Gabriele Cavallaro discusses the genesis and curation of the Isola Design District

Co-founder of the Isola Design District, Gabriele Cavallaro talks about his journey and the idea of doing something for small design studios in this exclusive conversation with STIR.

by Zohra KhanPublished on : Jul 02, 2022

Weeks after the curtains went down for the biggest celebration of the design world, we are still reflecting on the intriguing ideas and conversations that took place at the week-long Salone del Mobile in Milan. While this seven-day fair introduced the design community to new possibilities and prospects for the future, the design districts strive year-long to bring this narrative to reality. Under the theme of ‘Together as One’ for the design week this year, the Isola Design District embraced the initiative to bring together young designers, studios, manufacturers, architects, companies, consumers, and other stakeholders to ideate and build for a better future. Within its diverse curations, the exhibitions put together by Isola emphasised on perceiving design as a process and not just as a product.

Speaking with STIR, Gabriele Cavallaro - the co-founder of Isola Design District and creative agency Blank Hub - talks about the genesis of the design district and its significance in creating a platform for new designers, artists, and brands.

  • Milan Design Market from the previous year at Isola Design district | Isola Design District | Gabriele Cavallaro | STIRworld
    Milan Design Market from the previous year at Isola Design district Image: © Gianni Rizzotti
  • The Swinging furniture by Team Balanco + Jukai + Barbara Crimella for Milan Design Week 2019 | Isola Design District | Gabriele Cavallaro | STIRworld
    The Swinging furniture by Team Balanco + Jukai + Barbara Crimella for Milan Design Week 2019 Image: Courtesy of Isola Design District
  • Different Bodies by KADK from Milan Design Week 2019 | Isola Design District | Gabriele Cavallaro | STIRworld
    Different Bodies by KADK from Milan Design Week 2019 Image: Courtesy of Isola Design District

Zohra Khan: It's been six years since the inception of the Isola Design District. What was the beginning of the initiative like, and how do you think the platform has evolved over the years?

Gabriele Cavallaro: With my partner and wife Elif Resitoglu, we already had a creative agency in Milan, Blank Hub. We loved design and we were spending every day of the Milan Design Week visiting the fair and the exhibitions in town. In 2016, we had the idea of organising a first small event to host a selection of emerging designers in an industrial loft within the neighbourhood of Porta Romana. We thought it could be interesting for new players in the market to have an affordable spot to show and sell their pieces during that week. It was our first experience in this kind of project and it worked very well. So, we decided to repeat that within an official design district to have even more exposure. But when we started looking for locations in Brera and Tortona, we got shocked! Rental prices for a week were incredibly high and only huge companies could afford them. So, we thought, “We should create our own design district, where small design studios with low budgets can take part”. And that’s what we did! We decided to make it in the Isola neighbourhood because I already knew it well. I had my first house in Milan there in 2010. Even if it was growing and changing a lot, it still had that independent identity that we wanted for our project.

We organised three editions in a row from 2017 to 2019, and we had a constant growth year by year in terms of the number of exhibitors, quality of content and amount of visitors. The year after, the pandemic stopped us brutally, as well as all the other event organisers. But, compared to others, we decided to enrich our digital presence by building a new curated platform from scratch, where designers could have visibility all year long, connecting to each other and with users such as design professionals or journalists. Today, we have a community with over 15,000 users and 650 verified designer profiles, with more than 1,100 projects uploaded that go from collectable design to biomaterials. Many of them were also showcased in our last two Milan Design Week events, where we have hosted dedicated, curated, and thematic collective exhibitions, decreasing the participation cost even more.

  • Only Good News, an exhibition by Isola at Pennings Foundation for Dutch Design Week 2021 | Isola Design District | Gabriele Cavallaro | STIRworld
    Only Good News, an exhibition by Isola at Pennings Foundation for Dutch Design Week 2021 Image: Brittroelse
  • Isola Talents Factory, curated by Wisse Trooster in collaboration with Isola for Dutch Design Week 2021 | Isola Design District | Gabriele Cavallaro | STIRworld
    Isola Talents Factory, curated by Wisse Trooster in collaboration with Isola for Dutch Design Week 2021 Image: Brittroelse
  • In 2019, Isola Design District participated in the Dutch Design week, thereby becoming the first and only Italian design district ever to take part in a foreign design event | Isola Design District | Gabriele Cavallaro | STIRworld
    In 2019, Isola Design District participated in the Dutch Design week, thereby becoming the first and the only Italian design district ever to take part in a foreign design event Image: Oscar Vinck

Zohra: Since 2019, Isola has also been a part of the Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven. As the first Italian design district to participate in a foreign design event, do you think that experience has contributed to a change in your event during Milan Design Week?

