Socially conscious design was in the center ring. A number of companies boasted of earth-friendly materials and showed off efficient packing methods that reduced their carbon footprints.

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Some of the most thought-provoking ideas at the International Furniture Fair in Milan, which ended last month, issued not from the thousands of exhibition booths and off-site venues or even from the lips of the designers, pundits and producers who bring this stalwart city to life every April. They were written on the walls.

“Thanks Starck,” read one such message, scrawled in the neighborhood of Ventura Lambrate, where for the third consecutive year emerging designers have shown work and staged Oedipal battles with the masters.

The words accompanied a drawing of Philippe Starck’s Juicy Salif lemon squeezer from 1990, an aluminum teardrop on spidery legs with a knob intended for mauling citrus — but the artist had substituted a toilet-paper roll for the lemon.

Such an irreverent treatment of a classic object suggests that Starck may have lost his mojo in today’s design world, but he shows no sign of receding from the scene. On the contrary, his paradoxical nature defined this year’s fair, which was marked by the contradictory pursuits of social consciousness and unrestrained luxury.

Starck may be best known for a whimsical $100 sculpture that does nothing more than extract juice. But he also is — or claims to be — as idealistic as any young designer.

He alternately caters to lovers of luxury and slaps them on the wrist. This year, he collaborated with Lenny Kravitz on upholstered versions of his Mademoiselle chair for the high-end Italian company Kartell, but he also touted his Broom chair for the U.S. company Emeco, made of 90 percent recycled postindustrial factory waste and 10 percent glass.

“With this new chair, I start to feel happy,” he said in a promotional film for the product, “because it is made of nothing.”

A decade ago, socially conscious design was a sideshow at the fair, but now it’s in the center ring. A number of companies boasted of earth-friendly materials and showed off packing methods that reduced their carbon footprints. The Swedish company Offecct went so far as to display Luca Nichetto’s Robo chair from 2010 along with its box to show how compactly it can be taken apart and shipped.

Food was a popular medium for commentary. In Lambrate, Rui Pereira and Ryosuke Fukusada baked tiny cakes shaped like chairs, lamps and vases to protest the hyperabundance of new furniture and the inability of consumers to “digest” it. And in the Tortona district, Marleen Jansen presented her Seesaw Table, which requires two diners to sit down to meals and depart from the table at precisely the same time — or else risk sending one of the pair flying.

“It’s a courtesy table,” Jansen said. “I want to manipulate behavior, and it’s rude to leave the table while eating.”

On the frontiers of experimentation, the “Open Design Archipelago” exhibition organized by Domus magazine and Audi demonstrated methods for harnessing the desert sun to melt sand and produce glass objects; for manufacturing inexpensive chairs with a robotic arm (no human hands needed); and for training crows to pick up bottle caps littering the landscape.

And yet, while there were plenty of designers trying to redirect human habits and prepare for a world with scarce resources, many conventional products seemed to have gotten bigger and softer.

Furniture came with names like Soft Box, the Swiss designer Alfred Haberli’s cushy sofa for Moroso. And the body-cradling Bunny armchair by Iskos-Berlin, for the Danish company Normann Copenhagen, was all but infantilizing.

But nothing conveyed the sensuality of textiles (or their facsimile) this year so much as the flowing tablecloth carved into the wood of Ferruccio Laviani’s Twaya table for Emmemobili. A representative of the Italian company Emmemobili noted that, by the end of the fair, the number of hands rubbing the table’s surface had left “the left side smoother than the right.”

Acts of aesthetic indulgence seemed to compensate for the fact that Southern Europe’s economy was in tatters. Several onlookers suggested that Italy’s recent austerity measures had whetted the appetite for comfort. Others attributed bigger furniture to an obesity epidemic. Beyond dispute is that European producers are catering to the tastes of prosperous foreigners in South America, Russia, India and East Asia, many of whom value the look and feel of luxury.

