A Designer Life

The Ultimate Guide to Milan Design Week (Especially if it’s your first time)

I’m delighted to inform you that this post was sponsored by Lexus International who flew me to Milan Design Week to attend the Lexus Design Award, and that all opinions in this Ultimate Guide to Milan Design Week are my own.

Is it your first time to Milan Design Week? Or, are you planning to visit Milan because it’s on your travel bucket list? Then you’ll want to bookmark this post (or pin it on Pinterest!) to come back to later, so that you too can get the most out of your trip to Milan during Design Week,  a festival at the epicentre of the world’s design industry, where fresh new ideas from both seasoned and up-and-coming designers are revealed to the world every year in April. Even if you’ve been to Milano for design week before, you might still find some great tips here that you’ve never heard of, to save for the next time you visit.

In early April 2017, I was lucky enough to have the chance to fly to Milan Design Week for the very first time. From this incredible opportunity, I was inspired to write and share my Ultimate Guide to Milan Design Week filled with useful travel tips and festival advice, so that other design lovers can plan an incredible trip to Milan, just like I did.

Here’s a list of 14 things you should do to have the best time in Milan:

1. Wear comfortable flat shoes

Milan is an incredibly walkable city that is mostly flat terrain and it’s just as well, since you’ll be doing an unprecedented amount of walking during your entire time at Milan Design Week. Each of the key design districts have hundreds of exhibitions, open studios and installations to explore, and the best way to see everything is by foot. Of course, Milan has a reliable and well-connected subway, bus and tram system that makes it easy to travel between design districts, but since there is so much to see in each district, the only way to explore is by pounding the pavement.

If I was only able to share one tip for first-time visitors to Milan Design Week , this would be my top piece of advice. If you arrive with just one pair of shoes in your suitcase  – make sure they are the most comfortable pair of shoes you have ever owned. For me, I brought both my favourite mushroom-coloured flat suede boots that could take me seamlessly from daytime photo hunting adventures to night-time parties, and also my Nike Flyknits for a more casual, sporty look on the weekend.

Even though I was wearing the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever owned, I did so much walking during Milan Design Week that I got blisters on my feet in the strangest of places. And, if you visit the Salone Del Mobile furniture trade show, there are around 14 pavilions with more than 1,100 exhibitors to see – so I’m not kidding when I tell you to bring along your fitness tracker just  for the sheer satisfaction of clocking up a week’s worth of steps in just one day. (Besides, you’ll appreciate all the walking as it will help keep off the weight from the inevitable pizza and pasta carb overload – you’re in Italy, embrace it!)

If you already arrived in Milan and didn’t bring sensible shoes, though, don’t worry. There are plenty of sports shoe boutiques along Via Torino (“Via” means “Street” by the way) if you need to purchase a sexy pair of the latest sneaker designs from Adidas, Nike or Geox, so you can blend in with the locals. Or, if Italian leather is more your thing, you can try along Corso di Porta Ticinese for some sweet little leather boutiques that sell flat boots along with handbags in all colours of the rainbow.

Besides walking, if cycling is your thing, Milan also has a great bicycle sharing system, called BikeMi with stations situated all around the city. But, you’ll probably need your comfortable flat shoes for that, as well, so my advice stands.

2. Add the Lexus Design Award / Lexus Design Event to your itinerary

If we are going to talk about must-see events to add to your design week itinerary, it’s worth putting the Lexus Design Award and Event right up there at the top of the list. Lexus has had a presence at Milan Design Week for the past ten years, but over the 5 years since their inaugural design competition was launched, the ideas and concepts that have been unearthed and unveiled by the Lexus Design Award in Milan have taken the design (and popular culture) world by storm. If you want a peek into the future to see what fresh ideas are being concocted by some of the world’s most inspiring new design talents –  this is the exhibition to attend. Not only that, but the entire Lexus Design Event is designed to excite and inspire with collaborations between notable design leaders. In 2017, Lexus collaborated with Professor Neri Oxman of the Mediated Matter Group at MIT to create the YET exhibition, that explored the unique technology of 3D printed glass and filled a vast hall in the La Triennale di Milano with pulsating light. Learn more here.