Gabriele: When we visited the Dutch Design Week for the first time in 2018, we fell in love with its environment and with the event itself. We found a more experimental and conceptual approach compared to Milan - less furniture, more ideas. We immediately decided that it was the right place for Isola to have a second home during the year. So, in 2019, we rented a 700 sqm gallery, Pennings Foundation, where we presented the projects of 30 designers handpicked from our network. That year, we met many people and designers who today are really important for us and for the Central Europe development, like Wisse Trooster, a precious partner who scouts Dutch designers and partners for us, helping Isola grow in The Netherlands too. In 2020, we had a great digital edition of the event, and last year we doubled the numbers of our first participation.

This has also contributed a lot to our growth in Milan. For example, this year we have collaborated with the Dutch Embassy and Consulate to host over 20 Dutch designers and design studios in two different exhibitions curated by Wisse, The Dutch Atelier , and The Social Side of Design. And it was a success! This year we’ll have four different locations and over 100 designers at Dutch Design Week 2022, already becoming one of the most important organisations of the general event. In the next few years, we’d like to replicate this experience in other cities and events, from London to Dubai. I’m personally working on it right now, and I have to admit that it is pretty exciting!

  • Curated by Isola Design, Isola Design Gallery celebrated one-of-a-kind, handmade, handcrafted products by designers from all over the world for Milan Design Week 2022 | Isola Design District | Gabriele Cavallaro | STIRworld
    Curated by Isola Design, Isola Design Gallery celebrated one-of-a-kind, handcrafted products by designers from all over the world for Milan Design Week 2022 Image: Salvatore Pollara
  • Curated by Wisse Trooster, The Dutch Atelier at Isola for Milan Design Week 2022 presented a broad overview of the contemporary Dutch design field | Isola Design District | Gabriele Cavallaro | STIRworld
    Curated by Wisse Trooster, The Dutch Atelier at Isola for Milan Design Week 2022 presented a broad overview of the contemporary Dutch design field Image: Latisha Loos
  • Materialized, an exhibition at the Milan Design Week 2022 that showcased inventive biomaterials
    Materialized, an exhibition at the Milan Design Week 2022 that showcased inventive biomaterials Image: Salvatore Pollara
  • No Space For Waste, another exhibition at the Isola Design district 2022, was conceptualised as an ode to circular design and creativity | Isola Design District | Gabriele Cavallaro | STIRworld
    No Space For Waste, another exhibition at the Isola Design district 2022, was conceptualised as an ode to circular design and creativity Image: Mauro Serrae

Zohra: The theme of this year’s Isola Design Festival was ‘Together as One’. What were some of the most liked events and exhibitions in the district?

Gabriele: This year, we gathered the highest number of designers and design studios ever, and with the theme ‘Together As One’, we wanted to stimulate the connection between them and with visitors as much as possible. In fact, we think that only through sharing experience and knowledge with all the stakeholders of the design industry can we make a difference. Collaboration and new opportunities are two of the most important keywords in what we do everyday.

At the Isola Design District, we hosted over 250 talents from all over the world, in addition to local galleries, showrooms and artisans, and international guests like Masquespacio from Spain, Stackabl from Canada, and Sander Mulder from the Netherlands. The focus of the exhibitions and installations, distributed in over 40 hotspots, was oriented on six main themes: circular design, new materials, craftsmanship, sustainable production, social design, and collectible design.

  • The New Paradigma brought together six designers selected from Isola Design Community for live know-how performances and exhibitions at Milan Design Week 2022 | Isola Design District | Gabriele Cavallaro | STIRworld
    The New Paradigma brought together six designers selected from Isola Design Community for live know-how performances and exhibitions at Milan Design Week 2022 Image: Mauro Serra
  • The Forms & Textures collection by Masquespacio for Milan Design Week 2022 | Isola Design District | Gabriele Cavallaro | STIRworld
    The Forms & Textures collection by Masquespacio for Milan Design Week 2022 Image: Courtesy of Isola Design District

According to the feedback I got in the past few days, Isola Design Festival 2022 was our most visited and liked edition. People enjoyed the talks and events we organised at Stecca3 and Copernico Rooftop. In terms of the exhibitions they loved,The New Paradigma which was held in an abandoned workshop and directly curated by Elif where designers were also showing their creation process with live performances; Vita Lenta, which we have commissioned to Finemateria and hosted in the 4000 sqm cover of Regione Lombardia building, and all the other collective exhibitions curated by our team likeNo Space For Waste, Materialized, Isola Design Gallery, Rising Talents and The Dutch Atelier, together with UNStudio’s installation and Mas Creations’ first collection showcase emerged as favourites.