FederlegnoArredo, an Italian furniture-industry association that is a sponsor of the Milan Furniture Fair, reported a decrease of 9.7 percent in local purchases between 2010 and 2011, but an increase of 4.3 percent in exports. And Claudio Luti, president of Kartell, noted that “last year was the worst for the industry, but we profited,” citing the company’s 127 stores throughout the world, including seven in China.

“Business is very difficult, very bumpy,” said Rossana Orlandi, whose sprawling Milanese design gallery was filled with the Surface Tension Lamp, a continually inflating and popping soap bubble surrounding an LED designed by Front for BoooStudio in the Netherlands. “We are lucky because we have plenty of foreign customers, but the mood is very depressing.”

Still, given the crowds stuffed into booths and the lavish displays by international furniture producers and materials suppliers, it took a discerning eye to detect adversity.

Superstudio Piu, an exhibition space in Tortona, for instance, presented nine massive sculptures created by prominent designers at the invitation of the Turkish stone industry. Haeberli, who was a participant, said he was given few constraints in fashioning a pavilion built from several varieties of marble and that the cost was about $100,000 for materials and construction alone, forget shipping.

Lighting catches on

The pioneering German designer Ingo Maurer has worked with the thin, flexible lighting elements known as OLEDs — or organic light-emitting diodes, which use organic compounds that produce light in response to electrical current — since 2005. But only in 2008 did he introduce a lighting product that used the technology: a limited-edition table lamp called Early Future, which had five OLED panels extending like wings from either side of an angled stem. The cost of the lamp: $10,000.

Four years later, OLEDs are cheaper, longer-lasting and gaining visibility. In Milan, the Japanese company Lumiotec presented a dramatic installation designed by Naohiko Mitsu, which mixed OLEDs and LEDs. And in celebration of its 50th anniversary, Flos presented the limited-edition Light Photon lamp, a table lamp designed by Philippe Starck that consists of a giant OLED backed by a mirrored surface, on a stainless steel base. OLEDs were also spotted at the Salone Satellite show for emerging designers.

Asked about the technology today, Maurer is reserved. “Everyone thought this was going to be a gold mine, but it has a long way to go,” he said. “It makes a monotonous light, with no depth, no dimension. I hope we don’t have a future only with OLEDs but with other light sources.”

Such as? “Incandescent light,” he said with a twinkle. “Fire.”

— Julie Lasky

Nendo, Nendo Everywhere

The scale of the Milan Furniture Fair — 5.7 million square feet of exhibition space in the main fairgrounds alone — would seem to ensure that no single design studio could stand out in the crowd. But this year, the Tokyo-based Nendo, which was founded in 2002 by Oki Sato, now 34, seemed to be everywhere.

On Via della Spiga, the Nilufar gallery showed tiny bowls made of glued sheets of paper lacquered and sanded to resemble wood. At Spazio Rossana Orlandi, LED-illuminated glass bulbs to which the blowers’ pipes remained attached dangled from a chandelier produced by Lasvit. At Moroso’s booth in Rho, thick white canvas looked tossed over the backs of metal-frame sofas and chairs: meet the upholstery. And at Established & Sons’ display on Via Savona, a desk lamp called Hood tilted forward like a hawk. Nearby, bath fixtures for Bisazza in pale larch and gleaming white serenely dotted the space.

Nendo, all Nendo.

The bath collection was typically restrained. Bisazza produces glass tiles in flamboyant hues, but Sato chose transparent tiles for his mosaics, which he combined with Carrera marble to create a pattern of Japanese and European flowers. (He was raised in Canada until the age of 10 and routinely mixes East and West.)

“Transparency is not only making things disappear,” he said. “When things disappear, you notice light and texture.”

Nasir Kassamali, the chief executive of Luminaire, a furniture store in Coral Gables, Fla., praised Sato’s precise eyes for proportions. “There’s minimalism,” he said. “And then there’s intelligent minimalism.”

— Julie Lasky