If you like image galleries, you can check out the rest of my photos of the 2017 Lexus Design Event in Milan here.

3. Buy your tickets to the Salone Del Mobile online in advance

If you arrange to buy a 3-day or 6-day pass to the Salone Del Mobile online in advance, you will also receive a rail pass for the week included in your ticket. This rail pass is valid for travelling around Milan city and out to the Rho Fiera fairgrounds on the subway, trains and trams, for the entire duration of the design festival, and is very easy to redeem. You simply take the transport code that is written on your Salone ticket, and enter that code into any electronic ticket machine (located at every subway station), and the machine will spit out a special Salone transport ticket for you. It’s really that easy, and if you make sure to redeem it on the Monday morning, it means that you won’t be lining up for ages at the ticket booth every time you need to buy a 24- or 48-hour ticket. Just note though, that unless you have some sort of professional business at the Salone, you probably don’t need any more than 3 days out there. In fact, some designers I know try to cram in visiting a few pavilions with notable design exhibitors into just one day, and then entirely skip the rest, simply because it is just so overwhelming. However, if you buy just the one-day ticket to the fair, you don’t receive the multi-day discount of the multi-day pass nor do you receive a weekly transport pass (which is definitely one of the perks). Also, I have been told that another great way to plan your days in Milan is to spend the mornings out at the fair in Rho Fiera, and then make your way back into Milan city for the afternoon atmosphere and evening soirées. You can purchase your ticket here.

4. Take the Malpensa Express train to and from the airport

Speaking of rail, don’t get a taxi from the Malpensa airport to Milan but instead take the Malpensa Express train to and from the airport. It’s very easy to buy the special airport train ticket for just 13 Euros (one way), and hop on the Malpensa Express that takes just 40 mins to get from the airport to the city.  I was thankfully given this advice before I left on my trip, and potentially saved more than 200 Euros (return) by not taking a taxi cab. That was 200 Euros which was happily spent on other things, namely a couple of sexy Italian leather jackets at the Saturday markets in Bologna (a story for another day).

5. It’s not just about the furniture fair

Before I came to Design Week for the first time in 2017, I assumed that Milan was all about the Salone Del Mobile furniture trade fair, and that was it. But, after experiencing Milan Design Week for myself, I can honestly tell you that it’s not just about the furniture fair. While the Salone Del Mobile is where it all started back in 1961 as a vehicle for promoting Italian furniture exports, over time, Milan Design Week has evolved into a multi-sensory festival that mushrooms up across almost the entire city, with 160,000+ people flying in from all corners of the globe to exhibit and experience it. You don’t even need to go to the Salone Del Mobile if you don’t want to, since there is an abundance of free exhibitions, open showrooms and events going on everywhere during the week. Having said which. most design lovers will still want to check out the fair, since it’s the furniture and home wares event of the year that heavily influences multidisciplinary design trends for the following year to come.

6. You won’t be able to see everything

Milan Design Week is a place where people who are prone to feelings of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) will experience major flare-ups. There is simply SO much to take in and visit, that it actually isn’t humanly possible to see everything there is to see during the festival. You won’t be able to see everything. Acknowledge that fact, accept it, make peace with it, and don’t try to fight it. Instead, plan your days around a few events or exhibitions in certain districts that you don’t want to miss, and then go with the flow for everything in between – because spontaneity allows space for serendipity and the delight of discovery.

7. Know the must-follow accounts on Instagram

In order to stay in the loop about which key events, exhibitions, and objects of interest are worth lining up for, these are the must-follow accounts on Instagram. I would highly recommend turning on post notifications on for all the following accounts for the entire duration of Milan Design Week.

