Isola Design: a thriving community for independent designers and studios
Milan Design Week is the most significant and anticipated design event worldwide. Among its protagonists is Isola Design. Gabriele Cavallaro, the driving force behind the project, shared with us his story in this insightful interview
Gabriele Cavallaro, along with his wife and business partner Elif Resitoglu, is one of the leading figures in the Milanese design scene. Together, they launched the creative agency Blank Hub and, subsequently, the Isola Design project, a platform with a community of over 20,000 users and nearly 1,000 profiles of designers and design studios from over 60 countries.
Isola Design offers a variety of services, including participation in collective exhibitions, digital services like the Isola Design Awards and the Isola Design Magazine, and a marketplace for designers to sell their projects.
Given the context of the Milan Design Week, Cavallaro affirms that what sets Isola Design apart is their focus on showcasing the most innovative projects, rather than prioritizing those with more financial means.
In this interview, we collected more about his entrepreneurial journey in the world of design and the project that he and Elif Resitoglu are carrying out.
Who is Gabriele Cavallaro, how did your entrepreneurial design journey begin?
“I identify as a creative entrepreneur, but my professional journey began in the vacuum cleaner industry. Following my business and marketing studies in Rome, Lisbon, and Milan, I landed an internship at Candy Hoover where I worked in the product marketing department.
Witnessing the immense creative effort that goes into launching even an entry-level vacuum cleaner on the market was eye-opening, and I loved every minute of it. Although the company couldn’t hire me immediately after my internship, they asked me to wait for their call. However, after just a week, I had already started working on my first startup, and by the time they reached out, I was fully invested in the entrepreneurial lifestyle.
My passion for design emerged when I met my wife and business partner, Elif Resitoglu, a Turkish architecture student at Politecnico di Milano. Together, we founded Blank Hub, a creative agency aimed at helping young companies communicate their projects through design, from branding to interiors, and also developing our own projects.
One of our ventures was Isola Design District, a physical platform launched in 2017 that provided emerging designers and design studios from all over the world the opportunity to take part in Milan Design Week without having to borrow money.
During the pandemic, we responded to the crisis by creating a digital platform, isola.design, which has now become our core business after three years of events.”
Why Isola Design, why did you decide to create an international physical and digital platform for designers? How does it work?
“We discovered that Milan Design Week, the world’s most important design event, was excluding a talented segment due to its high cost. Exhibition spots in the most prominent design districts, like Tortona or Brera, were prohibitively expensive for young graduates and emerging designers early in their careers.
This meant that the event was missing out on extremely innovative and visionary projects focusing on circularity, materials, and innovation. So, we decided to create a new design district with different values and content from the ones hosting the big, wealthy design brands.
It would be a place where independent designers and studios could showcase their works at an affordable price or for free, and visitors could discover the future of design in a beautiful neighborhood full of workshops and galleries.
Since its inception in 2017, the project has undergone significant changes. Originally an annual event we worked on a few months before the Fuorisalone, the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to pivot our vision. Despite the challenges, we saw an opportunity to support the designers in our network and created a digital platform where they could register for free, upload their projects, and participate in virtual exhibitions, talks, and online events.
We formed strategic partnerships and expanded our services, and the first year of digital activity went so well that we decided to make it a new beginning. Today, Isola Design District has become isola.design, a community with over 20,000 users and nearly 1,000 profiles of designers and design studios from more than 60 countries.
Our curatorial team verifies each profile, and professionals from all over the world can search and research from over 1,500 published projects.
Young talents can connect with more experienced designers, journalists, and companies, and new communication channels have been created, such as the Isola Design Magazine, and new opportunities for visibility, such as the Isola Design Awards.
The best part is still in development as we work on a marketplace that will equip our community with the necessary tools to grow professionally and reach more potential customers.”
What defines your community? What are the services you offer and what added value do designers who participate in it gain?
“Our community is expanding gradually, with a focus on maintaining high-quality content. We carefully evaluate every application to ensure that the platform is home to forward-thinking projects, ranging from biomaterials to collectible design pieces. This serves as an opportunity for collaboration between designers and professionals in the design industry to stay up-to-date.
