By  on April 14, 2006

MILAN — "Home away from home" has certainly taken on new meaning for many Italian fashion designers who have branched into furniture and interior design as well as the hotel business.

Milan's six-day international design and furniture exhibition, the Salone del Mobile, which closed here on Monday, gave these designers the chance to showcase their newest home lines and related licensing deals and provide fresh details about their increasing travel ventures.

Giorgio Armani and his hotel partner, Mohamed Alì Alabbar, chairman of Emaar Properties, said 30 Armani-designed hotels are scheduled to open in the next 15 years at a $3 billion investment; Versace announced an agreement with Tag Group to decorate private jets with the brand's new Home Couture line; Rosita Missoni designed her latest Home Collection as a "mood board" for the first Missoni hotel, set to open in Edinburgh next year, and Etro appears to be the latest fashion company poised to design hotels.

Whatever the intent, the Salone del Mobile proved once again a powerful window for the industry and a lucrative business opportunity — even for companies that simply participated by offering their spaces for art exhibitions.

"Last year, we doubled our store [volume] for the week during the Salone," said Giorgio Guidotti, president of communications at Max Mara, pointing to a long line at the counter of the Sportmax boutique in the tony shopping street Via Spiga. At this shop, the company presented artwork by Yves Behar and Andrée Putman, drawing heavy traffic and increasing sales of Sportmax merchandise. "There are so many artists who are looking for central locations," said Guidotti.

Armani certainly means business with his Casa line; there are plans to open dedicated stores in Buenos Aires, Beirut, Tel Aviv, Mexico City and Miami. A spokesman confirmed, "We currently have 75 stores, of which 23 are freestanding and 52 are in-store shops. The objective is to open a further 40 stores by the end of this year including 10 freestanding and 30 in-store. This would mean that by year end, we would have 33 freestanding and 92 in-store shops." Armani Casa's retail revenue rose 40 percent to 30 million euros, or $37.5 million, last year.Much along the lines of his Privé couture collection, Armani offers a personal design service to private customers, interior designers and property developers, running from full room decoration to total home planning and design. For example, the designer is collaborating on the decor of a 409-unit residential complex at 20 Pine Street in New York, a historical 1928 building, by real estate developer Boymelgreen.

Armani's first hotel will open in Dubai in spring 2008 in the Burj Dubai tower, designed to be the world's tallest building at well above 2,000 feet. Emaar is one of the developers of Burj Dubai. The designer's second hotel will open later that year here. Alabbar said Emaar Properties slated a $130 million investment in the Armani-designed hotel rooms and apartments in the Burj Dubai tower. "Armani is entirely in charge of design. The only request we had was that the rooms must feel like home and that each hotel reflect the feel of each city," said Alabbar.

The tower also will house apartments and offices not designed by Armani. Alabbar did not put a price tag on an Armani-designed apartment, but said an average apartment would cost around $836 a square foot.

Just back from his trip to China, as reported, Armani said designing a hotel in Shanghai is next on his list.

As for home design, this year, Armani launched his first kitchen set, called Bridge, at his Tadao Ando-designed theater. While admitting his lack of culinary skills, Armani called the kitchen "the nucleus" of a home, where people spend most of their time. He said he was looking for "aesthetic solutions to the problem of how to house technology in an elegant and refined way," adding that he wanted to create a space to linger, open to an integrated living area in the same style. The kitchen has surfaces in Sukupira Brazilian wood and bronze metal that conceal the technical components. Water-resistant, washable fabric covers shelves and drawers.

"I wanted a warm feel, without too much steel or marble," said Armani, who admitted that his Casa line had moved from its early "monastic and minimal" look of the first home pieces to warmer, comfortable looks. The kitchen retails at around $57,000, including appliances.Last year, Armani introduced designs for the bathroom, and next up most likely is armoires and other wardrobe storage for the bedroom.

Rosita Missoni, who is in charge of the brand's home collection, now faced the challenge of designing the company's first hotels under the licensing agreement with the Belgian hotel chain Rezidor SAS. "The distinction between public and private spaces is blurred," said Missoni, standing on a rug shaped like a giant dahlia, surrounded by wood rocking chairs upholstered with cotton satin in contrasting striped or floral patterns. "I'm looking at ways to transfer the emotions from a small room to larger spaces, but, in any case, the inspiration [for the hotels] derives from my vision of the home."

Color will obviously be a must — the designer strongly believes that color has a therapeutic function. "I like resistant furniture that can be moved between indoors and outdoors, for a versatile, welcoming and informal style," said Missoni. "I like my guests to feel free to roam and mingle, but the hotel should have a nest-like feeling."

The first hotel will open in Edinburgh, a few minutes away from the city's castle, with a restaurant and a bar on the street.

Jacopo Etro, who runs the textile and home collections at the family-owned company, said he is in talks with an international group to create Etro-designed hotels. Etro declined to provide the name of the partner, but was firm about the strategy.

"I don't want to brand the hotels with the family name. It's risky to connect one's name [to the hotels], whoever the partner is, since we don't handle the business directly," said Etro. "And what if there is a change of ownership? This is a way to protect our name," he added. Etro is also designing two new suites at Milan's exclusive Principe di Savoia hotel and a lounge in Kuwait for Villa Moda's owner, Sheikh Majed Al-Sabah. Etro believes there is enough room for fashion designers in hotel design, "as long as each maintains a recognizable style."

The first hotels are slated to open in Dubai and Bali.

Etro said this agreement would help the company expand into furniture. Etro already produces beds and armchairs, in addition to ceramics and home furnishings. This year, Etro showcased patchwork American-style quilts, hand-made lacquered Murano glass home accessories and a ceramic table set with a new paisley-motif pattern in burgundy and ivory. Etro worked with students of the city's university in refashioning archival company fabrics as lamps or bookshelves.Fendi employed the historical Selleria leather, crocodile-printed hides and rich velvet damask for a collection of luxurious sofas, armchairs and beds, but the firm expanded its artisanal home collection with the addition of outdoor furniture. Fendi introduced the Oasis line, with a seat shaped like a cradle, made from a hand-woven synthetic fiber called Hularo, in white or Java brown.

Fendi integrated details from its ready-to-wear into the home line: big buckles from the B. Fendi bag, jewel buttons with the Palazzo Fendi print and the Swarovski-encrusted logo. Pillow and trays, for example, feature the Palazzo Fendi print, which reproduces the new Roman headquarters in black and gold.

Michael Burke, Fendi's ceo, described Fendi Casa as "an important statement in the Fendi way of perceiving lifestyle since 1989." He said that at the Salone, this year's orders "more than doubled from last year."

Spain's Agatha Ruiz de la Prada is another designer who just can't imagine a world in black and white. She presented her second furniture collection, the first produced by the Italian maker Cyrus Company. The line reflects de la Prada's colorful and ironic clothing collections. Case in point: bright red, heart-shape or green flower-shape divans and poufs; or, her new spin on white lacquered minimalist cabinets with childlike stripes and checks in contrasting color combinations, with a touch of pop art.

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