Isola Digital District, the digital version of the Isola district was developed in 2020 to engage the community throughout the year by hosting virtual exhibitions | Isola Design District | Gabriele Cavallaro | STIRworld
Isola Digital District, the digital version of the Isola district was developed in 2020 to engage the community throughout the year by hosting virtual exhibitions Image: Courtesy of Isola Design District

STIR: Isola has always kept the physical and digital worlds close. How would you say this balance has transformed post-pandemic?

Gabriele: The pandemic changed the balance a lot. In 2020, all the physical events were cancelled, and in 2021, postponed. While all the other design districts in Milan just waited for the situation to change, we wanted to make something. So we decided to launch the first curated design platform for independent designers and design studios who could apply to take part, and, if selected by our curatorial team, could make a profile and upload their projects to be visible all year long and connect with other designers and design professionals. But not just that, we organised digital events during all of 2020 with collective virtual exhibitions, talks and interviews on Isola TV, online product launches, and much more. These activities gave us a huge exposure worldwide, thanks to media partnerships with international platforms. And when physical events were possible again, like last September in Milan and last October in Eindhoven, we had a different approach to exhibitions and their communication, because we started to link the digital world with the physical one.

Last year, we founded Isola Design Group, an innovative startup to focus and improve our digital platform, and now we are ready to get investors on board. The idea is to give designers from all over the world the possibility to get noticed, by joining our online community for selling physical services and digital assets or NFTs, as well as for buying services like events participation, media kits, professional photo shoots, and many more.

Rooftop design talks happened at Copernico Isola for the Milan Design Week 2022 | Isola Design District | Gabriele Cavallaro | STIRworld
Rooftop design talks happened at Copernico Isola for the Milan Design Week 2022 Image: Courtesy of Isola Design District

STIR: Who is Gabriele Cavallaro beyond the identity of Isola and Blank Hub?

Gabriele: First of all, let me say it, I’m not a designer! The curatorship of our events is managed by Elif, who is an architect, supported by Wisse and Juan Torres, who are designers, who keep scouting new talents every day. Elif also manages the platform development together with our IT team, which is based in Turkey.

But when it comes to business development, marketing and communication, that’s where I can give the best according to my background, knowledge and passions. My everyday goal is to make Isola grow, from all points of view. I travel a lot to visit the main design events in the world every year, to connect with people, and to build strategic partnerships. Then, I overview the wonderful work our team is doing in terms of community management and communication. They always have brilliant ideas and are able to translate into content any input I may give.

  • Co-founders and Creative Directors of Isola Design District and Blank Hub, Elif Resitoglu and Gabriele Cavallaro | Isola Design District | Gabriele Cavallaro | STIRworld
    Co-founders and Creative Directors of Isola Design District and Blank Hub, Elif Resitoglu and Gabriele Cavallaro Image: Courtesy of Isola Design District
  • The Isola Design District team | Isola Design District | Gabriele Cavallaro | STIRworld
    The Isola Design District team Image: Courtesy of Isola Design District

Zohra: As someone who has spent most of his life in Italy, I suppose Salone means more to you than just a design week. How would you describe the feeling of hosting a district at one of the biggest design fairs in the world?

Gabriele: That’s a good question because I never thought about it this way. I’m proud of the work we have been doing. We are still a small and young team, and we are probably managing a project much bigger than we normally could. But, even with a huge effort, thanks to our passion and dedication, we are doing it and we are doing it well! Especially this year, the feedback we got from designers, press and visitors was fantastic, enthusiastic and really extraordinary. Even though extremely tired, we were incredibly happy and satisfied about this result. So I feel simply proud of what we have done until now, and at the same time I know there is still so much more to do and to improve. But we are ready!

(Inputs by Sunena V Maju, intern at STIRworld)

STIR takes you on a Milanese sojourn! Experience Salone del Mobile and all the design districts - 5vie, Brera, Fuorisalone, Isola, Zona Tortona, and Durini - with us. STIR’s coverage of Milan Design Week 2022, Meanwhile in Milan showcased the best exhibits, moods, studios, events, and folks to look out for. We also presented our very own STIR press booth at Salone del Mobile - Hall 5/7 S.14, Fiera Milano RHO.

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