A visit with the team behind Milan’s Cabina Gallery

Home Sweet Home Italian Style

By Anna Carnick, Giada Paoloni

Milan gallerists Andrea Scarabelli and Ezio Nodari have only known each other a short while, but since meeting in February 2015 through mutual friends, they’ve achieved a remarkable feat. In just a year and a half, the two have conceived, prepped, and opened Cabina, an already up-and-coming gallery specializing in 20tj-century Italian design. It all began quite innocently when Scarabelli, who was then decorating a client’s home, went to Nodari—an avid design collector—for some expert advice. The two hit it off, and within months, they’d opened the doors to their new gallery.

We recently had the pleasure of a visit to Scarabelli’s home. The gallerist opened the doors to his cozy domicile to let us see just how an emerging Italian design gallerist lives. Nestled in Milan’s De Angeli neighborhood, an area full of Liberty-style villas and green gardens, the space is dotted with gems by established and lesser-known designers, and, as Scarabelli notes, it shifts often—much as the gallery floor does—as pieces come in and out. In addition to the open house, we sat down to get to know the newly dubbed partners a bit better, including their thoughts on collecting as a team, the thrill of the (design) hunt, and what exactly makes a house a home.  


Anna Carnick: How did you each first get involved with the design world? Was there a particular experience or object that initially drew you in?

Ezio Nodari: I was about 16 years old when I first connected with design. At the time, on Saturdays and Sundays, I used to attend flea markets in Milan with my father. He had a stall at the markets with antiques and watchmaking articles, and I often helped him. I remember observing with particular curiosity the objects and lamps that longtime dealers purchased from other sellers. There was something in those objects that called to me so powerfully that I soon started researching them to better understand their histories. That led me to study the masters of Italian design, and their products compelled me to passionately carry on my research. I still remember my first design lamp, a Tolomeo by Michele de Lucchi; that was the start of it all.

Andrea Scarabelli: I’ve always been curious about the design world, attending design exhibitions and events in Milan and everywhere else I travel. But I really developed my passion for historic Italian design when I moved to the apartment I live in now, because I decided to decorate it with original pieces. I chose not to go to galleries, though. Instead, I dug through flea markets and private collectors’ depots, and the more I did, the most intrigued I became, and so the more I studied. But the very first object ever that drew me to design was Enzo Mari’s classic wooden puzzle 16 Animali; my father owned a set, and I used to play with it when I was very young.

AC: How would you describe your working relationship?

AS: Complementary. Ezio combs through flea markets and secondhand shops and takes care of most of the restorations. I edit the photos, update the website, and deal with costumers. But since we're only two people, such an accurate division of tasks is only hypothetical. Plus, we handle photo sessions, packaging, and many other things together.

AC: What did each of you do professionally prior to opening Cabina?

EN: I worked for more than 15 years as a dealer in the main brocantage markets in Milan and Pavia. I’ve also worked with dealers, galleries, and auction houses. I am specialized in the restoration of objects and furniture from the 20th century, and I am also a collector of 1950s lamps and 20th-century ceramics and glasses.

AS: I worked for 10 years in book publishing as a fiction editor, freelance writer, and translator. Concurrently with Cabina, I continue to work as a fiction writer; I’ve published one novel, and I'm working on the next. I'm also the co-founder of Yes I am Writing A Book, a tiny contemporary art book publisher, and I organize Slam X, an underground music and literature festival in Milan. 

AC: Why did you choose to focus on 20th-century Italian furniture and decorative arts specifically?

EN: Simply put, our love of Italian design is much stronger than our love of any other country's productions. This is not parochial; rather, it’s about an extraordinary tradition of art and craftsmanship that developed in Italy in a widespread way that we believe is unparalleled in other countries. But we do also love design from other countries—French, Scandinavian, American, Brazilian, and so on—and therefore we sometimes include these in Cabina's collection, too. And as you noted, we focus not only on design but also on decorative arts; that is because we think that to miss this element would mean a terrible loss of beauty. 

AC: Tell us about a few collection highlights. Are there specific pieces you’re especially excited about at the moment?

