The design fair off the beaten track of the Salone del Mobile

At this year’s Milan Design Week, the world’s largest design festival, held every April, there’s an outlier to the typical venues — and “typical” means palazzi, villas, and theaters, as well as a desacralized church, tennis club, and outdoor pool — was a former slaughterhouse. Here Alcova, an annual independent fair, held an exhibition in a series of commercial spaces in the Calvairate district, east of the city centre.

This year “kind of went even further,” said curator Joseph Grima, who founded Alcova in 2018 with Valentina Ciuffi. After their fifth year, which ended last weekend, the duo are aiming to take a step to expand Alcova’s presence (more details to be confirmed and announced) with a debut at Miami Art Week in December.

For design lovers, Alcova has become a must-try and something of a palate-cleanser due to the sheer extravagance of Milan Design Week.

Alcova, a seedy newcomer known for taking over rundown buildings from Milan’s industrial past – including a bakery, a cashmere factory and a military hospital complex – drew more than 90,000 visitors this year, or nearly a third of the Salone del Mobile’s registered visitors , the trade fair and commercial juggernaut around which Milan Design Week’s many offshoots, including Alcova, revolve.

“There’s a young energy there, almost like a music festival,” said lighting designer Lindsey Adelman. “You’ve created a true magnet for a show that everyone is dying to see.” A fixture on New York’s independent design scene, Ms. Adelman exhibited at Alcova in 2021 and returned this year to present work from LaLAB, her new collection of experimental lighting work , showcase.

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Alyse Archer-Coité, a New York-based design researcher, noted how the vastness of the “sprawling, overgrown, and at times eerie” venue made for “a truly unique setting.”

Mr Grima, 46, and Ms Ciuffi, 44, met a few years ago as former editors of two Milanese design magazines – Mr Grima was at Domus and Ms Ciuffi at Abitare. Mr. Grima is the creative director of Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands and runs a studio, Space Caviar, with his co-founder Tamar Shafrir; Ms. Ciuffi is the founder and director of Milan-based Studio Vedet, a graphic design and branding studio that also curates FAR, a collection of experimental work presented each year at Nina Yashar’s esteemed Nilufar Gallery, one of the city’s premier venues for contemporary design.

With Alcova, they have tried to create a space for emerging and independent design that – for commercial reasons, for example, or for financial and artistic reasons – may not have a chance to show itself in the larger fair’s existing landscape of events.

What Alcova is prioritizing is work that goes beyond aesthetics to “kinda challenge the way things are made,” Mr. Grima said. Some of the projects on display, he added, “are not products or furniture per se, but processes or materials” that consider the entire life cycle of an object, from its creation to the consequences of its use.

For example, the research platform Atelier Luma, based in Arles, France, shared an installation of prototypes made from various agricultural by-products such as salt, seaweed and rice straw, supporting “circular design”, a regenerative approach that allows for continuous reuse of materials. An injection-molded chair by California’s Prowl Studio made from compostable hemp and paper pulp – two by-products of industrial cannabis processing – challenged the notion that good design should last forever with the slogan “Expect Death”.

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A specially curated portion of the exhibition, Alcova Project Space, explored emerging themes including “digital ornamentalism,” an aesthetic shaped by NFTs and video games and meticulously translated into physical form, as in the work of Ryan Decker, Hannah Lim, and Isabel rowers can be seen.

“What we really wanted to build was more of a social network,” Ms. Ciuffi said. “We curate the attendee list, but then they curate their own space.”

Over the years this network, which started with a group of around 20 like-minded colleagues and friends at its first edition in 2018, has grown steadily (the physical fair was canceled and replaced with digital content in 2020 due to the pandemic). .

Alcova has also served as a springboard of sorts for new talent. One breakout star, Maximilian Marchesani, caused a stir last year with his debut collection of experimental lighting designs that mused on the tenuous relationship between nature and man-made feats, combining gnarled hazel branches and LED lights.

Within a year, Mr. Marchesani became the subject of a solo exhibition with the support of Ms. Ciuffi at the Nilufar Gallery. For Mr. Marchesani, it’s a big jump that still feels a bit surreal to him.

“You want to be a protagonist in a way, and you’re always a guest,” said Mr. Marchesani, who moved to Milan as a student over a decade ago. “Now I’m suddenly no longer a guest.”

Like many startups that have managed to garner size and critical attention, Alcova has not been immune to criticism. Last week, in an op-ed piece in The Architect’s Newspaper, Andrea Bagnato, a Milan-based writer and researcher who has worked with Mr. Grima, pointed to the show’s roving presence in the city’s historic working-class neighborhoods as an agent of gentrification and real estate speculation .

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In a letter to The Architect’s Newspaper this week, Mr Grima and Ms Ciuffi said Mr Bagnato’s argument was “problematic in that it confuses causation with correlation”. Alcova, the founders noted, never stays in one place for more than two years, lest it help an area become a sort of design district stepping on local neighborhoods. Mr Grima and Ms Ciuffi also ensure that potential plots of land are not for sale. They pointed out that the current site was already earmarked for a major redevelopment before they procured it.

“You can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and urbanism is complicated,” Mr Grima said. “We will try to create moments of joy and generosity towards the city. We can and will do that.”