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Finishing out its fourth iteration during this year’s Milan Design Week, the Alcova show drew more than 60,000 visitors.

A woman in a red skirt and a man in a gray shirt stand in front of and old building covered in vines.

Valentina Ciuffi and Joseph Grima, founders of the yearly Alcova design fair. Image by Piercarlo Quecchia.

This year’s edition of Alcova—the wildly popular independent design show presented during last month’s Milan Design Week—was its most ambitious yet. Held once again at Centro Ospedaliero Militare di Baggio, an abandoned military hospital west of central Milan, the show featured more than 90 exhibitors including established and emerging designers, students, brands, architecture firms, artists, and other creative thinkers. Launched in 2018 by Valentina Ciuffi (founder of Studio Vedèt) and Joseph Grima (founder of Space Cavier), Alcova has evolved to become one of the must-see destinations during design week, attracting more than 60,000 visitors through its gates this year. And although the uptick in attendance is certainly a boon, the duo stresses that it’s not the main goal.

A stairway landing with a neon light installation.

An installation by The Back Studio at Alcova. Image by Mattia Parodi.

“Alcova started from the desire to re-create a way of exhibiting at Fuorisalone [Milan Design Week] that seemed a bit lost in 2017 when Joseph Grima and I decided to create something new together,” Ciuffi says. “Fuorisalone was born in the 80s with the spirit of creating an alternative for people who could not exhibit inside the fair. It was born with an independent spirit, with independent initiative.”

Looking to recapture this less corporate, more avant-garde approach—and aware that a number of friends and colleagues in the industry were having trouble finding a way to participate in Milan Design Week that felt authentic—Ciuffi and Grima launched Alcova.

A beaded glass curtain in the middle of a room.

A piece from the Come, Stay, Taste installation by experimental art group Studio Terre. The Local curtain is made with Murano glass beads. Image by Mattia Parodi.

During its 2018 exhibition, which was held in the former panettone factory of G. Cova & Co., Alcova presented 30 exhibitors working with themes including contemporary living, design culture, materials, and technical innovation. Works were installed throughout the abandoned structure, parts of which were overtaken with plants and vegetation. The four years would see the venture grow (and hop to different venues—all of which were semi-abandoned industrial or civic buildings), with its 2022 showing ballooning to nearly one hundred exhibitors and around-the-block lines in which people waited up to an hour to be admitted.

In the first years, the founders reached out to designers and creatives they personally knew to participate. “Now exhibitors come spontaneously from our networks or, of course, word of mouth,” they note. “We ask everyone for a design proposal, we evaluate them with no prejudice regarding the sector of design they come from, but their projects need to fit the Alcova attitude. Alcova is not a normal commercial fair—you’ll never find big logos there—but there is a common will to create an amazing exhibition while presenting your own brand.

Basically, we choose to evaluate the quality of the project in terms of innovation, aesthetic, social and ecological value, and its ability to create a wonderful dialogue with the space.”

A room with plywood tables and chairs and a group of hanging cylindrical glass lights.

The OffCut Bar at Alcova featured new lighting from Lukas Peet and Caine Heintzman of Vancouver's ANDLight.

This year’s Alcova presented like a treasure hunt for design lovers. With works spread through multiple floors in four buildings and their surrounding outdoor spaces, as well as the OffCut Bar (featuring new lighting pieces from Vancouver brand ANDLight), the overall experience led attendees through the network of 1930s structures—up and down stairs, through hallways with peeling paint and marble floors, into rooms with exquisite tiling, stained glass windows, and ornately coffered ceilings. Other areas were more utilitarian (such as a former kitchen or a room with lots of industrial piping). A handful of designers displayed their work on balconies or in a long, vaulted attic that felt as though it went on forever (Refractory, The House of Lyria).

A vaulted wood attic with a table in the center. Piles of turmeric sit on a sand-covered floor.

Installation from Refractory in the attic space at Alcova.

A special exhibition within Alcova, This Is America, was the first exhibition co-curated by design PR collective Hello Human and experience design studio ADITIONS. Both companies, founded by women of color, saw the opportunity as an international platform for discussion around diversity and representation in the design world today.

A grouping of contemporary furniture on a checkered floor.

This is America featured a diverse set of creative thinkers in order to rechart global conceptions of the term 'American Design.' Image by Jonathan Hokklo.

“As a communications professional in the design world, I’ve seen firsthand how impactful inclusive representation of creative voices can be in achieving equitable diversity,” says Jenny Nguyen, founder of Hello Human. “Simply uplifting underrepresented voices can have a tremendous ripple effect; allowing creatives to take up space and build their careers with the freedom to design from their own points of view. The result can be a built environment that is designed with more intention and on behalf of our diverse communities.”

As for the future of Alcova, including ideas for next year, Ciuffi and Grima aren’t revealing any major details yet, but they do note that design lovers can expect another “itinerant platform that will surprise our audience!”


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