  1. Lexus Design Award @lexusdesignaward | Sharing designers, mentors and judges with innovative, unexpected ideas in the lead up to Milan Design Week each year.
  2. Fuorisalone @fuorisalone | The official online guide to Milan Design Week.
  3. Salone Del Mobile Milano @isaloniofficial | Provides live daily coverage of the Milan furniture fair at Rho Fiera and hosts popular design influencers for guest takeovers of their Instagram account.
  4. Milan Design Week @milan.design.week | Designboom guides you through the best of the world’s biggest design show.
  5. Brera Design District @breradesigndistrict | Promotes design excellence centred in the vibrant district of Brera in Milan.
  6. La Triennale di Milano @latriennale | An international institution organising exhibitions and conferences about arts, design, architecture, fashion and cinema since 1923. The La Triennale was the location for many notable exhibitions during the 2017 Milan Design Week, including the Lexus YET Design Event.
  7. Wallpaper* @wallpapermag | The world’s global design authority shares noteworthy objects and designs from the entire festival.
  8. Tortona Design Week @tortonadesignweek | Featuring the best of exhibitions in the Tortona design district (along Via Tortona and surrounding streets).
  9. 5vie @5vie_milano | The new art and design district in the old town centre of Milan.
  10. Inhabitat Design Live @inhabitatlive | Features live design coverage from architecture and design events around the globe.
  11. Archiproducts @archiproducts | The most powerful search engine for architecture and design products – and it’s also worth following @archiproducts_milano which is located in Via Tortona 31 in Milan, too, and just launched this year.
  12. Jessica Lea Dunn @jessdunnthis | If you were following me, you would have also been treated to live daily updates of awesome design, direct from the streets of Milan! 🙂

In addition to these 12 accounts above – don’t forget to check back on the following hashtags regularly to see what’s trending:

#milandesignweek #mdw #milandesignweek2017 #mdw2017 #fuorisalone #salonedelmobile #IgersAllaDesignWeek #LexusDesignAward #LexusDesignEvent

8. Download the Fuorisalone app

Downloading the Fuorisalone app will make it much easier to plan your daily adventures in Milan. Since it connects to your maps app, it will help you to visualize the city layout in order to locate each of the design districts, of which there are 8 main ones including the Brera Design District, Durini Monforte San Babila, Porta Venezia in Design, San Gregorio Docet, Tortona Design Week, Ventura Lambrate, Zona Sant’Ambrogio, and 5 Vie Art + Design.  The only downside is that you have to be connected to mobile data for it to update on the go (which is especially useful when you are out on the street deciding where to go next). However, it’s easy and cheap enough to get a local Italian SIM card to solve the connectivity dilemma (more on that below). Fuorisalone also publish a free guide book and map that you can pick up at restaurants and exhibitions around the city, if you prefer to make plans on paper, and carry a physical map.

9. Get a local Italian SIM card

At Milan Design Week, especially if you are travelling alone, you want to be connected! Not only to see what is going on in the city every day, and to get around the city without getting (too) lost, but also share what you are discovering, in order to contribute to the buzzing social conversation. On my first day in Milan, while connected to the Wifi at my AirBNB, I simply searched for Vodafone stores in Milan using Google maps, and went straight there to get my SIM card set up. It was 30 Euros for 6 GB of data, on a prepaid card with no strings attached, and well worth it – considering I needed to be constantly connected for the duration of the festival. All they need to initiate set up is your passport or another form of identification. Apparently, another option for buying a local SIM card in Italy is local provider TIM, but since there was a Vodafone store with English speaking staff closest to where I was staying, I decided to go with them.

10. Arrive 3-4 days before Milan Design Week starts

Although the Salone officially takes place from a Tuesday to a Sunday in April each year, the Design Week already starts on the Monday beforehand with a lot of not to-be-missed events and parties. For example, the Lexus Design Award judging and Lexus Design Event launch was held on the Monday before being officially open to the public on the following day. But it’s definitely a great idea to arrive in Milan well beforehand in order to shake off the jetlag, form a mental map of the city, and get to see the popular tourist attractions before most other tourists arrive (usually by the Sunday evening). These notable tourist attractions include the incredible Duomo di Milano which is a cathedral made from marble that took six centuries to build, the spectacular Galleria Vittorio Emanuele mall, the Sforza Castle (medieval history right in the middle of the city!), the neon-lit Santa Maria Annunciata church in Chisea Rossa by late artist Dan Flavin and Leonardo DaVinci’s The Last Supper Painting on the wall of the Santa Maria delle Grazie.

