Crisis lurks in the shadows at Milan design fair

Crawling with creative types and packed with high-end designer furniture, Milan Design Week has shown all its characteristic panache with no hint of the economic crisis crushing Italy.

But despite the tens of thousands crowding the pavilions this year, and upbeat praise from architects, artists and style-minded businessmen, all was not well below the surface.

"The crisis was really paralysing in the run-up to Christmas and so we were all very afraid that the Salone would not go well," said architect Marco Romanelli.

"In the end, it has been amazing, The Salone was better than the one last year," said Romanelli, who has been attending Milan Design Week -- known as the Salone del Mobile (Salon of Furniture) in Italy -- for 30 years.

The fair, which wraps up on Sunday, counted more than a few among the 2,000 exhibitors who said times are getting tougher in the austerity-mired domestic market.

Michele Rho, owner of a small company making high-end wooden dining tables on sale for 30,000 euros ($39,000) each, said he faced shrinking demand at home and booming exports.

Sales to foreign clients -- including in Russia and the Middle East -- currently account for 90 percent of his sales.

"We are not in trouble thanks to exports but times are not great," he said.

"As for the future, you need a crystal ball to know when the economy will recover".

At the other end of the scale, Edi Perini, the owner of a small chair-making business in Udine in northeast Italy, is looking at selling abroad after feeling the pinch of a shrinking home market in recent years.

"The future is exports," said Perini, who sells relatively inexpensive chairs priced at 20 to 100 euros each mainly to Italian schools, canteens and bars.

Belgium, France, Germany and even India and Kazakhstan are among his dream export markets.

The sense of crisis that lurked above the event, which boasts the title -- albeit disputed -- of being the world's premier designer furniture fair, was even more sharply expressed outside.

The main big business lobby Confindustria has warned about the damage caused by recession and political instability in increasingly stark terms.

On Friday, the body held a "minute of silence" in the northern industrial city of Turin to mourn the companies that have gone under in Italy's worst post-war recession.

Some of that gloom was palpable in Milan, too.

Many of the exhibitors went to lengths to emphasise the technology, handicraft quality and Italian style in their wares.

Poltrona Frau, an Italian maker of leather armchairs, for instance insisted on the leather work used in its products.

Its competitor Moroso this year showcased a cane armchair inspired by the mating ritual of African ostriches, underlining it was handmade, not mass-produced.

The aim of many of them, though, was to justify their high prices when compared to the likes of Swedish home furnishings giant Ikea -- whose cheaper products carried greater appeal to consumers pressured by the economic downturn.