At this year’s Milan Design Week, the world’s largest design festival, held each April, one outlier to the typical venues — and “typical” has meant palazzos, villas and theaters, as well as a desacralized church, a tennis club and an outdoor pool — was a former slaughterhouse. This is where Alcova, an annual independent fair, staged an exhibition in a set of industrial spaces in the Calvairate district, just east of the city center.
This year “has somehow gone even beyond,” said the curator Joseph Grima, who founded Alcova with Valentina Ciuffi in 2018. On the tails of their fifth year, which wrapped up last weekend, the duo are eyeing a move to expand Alcova’s presence (further details to be confirmed and announced) with a debut at Miami Art Week in December.
For design devotees, Alcova has become a must-see destination, and a palate cleanser of sorts from the sheer extravagance of Milan Design Week.
A scrappy upstart known for taking over derelict structures from Milan’s industrial past — including a bakery, a cashmere factory and a military hospital complex — Alcova recorded more than 90,000 visitors this year, or nearly a third of registered visitors to Salone del Mobile, the trade fair and commercial juggernaut around which Milan Design Week’s many offshoot events, Alcova included, revolve.
“It’s a young energy there, almost like a music festival vibe,” said the lighting designer Lindsey Adelman. “They’ve created a real magnet of a show that everybody makes a point to go to.” Ms. Adelman, a fixture of New York’s independent design scene, showed at Alcova in 2021 and returned this year to present works from LaLAB, her new collection of experimental lighting works.
Alyse Archer-Coité, a New York-based design researcher, noted how the vastness of the “sprawling, overgrown and sometimes spooky” venue made for “a truly unique environment.”
Mr. Grima, 46, and Ms. Ciuffi, 44, met several years ago as former editors at two Milanese design magazines — Mr. Grima had been at Domus, and Ms. Ciuffi at Abitare. Mr. Grima is the creative director of the Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands and runs a studio practice, Space Caviar, with his co-founder, Tamar Shafrir; Ms. Ciuffi is the founder and director of Milan’s Studio Vedet, a graphic design and branding studio that also curates FAR, a capsule of experimental work shown each year at Nina Yashar’s esteemed Nilufar Gallery, one of the city’s top spaces for contemporary design.
With Alcova, they have sought to provide a space for emerging and independent design that — because of, say, commercial viability or financial and artistic reasons — might not have the chance to show in the existing landscape of events at the larger fair.
What Alcova prioritizes are works that move beyond aesthetics to “somehow question the way things are done,” 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 full life cycle of an object, from what it takes to create it to the aftermath of its use.
The research platform Atelier Luma, based in Arles, France, for example, shared an installation of prototypes, created from various agricultural byproducts such as salt, algae and rice straw, that supported “circular design,” a regenerative approach that makes continual reuse of materials. An injection-molded chair by the California-based Prowl Studio, made of compostable hemp and paper pulp — two byproducts of industrial cannabis processing — challenged the notion that good design should last forever with the tag line: “Expect death.”
A specially curated section of the show, Alcova Project Space, explored emerging themes, including “digital ornamentalism,” an aesthetic shaped by NFTs and video games and meticulously rendered into physical forms, as seen in the work of Ryan Decker, Hannah Lim and Isabel Rower.
“What we really set out to build was more of a social network,” Ms. Ciuffi said. “We curate the list of participants, but then they curate their own space.”
Over the years, that network, which began with a group of 20 or so like-minded colleagues and friends at their first edition in 2018, has steadily grown (the physical fair was canceled and replaced with digital content in 2020 because of the pandemic).
Alcova has also served as a launchpad of sorts for new talent. One breakout star, Maximilian Marchesani, made a splash last year with his debut collection of experimental lighting designs that ruminated on the tenuous relationship between nature and man-made artifice, combining gnarled hazel branches and LED lights.
In the space of a year, Mr. Marchesani has become the subject of a solo show, with Ms. Ciuffi’s endorsement, at Nilufar Gallery. For Mr. Marchesani, it’s a major leap that still feels a bit surreal to him.
“You want to be a protagonist in some way, and you are always a guest,” said Mr. Marchesani, who moved to Milan over a decade ago as a student. “Now, suddenly, I am not a guest anymore.”
Like many start-ups that have gone on to achieve scale and critical attention, Alcova has not been immune to criticism. Last week, in an opinion essay in The Architect’s Newspaper, Andrea Bagnato, a writer and researcher in Milan who has worked with Mr. Grima, pointed to the show’s itinerant presence throughout the city’s historic working-class neighborhoods as an agent of gentrification and real-estate speculation.
In a letter this week to The Architect’s Newspaper, Mr. Grima and Ms. Ciuffi said Mr. Bagnato’s argument was “problematic in that it confuses causation with correlation.” Alcova, the founders noted, never remains in one location for more than two years, to avoid contributing to an area becoming something of a design district that treads on local neighborhoods. Mr. Grima and Ms. Ciuffi also make sure potential sites are not for sale. The current site, they pointed out, had already been slated for a major redevelopment before they procured it.
“You can’t allow the perfect to be the enemy of good, and urbanism is complicated,” Mr. Grima said. “We will try to make moments of joy and generosity towards the city. That is something that we can and will do.”