As ICFF Kicks Off, a New Little Italy Emerges

MILAN — Before 2000, the Madison Avenue stretch near Kips Bay, according to residents, was kind of dead save for a sparse peppering of carpet and furniture stores. Over the course of the two decades that would follow, pricey rents in SoHo sparked an exodus of high-end interior design brands that eventually found a new home in what today is known as NoMad — aka the place to be if a foreign luxury interiors brand wants to prove themselves in the U.S.

On Friday, ahead of the opening of New York’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair, or ICFF, on Sunday, Poltrona Frau along with Cappellini will be the latest to celebrate their new strategic location, in the heart of what is now a design neighborhood. This is the third big opening for an Italian firm in the area in less than a year.

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Domus Design Collection, a shrine of European — especially Italian — design was the very first upscale design firm to colonize the area in 2000, leaving the Upper East Side decorating district in Madison Avenue, in which Babak Hakakian said in 2016 was “a risky move” on his father Nader Hakakian’s part, in an interview with The New York Times. Minotti’s general manager, Alessandro Minotti, general manager of the company, echoed this, agreeing that it was a pivotal decision that was crucial to their growth over the last two decades.

Meda, Italy-based firm Minotti (which was part of DDC) eventually followed suit with its own store in the neighborhood operated by DDC, an 8,611-square-foot flagship that bowed in 2010.

“Ours [with DDC] is an important collaboration that, after New York, extended with the opening of our Miami and Boston flagship stores. The project of our flagship store in New York, inaugurated in 2010 and by [late] art director Rodolfo Dordoni convinced us right from the beginning, thanks to its strategic position and the wide exhibition display to fully present our collections,” said Alessandro Minotti.

Minotti New York
Minotti’s flagship on Madison Avenue

The Poltrona Frau flagship store (officially opened earlier in 2024) on 181 Madison Avenue, on the corner of 34th Street, also has Cappellini under its roof, as well as Milan-based rugs brand Sahrai Milano, Florence-based kitchen-maker Officine Gullo, and Cascina, Italy-based Ceccotti Collezioni, a furniture woodworking specialist, two names that are still under-the-radar in America. Poltrona Frau and Cappellini — alongside other brands like Cassina, Ceccotti, Zanotta, Karakter, Janus et Cie, Luminaire, Interni and the licensing powerhouse Luxury Living Group — are under the umbrella of the Lifestyle Design Division of U.S.-based Haworth Inc. The space spans 19,000 square feet and was designed by Italian designer Michele De Lucchi’s AMDL Circle.

“While our SoHo store holds a cherished place in Poltrona Frau’s legacy, the decision to relocate our flagship was strategic. Anchored in a more vibrant business hub, our new location offers expanded square footage to showcase our evolving and extensive range of offerings. This pivotal move symbolizes and reaffirms our steadfast commitment to growth and innovation,” Poltrona Frau chief executive officer Nicola Coropulis told WWD.

For Cappellini CEO Emanuele Corvo, the move was a natural alternative and also represents a relationship-driven approach present in the Italian design industry. “There are a lot of people who have known each other for a long time in this industry and share useful info,” he said.

Cappellini Madison
Cappellini inside the Poltrona Frau flagship on Madison Avenue.

In response to questions about whether there was an organizational push for an alliance of Italian design companies in New York City, the Italian American Chamber of Commerce, or IACC, executive director Federico Tozzi shrugged off any suggestion that there was any sort of collective effort that brought all of these Italian brands together on one stretch.

“Based on my perspective and over 20 years of experience, I would say no.…Certainly the localization of many Italian companies in the design sector in NoMad was more the result of a series of circumstances linked to the real estate market than an actual strategic plan. In general, all Italian companies have great difficulty in aggregating at an association level,” Tozzi said, explaining that a lack of financial and human resources and a “historic lack of collaborative mindset” have been a hindrance over the years. “We do our best to bring them together and we think we will succeed given the ever-increasing number of members but it is difficult and complicated.…Personally I believe that their more organized presence could benefit them in terms of representation toward the city and in terms of visibility.”

ICFF brand directors Odile Hainaut and Claire Pijoulat told WWD that New York City has multiple “hubs” for design. Historically, SoHo is one of the more well-known and larger design destinations, but in recent years the number of showrooms in the NoMad and the Flatiron areas has grown and the area has evolved rapidly as a cultural pulse, with a growing culinary scene to boot.

“Through our resources and opportunities in the design community, we were able to join forces with NYCxDesign, a few key brands and showrooms, and also Interni, our media partner, to spotlight the NoMad and Flatiron area of New York, activate the showrooms to make sure the visitors traveling to New York for design week and ICFF will explore, spend time and not miss this new design destination,” Hainaut said.

Last year ICFF began cohosting a few events in the NoMad district in an effort to bring architects and designers to the showrooms, “contributing to connecting and creating new business opportunities for the brands and driving more awareness to the neighborhoods,” they said.

Italian firms have major representation in the area and in less than a year’s time, it has hosted a large number of openings, particularly of Italian companies. Poltrona Frau’s neighbors include Molteni&C, Rimadesio, Luxury Living, B&B Italia, Natuzzi and Flos B&B Italia Group (formerly Design Holding), which opened in March. Nearby, Italian design company Dexelance opened the doors to a new hub in October last year, with dedicated showrooms for Meridiani and Davide Groppi on the first floor, and offices on the second. Also in October, design company Kartell relocated its Manhattan flagship from SoHo to Madison Avenue.

Dominating the real estate scene isn’t enough to increase industry sales in the U.S., Flos B&B Italia Group CEO Daniel Lalonde explained to WWD in March, contending that there is still a lot of work to be done in raising brand awareness in the U.S., a nation where Williams Sonoma and RH dominate the aspirational home and furniture market.

“The U.S. market is one in which customers use their designer and architect the most to make decisions. This assisted experience is more prevalent in the U.S. than in other markets in which the architects’ and designers’ influence is, let’s say, a third of all purchases. In the U.S., it’s close to 45 percent,” Lalonde said, adding that education will be paramount at the Madison Avenue store, where the team of sales associates will be trained to expound on the histories of its heritage Italian furnishing brands B&B Italia, Maxalto and Azucena; lighting brands Flos and Louis Poulsen, and kitchen-maker Arclinea.

Design Holding
Inside Design Holding’s flagship on Madison Avenue.

Elsewhere, the Upper East Side of Madison is also on a roll. According to a Madison Avenue Business Improvement District report released in January, the portion that extends from East 57th to East 86th streets and that includes blocks just to the east and west of the avenue are brimming with new openings.

About 20 projects including designer stores, hotels and restaurants were reported as in the works and expected to open over the next year or so, on top of the 32 businesses that opened during the second half of 2023.

Among the projects that were reported under development: Dolce & Gabbana, the Giorgio Armani mixed-use complex, Lalique, Michael Kors, Oscar de la Renta, Peter Millar, Plaza Athénée Nobu Hotel & Spa New York, Robin Birley Dining Club, Sotheby’s, St. John, Swarovski, The Surrey New York and Van Cleef & Arpels.

Minotti agreed that Madison Avenue business is booming. “After experiencing a difficult period of economic recession due to the pandemic, one of Manhattan’s most famous shopping streets is now back with new store’s openings, renovations and expansions. Today, Madison Avenue has become more than ever an exclusive destination for Italian and European design in the heart of New York City,” he said.

ICFF celebrates its 35th edition this year at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, which will run in tandem with the citywide design festival NYC x Design. The three-day fair will welcome designers, architects, interior designers, curators, buyers and developers. Organizers are expecting 450 exhibitors, representing 35 countries.

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