus Europe. Van der Burgh cited the broad slate of industries, including automakers, which use the event “to showcase their designs and communicate their brand messages.”

Here is a snapshot of automakers’ activities in and around Milan.


Toyota’s luxury subsidiary centred its messaging around its L-Finesse design ethos, which was given abstract form through a web-like, ash wood and aluminium sculpture created in part by notable Japanese architect Toyo Ito. But the company also showed its support for up-and-coming designers through its first annual design competition. The 12 winners were announced at the Museo della Permanente, next to the large-scale sculpture.


The French automaker stood out as the only brand to exhibit a concept car at the event. The Twin’Z, which previewed the next-generation Twingo compact car, drew on specially commissioned product designer Ross Lovegrove’s penchant for tactile materials and technology. It also fits within the ambitious, multi-vehicle “life cycle” series of concepts spearheaded by Renault’s design director, Laurens van den Acker.  

BMW and Mini

Longstanding exhibitors in Milan, these corporate cousins betrayed no familial link in their displays. BMW commissioned French brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec to design a carousel-like installation to highlight the sustainability of its i range, set to launch later this year. Mini’s own team created a spatial concept titled Kapooow!, intended to draw attention to the new Paceman sports activity vehicle.


For the first time, the Blue Oval occupied a stand at the event’s main venue. “We are attending the Salone del Mobile showing products designed by automotive designers,” said Erika Tsubaki, design supervisor for Ford of Europe. The carmaker’s creatives stretched their multidisciplinary skills, using the brand’s trapezoidal grille as a motif for a lamp and chair, while basing a watch’s design on gauges in an instrument cluster.


The DS Sofa, exhibited in a small room off Corso Roma, was a way to “affirm the creativity of our designers by crossing into the world of furniture design,” said the French company’s design director, Thierry Metroz. The sofa did double conceptual duty: the shape of a shark's fin on the sofa’s back and the interwoven leather of the seat were faithful to the resurrected DS model line, but the piece also paid homage to the iconic “la chaise” by mid-century minimalism titans Ray and Charles Eames.


The Italian marquee collaborated with a Milanese furniture company to create the Lounge Chair by Zanotta, nominally inspired by the exterior of the redesigned Quattroporte sedan. The tufted leather and chrome-plated steel may not evoke the sports sedan in any direct way, but the lounge, which will be produced in a limited run at undisclosed pricing, handily delivers on shared brand values like “style” and “elegance”, according to the chair’s designers, Ludovica and Roberto Palomba. The pair has worked in the past for Maserati leather supplier Poltrona Frau.


A light installation was the Korean automaker’s way of showcasing its Fluidic Sculpture design language. Developed in collaboration with special effects company WhiteVoid, the installation used a 3D scanning system that registered body warmth and enabled visitors to interact with the 12,000 luminescent spheres to create curves and shapes.


Head of design Ikuo Maeda has a fondness for Milan. Mazda’s current Kodo design language was introduced in the city a few years ago, and this year the automaker opened a pop-up in the heart of Milan’s fashion district. While the space’s centrepiece was the new 6 sedan, the company also unveiled a Kodo-inspired one-off chair.

“The car industry can be very predictable as to how it presents itself – motor shows, automobile magazines, etcetera,” said Peter Birtwhistle, the carmaker’s European director of design. “At Mazda we believe that we have to embrace a broader audience.”