It didn't go unnoticed that as the Milan Furniture Fair marked half a century this year there was a nostalgic nod to the past with smaller, stronger and more considered collections. It was a year when the whimsical gave way to the carefully articulated and design classics, by legends including Joe Colombo and Jean Michel-Frank, were taken out of the archives, joining fresh new releases and reinvented favourites. Collections featured rocking chairs and recliners, vibrant reds, blues and greens to offset predominantly natural palettes, buttons on chairs, cabinets and finely tuned upholstery, as well as outdoor furniture in all shapes and sizes.

At the Pavilion Hermès designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, the French fashion house launched iconic pieces by Jean Michel-Frank that marked 70 years since the death of one of the world's most important designers of the 1930s. The range of perfectly executed pieces are classic Frank – clear, understated forms, handmade in carefully crafted materials – and were joined by pieces for the dining room by Enzo Mari and living room by Antonio Citterio in the first partnership between Hermès and B&B Italia.

On the stand that always gets attention, Kartell dug deep into its design archives reissuing Joe Colombo’s 4801 armchair first designed for the group in plywood in 1964 and now available in a material Colombo, the master of innovation, would be smiling about – shimmering black and transparent polycarbonate. Standout new pieces for the group include the free-form and oh-so-comfortable Foliage sofa by Patricia Urquiola that provides an upholstery option for the outdoors, and The Invisibles Light tables by Tokujin Yoshioka that continue the Japanese designer's interest in the ephemeral.

Like Tokujin Yoshioka's interest in the play between imaginary and real, Ingo Maurer and Foscarini produced lighting shows that were artful and immersive. Designer Vincente Garcia Jimenez created Metamorphosis for Foscarini, his third installation for the group that explored the powerful ability to transform a room with the theatrical possibilities of lighting. While at Spazio Krizia Ingo Maurer produced a series of experimental novelties that provoked the audience and stole the show.

To meet the recent pressures on the luxury market, this year many design houses, including B&B Italia, Driade, Living Divani and Moooi, produced the quality they are known for but with a focus on commercial reach. While at the same time hopefully building greater momentum for specifiers to move away from the fake. Walter Gropius, the man behind the Bauhaus movement, would be pleased.

As well as consolidation and reissue, 2011 did include a scattering of surprises. Highlights include the 100% recyclable Tip Ton office chair designed by Barber Osgerby for Vitra with its many seating positions, also the Waver lounge chair by Konstantin Grcic that swivels and swings and can be used inside and out. At Driade, Patricia Urquiola released the outdoor Pavo Reale and for B&B Italia the softly upholstered Husk chair. While for Moooi, celebrating its first 10 years, Bertjan Pot designed the Heracleum pendent light and newcomer Sjoerd Vroonland produced the crafty Extension chair. Part of his Revised Craft series, the Extension chair is a playful mix of past and present perfectly timed.