The boundaries between art, fashion and interior design have become increasingly blurred over recent years. From the carpets designed by Marni, Vivienne Westwood and Diane von Furstenberg for The Rug Company, to Jonathan Adler's clothing line for 7 For All Mankind; and from the Parisian textile house Lelievre's collaborations with Kenzo, Jean Paul Gaultier and Sonia Rykiel, to Paul Smith's various forays into the world of product design, there are many examples of the cross-pollination between fashion and design.
So it is perhaps not so surprising that the high-street fashion brand COS has spent the last five years partnering with the Milan Furniture Fair, presenting design installations that have little to do with clothes. The Milan Furniture Fair, or Salone del Mobile, is the most important exhibition on the global design calendar – the place where products are launched, brands come to showcase their mettle and trends are born.
For a company such as COS, a presence at the fair offers the opportunity to project itself as something more than a fashion brand, and is a way to communicate with an increasingly design-savvy audience in new and unexpected ways.
“At COS we are constantly inspired by the art and design world, whether through our seasonal collections, in-store designs or collaborating with artists and designers,” explains Karin Gustafsson, head of womenswear design at COS. “We believe that our customer shares our interest in art and design, and because of our relationship with the worlds of art and design, we value the opportunity to give something back to and share with our customers.
“The synergy between the art and fashion worlds is becoming more common these days. We believe this to be a reflection of the two worlds inspiring each other, whether in regards to colours, function, form, materials, processes or techniques. As a brand we always hope to be able to showcase something inspiring that creates or reinforces a link among fashion, art and design.”
While COS started its Salone journey with more literal references to the brand, its offerings have become increasingly abstract over the past five years. “This is the fifth year that COS has created an installation for Salone del Mobile, Milan. Initially, in 2012, we created a temporary store environment in the Lambrate district; this was prior to us having a store in Milan and really we just wanted to offer visitors the opportunity to discover the brand,” Gustafsson explains. “It was such a great experience working with an external designer who reinterpreted our brand into a temporary store, so we were keen to do it again. Over the years, the concept has developed, and at this point we love to give our partners carte blanche to create a unique and new installation. We definitely believe it to be a great fit; we find great amounts of inspiration in design and love to see all of the happenings outside of our project in Milan during the week.”
For the 2016 edition of the show, which is on until Sunday, COS employed the services of Japanese architect and designer Sou Fujimoto. The designer is best known for his gridded and latticed architectural structures, including the intriguing House NA in Tokyo, a multilevel, glass-encased home with barely any walls that looks more like scaffolding than a building; the calming Children’s Centre for Psychiatric Rehabilitation in Hokkaido Prefecture; and the Palm Court retail centre in Miami’s Design District, which uses vertical strips of blue glass to capture the effect of Miami’s impromptu rain showers.
Fujimoto was also selected to create the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in 2013. The annual commission is a highly sought-after project in the world of architecture. It is awarded to a major architect who has yet to build a project in the United Kingdom, and is invited to create a temporary structure that is displayed on the lawn outside London’s Serpentine Gallery. Fujimoto’s proposal consisted of a white lattice crafted from steel poles, which in its stark angularity and inherent transparency was intended to present “the beautiful duality of the artificial order and natural order”, he says.
It was this project that really caught the attention of the COS team. “Working with Sou Fujimoto feels very organic for us; his contemporary modern style is very much aligned with our core values. We particularly loved his work on the Serpentine pavilion in 2013; the cloud-like pavilion blended nature and architecture perfectly, and inspired all of us at COS,” Gustafsson notes.
So Fujimoto was given his “carte blanche” to create a COS installation. “When working with external artists or designers, we like to give them almost complete freedom to design what they believe in and are always open to their interpretation of COS,” says Gustafsson.
In response, Fujimoto came up with the Forest of Light, which explores ideas of interaction and perspective. An expansive, darkened space in the now-derelict Cinema Arti, built in the 1930s in Milan's San Babila district, is illuminated by towering cones of light that respond to visitors' movements. The addition of fogged mirrored walls and specially composed sounds create a fully immersive experience. The installation is entirely devoid of any other physical objects; it is responsive, rather than static, and ever-changing, depending on the movements of its "users". The conical spotlights become abstract trees, working together to create a shifting "forest of light".
"Inspired by the city of Tokyo as an architectural forest, and the similarities shared between the city and a forest, I have embraced the concept of the intangible aspect of light and the relationship between nature and man-made objects," Fujimoto tells us. "Forest of Light will create an ever-changing interaction between the space, your body and your emotions, with no two visitor experiences being the same. The lighting will react to the people within the space, making different variations of light density; mirrors will create an infinite effect; and natural forest noises will echo throughout."
It was the sounds that presented the biggest test for Fujimoto, he says. “A challenge for us was the integration of the sound element, as we don’t tend to use the idea of sound installations in architecture. It’s part of the interaction between the human body and the whole space. Of course, the space made by the light is already quite exciting, but if you can integrate with sound, then the experience just gets more diverse, I thought.”
While the installation is by no means a literal translation of the COS collections, Fujimoto did take some inspiration from the brand’s spring/summer line, he says. “The COS spring/summer collection for me reflected a landscape, a vast landscape of colour. We wanted to reflect this as an infinite space using mirrors and transparency with lights. I also like the gentle, delicate elements of the collection; we reflected this in creating a calm environment.”
On a fundamental level, Fujimoto also responded to the COS ethos of creating simple, functional pieces of design, intended to last beyond a single season. “I think our desire to create something simple and clean, yet special, is a key connection,” he says. “In every project I like to go back to the beginning of architecture or the beginning of our life and behaviours, and of course fashion and architecture share that kind of relationship with human beings.”