Designers can participate in physical events easily and affordably by applying directly from the platform. They have the option of getting an independent space or taking part in thematic collective exhibitions curated by our team or external guests, depending on their project size and budget. We also support students and young graduates with special fees and free participation, and help participating designers with logistics and setup.
Furthermore, we offer a range of digital services to help designers in this competitive sector. Our Isola Design Awards allow designers to win free exhibition spots at Milan Design Week and a monetary prize. We provide media packs and press launch services to promote their latest projects, at the lowest price in the market. We also launch sponsored contests to commission new projects from companies in different fields.
Currently, we are developing a marketplace that will enable designers on the platform to sell their projects with ease, attend online courses, and find photographers and videographers worldwide.”
Milan Design Week is rich in events and design districts. What sets Isola Design Festival apart from the rest and why?
“Our event has always prioritized giving space to deserving designers rather than those with more financial means, and this approach has paid off in terms of the event’s content and identity. We’ve established ourselves as the go-to destination for visitors hungry for discovery, without the corporate showrooms of big names. Each year, we strive to create a design district that offers a glimpse into the future of the industry by showcasing the most innovative and revolutionary projects in development.
This year, we’re excited to have 50 exhibitions and installations featuring over 300 designers, as well as daily talks, workshops, and parties spread throughout the Isola neighborhood. It’s the largest event we’ve ever organized, with the added bonus of reaching other parts of the city through our partnerships with Designtech and the IWG Group in the Certosa, Brera, and Tortona districts.
Through these initiatives, we’re demonstrating how our approach to design districts has evolved. Isola has become a global design platform that transcends geographical limitations.”
Isola Design Festival originated in Milan, but rapidly extended its reach to foreign markets (Dutch Design Week and Dubai Design Week). What motivated you to broaden your horizons so swiftly and what were the reasons behind it?
“As part of our job, we travel to major design events around the world every year, and it’s one of my favorite aspects of the job. In 2018, we attended the Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven for the first time and were blown away by the level of experimentation and research in every exhibition. It was a completely different experience from Milan Design Week, but we felt it was an even better fit for our vision of what an event should be.
With the same passion we had for creating a design district in Milan, we decided to bring our event to the Netherlands. In 2019, we organized our first event there, featuring a selection of 30 designers in the beautiful photography gallery, Pennings Foundation, located in the heart of the Irisbuurt neighborhood. We didn’t know anyone at first, but I had the chance to meet Wisse Trooster, who was working at Dutch Design Foundation at the time. He liked our project and decided to join our team, helping us grow our presence in his country.
Last year, we hosted seven exhibitions in Eindhoven, showcasing over 120 designers. This experience taught us how important it is to organize events in different countries, not only for us but also for our community. In 2022, we expanded to include Collectible Brussels and Dubai Design Week, and this year we’re looking to add another destination. This has helped us to reach a wider audience, become more international, and feel more connected to a global network of organizations that share our vision for the industry.”
During the upcoming Milan Design Week, in collaboration with DesignWanted and Designtech, you will be organizing the exhibition ‘Innovation for Living’ at La Cattedrale. What do you believe are the main trends & future directions connected to the theme?
“When you (Patrick Abbattista) suggested we visit La Cattedrale last December, I immediately saw the potential for us to collaborate beyond the borders of the Isola district. As soon as I entered the space, I was captivated by its charm. Despite the challenge of time constraints, the prospect of organizing an exhibition focused on innovative furniture and new approaches to living spaces was too enticing to ignore.
We are constantly searching for projects that seek to transform the design industry, particularly in light of the pandemic. Each year, we curate exhibitions that showcase cutting-edge material research, technological solutions, and initiatives that demonstrate how we can repurpose industrial and natural waste.
This represents our vision for the future, and it is also the direction of Isola Design Festival 2023. Our main theme, “Nothing Happens if Nothing Happens,” will guide us as we host exhibitions such as “Innovation for Living” at La Cattedrale and “Circolare – The Circular Village” at Piazza Città di Lombardia.”
What is the next step for Isola Design?
“Our aim is to establish ourselves as a leading name in the global design industry, a thriving community for independent design studios and up-and-coming designers. Although we have a long way to go, our next goal is to launch our marketplace and participate in various design events annually, increasing our reach and promoting our platform. We appreciate your support and well-wishes as we move forward towards achieving our goals!”