Other notable attractions of interest to design lovers would be the Studio Museo Achille Castiglioni (Piazza Castello, 27), The Orto Botanico di Brera botanical garden (Via Brera, 28), Fondazione Prada (Largo Isarco 2), Museo Vigna di Leonardo (Corso Magenta 65), and the Leonardo da Vinci Museum of Science which would all be worth adding a few extra days onto the itinerary to explore.

Image credit: Dan Flavin at the Santa Maria Annunciata church in Chisea Rossa by Bobby Solomon | The Fox is Black

11. Book your ticket to The Last Supper well in advance

While we are on the topic of tourists attractions, some of the most popular sights sell out very quickly and you can’t just get a ticket on the day. If you know you are going to Milan, and you want to see Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper painting, then you need to  book your ticket online at least a month in advance (if not more). Ideally, as soon as you have booked your flights, you should book these tickets too. I bought mine here.

12. Visit the Duomo in the early morning

The breathtaking Duomo cathedral is one of the must-see tourist attractions in the centre of Milan. However, the lines can get notoriously long and you won’t want to be wasting hours of your life in a queue. The best tip I can offer is to get to the Duomo ticketing office at 8.30am or even before and buy a ticket for both inside and the rooftop (both are well worth seeing for the architectural appreciation).  The Duomo rooftop doesn’t open until 9am but they will let you inside to view the cathedral before that. Another thing – definitely do pay the extra price for the lift ticket, not the stairs. I took the stairs, thinking I would enjoy the ascent, but completely regretted my choice. It was a dark stairwell with nothing exciting to see until reaching the rooftop entrance anyway. Seriously, pay the extra and take the lift. You’ll thank me later. Unless of course, you are trying to work off last night’s pizza and pasta extravaganza, in which case, you might appreciate the cardio.

13. Be prepared for both hot and cold weather

Italy in spring is divine (of course, I’ve never been at any other time, so I have nothing to compare it to) but the days are long, the air is fresh and crisp, and the flower blossoms are out in abundance. During the day, it can get so warm that you will be down to jeans and a light t-shirt (and needing a decent sun hat!) however during the evening the temperature can drop so quickly that you’ll be shivering in your boots if you’ve been out all day (which you will have been) without suitable attire. The best solution, is to adopt the Milanese uniform of tight pants or jeans, with various layers of shirts on the top (including a long sleeved wool under layer), topping it off with a cropped leather jacket, and a scarf. Like an onion, the layers peel off during the day, only to be stacked up again at night.

14. Stay in Italy after the festival

Milan Design Week is so exhilarating and intense that I highly recommend staying in Italy for a few days after the festival in order to take some time out to relax and visit surrounding districts such as Lake Como or Bologna city.

I had the most amazing day exploring the winding streets and piazza’s of Bologna with my friend Elisa and the food is certainly exceptional in that region (don’t forget to try the traditional bolognaise sauce!), as is the architecture, the cultural history, and the down-to-earth warmth of the people. It’s actually incredibly easy to book the fast train to Bologna (or any other Italian city) online if you know where to get them from – which is from Italo Treno.

Another friend Georgina travelled to Lake Como after her time in Milan, and you can see how breathtaking the views were from her photo  below – it honestly look like the best place to take some time out to recuperate after the “design high” that is the whole Milan Design Week experience.

Image credit: Sketching at Varenna, on the edge of Lake Como by Georgina Kreutzer

And that’s a wrap! I sincerely hope you got some value from my Ultimate Guide to Milan Design Week and that when you go, you also have an incredible time in Milan!

I want to extend a very special thank you to Berto Pandolfo, Illaria Vanni,  Dorte Bell, Justine Smith, Duc Pham, Mathew Fagan, Claire & Michael Martin, Elisa De Pasquale (among others – you know who you are!) for the sage and generous travel advice given to me before I departed, some of which has made its way into this article and for which I am incredibly grateful.

PS. Below you can see some more photos of two more of my favourite design installations from Milan Design Week 2017. The first is ombre silicone jellyfish vases spotted at the Nendo : Invisible Objects exhibition, and the second is La Refuge by Mark Ange spotted at Holy Handmade! by Wallpaper* mag, which would have to win the award for the most-Instagrammed object at this year’s festival. Enjoy!

x Jess