The pirates of Isola: a design district to defend a neighbourhood in Milan

Emilio Lonardo tells us about the second edition of Isola Design District, which seeks to protect the identity of one of Milan’s most popular districts.

Dutch Invertuals, Mutant Matter, Isola Design District 2018. Foto Giulia Di Lenarda

By throwing open the doors of hidden locations, private courtyards and craft shops in the Isola quarter of Milan, for the second year the Isola Design District hosted young designers and emerging brands, with exhibitions, installations, workshops and events. Emilio Lonardo, co-founder of the district together with Gabriele Cavallaro, talks to us about it. 

Where does your love for Isola come from?
When I moved to Milan this part was still rather decayed and perhaps I liked it for that reason. After EXPO, following the redrafting of the urban plan, the district’s appearance has changed: it’s still fascinating but completely different from what it used to be. When I put myself on the line and started to build a Fuorisalone district from scratch, out of parts of the town still off the beaten track, Isola struck me as the most suitable one. That’s because it was still developing, small, and retained a strong identity with its stores and workshops, in contrast with the new buildings ranging from the famous Bosco Verticale to Piazza Gae Aulenti, Palazzo Unicredit... It conveyed a twofold impression, which is also the way I design. Having to choose a neighbourhood that felt like a second skin – because after all creating a district means committing yourself all the year round in a progressive way – the choice naturally fell on Isola.

Why did you decide to create a design district?
The design system in Milan is unusual, and for a young designer it’s often difficult to get a footing in it, partly because of the costs during Design Week. Reasoning that, like me, there were lots of young designers from Italy and abroad looking for spaces to show off their potential, I felt the urge to build something for those who couldn’t find space in the official circuits, yet worked on projects worth showcasing.

What was this year’s theme?
There was just a single theme, but we varied it. We called it Rethinking Materials, because, unlike last year, we wanted to focus closely on the theme of the district. Rethinking materials means adopting an innovative approach to traditional materials or finding new materials for traditional objects.

Our image of the district is the pirate flagwe’re like pirates who want to defend the neighbourhood's identity.

How does it differ from the first edition and where is the Isola Design District going?
Compared to last year there’s been almost a revolution. In the first edition we worked a miracle in the organisation, meaning me, Gabriele Cavallaro, creative director of Blank, and Nicola and Giulio Nicoletti. Last year we created a district in two months, it was a real pilot project. This year we had the energy to create something much more highly structured. We redesigned the image of the district by entrusting it to Zup Design, a well-known branding studio in Milan. We supplied the theme, chose premises that had a history recognisable in Milan’s urban fabric – the Stecca with its craft workers. Then we created a programme of events to try and differentiate design in the strict sense from the sidelines. These  were also important to us from the start, so we devoted a differentiated circuit to them, especially food.

How did you select the designers you host?
We worked in two ways: through a call for projects on our chosen theme and by membership. Some of them already knew us from last year and wanted to join in again. We distributed all the installations, creating bridges between the designers and the spaces hosting them. Then we identified the most suitable locations to accentuate and enhance the various projects. Compared to last year there are a lot of art galleries and much larger spaces. This even enabled us to host collectives of international designers, like the Belgian collective Brut and the Brazilian eiDesign.

What were the main events at Isola Design District?
Every sector of the public could discover something to suit its fancy. I found the installation by Stefano Rossetti really striking. A homegrown designer from Isola, Rossetti’s project was in the piazza of Palazzo della Lombardia. Called Milan col Coeur in Man (“Milan with Heart in Hand”), it’s an urban design project with totemic benches and sculptures and a huge inflatable as tall as the Palazzo della Regione. It represents a man holding his heart in his hand and trying to throw it over an obstacle, symbolising great strength and hope. Then we confirmed the installations on Via Pastrengo, which is one of the main axes of the district, with the Milan Design Market, the exhibition-market of emerging designers, the Dutch Invertuals, the Japanese firm Interiors, continuing as far as Piazzale Archinto, with partnerships between commercial activities and designers. At the Cherry Pit patisserie, Roxanne Brennen presented the exhibition Dining Toys with small objects related to the body. In Via Pepe 36 , Paola Mirai displayed a work again linked to the theme of the body and jewellery. This year it was a collection of objects made by dismantling digital components, like old cell phones and computers. The focus is simple but powerful: our digital devices are our new brains, they hold our memories, our data. Each of them stores part of our memory that we’re no longer accustomed to using, and if we don’t use it any more, it’s like we’ve lost that part of ourselves. This is a way of being able to carry it around with us all the time.

How did the neighbourhood respond?
Very well, right from the first edition. The businesses and inhabitants of the quarter immediately became our sponsors. Last year we were still strangers to them, so we went to talk to each of the businesses and presented the project. Most of the inhabitants said they were enthusiastic because during the week of the Salone the ghost of abandonment returned, although the district has gone upscale a lot. So they supported us, talked to each other, and supported our initiative both with their physical and relational presence, and financially. Ours is a kilometre-zero district. We worked with craft activities, restaurants and the retail sector to create a neighbourhood that would communicate itself as an identity. 

Does this identity still exist or is it being lost with the new planning developments?
That’s the risk. Our image of the district is the pirate flag, the Jolly Roger. We’re like pirates who want to defend the neighbourhood's identity and preserve it from what’s happening around it. 

[Ed. On Domus Paper, the special issue dedicated to Salone 2018, Emilio Lonardo’s name is mistakenly written, we apologize for the error]

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