AS: Our catalogue and archive features designers such as Gio Ponti, Gino Sarfatti, Ignazio Gardella, Osvaldo Borsani, Angelo Mangiarotti, Gianfranco Frattini, Ico Parisi, BBPR, Vico Magistretti, and Paolo Buffa, as well as manufacturers like Stilnovo, Arredoluce, Arteluce, and Fontana Arte.

Currently, we are excited about a few of our latest finds: A set of Leggera  chairs by Gio Ponti—ok, sure, you see a lot of these, but this particular set is in really stunning original condition, and we think a true collector will recognize and appreciate that. Also, we have a rare, postmodern set by Roberto Gabetti, Aimaro Isola, and Guido Drocco—a daybed and table—that come from Talponia, Adriano Olivetti's modernist residential unit in Ivrea, Italy. These pieces are already available on Pamono, but we're also very happy about a bunch of new finds that we'll publish quite soon: a rare Marco Zanuso floor lamp, a very large Ercole Barovier chandelier, an Ico Parisi coffee table, and a Stilnovo floor lamp that just returned from renovation, and many more. Stay tuned, as they say!

AC: How do you approach collecting as a team? How do you choose the pieces you include, and from where do you source?

AS: Ezio is the expert, so his evaluation is our starting point, but we must both agree on each piece, trying to find a balance between our tastes and preferences. All pieces have to fit within our catalogue, according to our style and quality standards, and there are certain names we’re always looking for. But of course there's a scarcity of very important pieces, so it's a real hunt! We love to find a bargain (who doesn't?), but that's not necessary. If we really like a piece, we may buy it even if it's expensive.

When it comes to sourcing, just about everywhere is the answer! Flea markets in northern Italy, secondhand shops, private collectors, websites connecting private sellers and buyers, random finds . . . Most of our pieces come from Milan and its surroundings, but we buy all across Italy.

AC: What advice do you have for someone who’s just starting to collect 20th-century Italian design? 

AS: Don't start collecting certain designers just because they're trending now; purchase what you really like. Be instinctive, but also study as much as you can.

EN: I agree with Andrea. The good part of design doesn't end with the knowledge of the renown and usual masters; the discovery is the really fascinating part of this world. Studying is the basis of all knowledge and therefore of all passions. From this standpoint, the true collector and design lover should develop a personal idea of design and recognize—even and especially in the apparently anonymous objects— those characteristics of invention, quality, and craftsmanship that make a common object worthy of universally acknowledgment. 

AC: Midcentury modern designs from Italy can be challenging to authenticate—or at least challenging to attribute to a particular designer, since many pieces are unsigned and similar forms were produced by a range of quality craftsman. How do you overcome this challenge? Do you have any tips you can share with lovers of vintage Italian design?

EN: It's a long battle spent poring over auction catalogues, books, and vintage magazines (Domus, Stile, Casabella, etc.). The problem is that this material is also very hard to find, so it's a double battle! Quite often we buy stuff we can't initially attribute to any specific designer—and then months later, the perfect clue pops up. Until then, we prefer to present a piece simply as an “Italian work” rather than attribute it to some random designer, but unfortunately we see the contrary happening around us all the time. There are too many false attributions out there, and also there is too little information available about many unknown or undervalued Italian designers from the past. 

AC: Inside the gallery, are there certain designers you each (or both) consistently gravitate towards?

EN: Gio Ponti and Gino Sarfatti are my great references. I love Italian design in general, but I would like to widen and enrich our catalogue with names from international design, especially French. My passion splits me between the research of purely decorative objects (not necessarily ascribable to an academic design definition) and pieces that are the result of an entirely architectonic conception.

AS: I guess an Italian 20th-century design gallery can't avoid being Ponti-centric. 

AC: How would you each describe your at-home styles? 

EN: A home, through its furnishings, is a mirror of the people that inhabit it. Inside, many aspects of my character converge. The domestic environment becomes a true training ground, a place for playfully experimenting with my passions and research. I adore juxtapositions of tastes, styles, and eras. I like to work on combining colors and volumes. I favor warm materials, such as wood, alongside the colorful, shiny surfaces of enamels, ceramics, and glass. I like to think that friends that come to visit to share evenings of good food and wine feel completely at ease—pampered by a welcoming ambience that is original and sometimes unpredictable. My home never stays the same; it changes with me, and it is nice to think that it is possible to generate surprise and renewed curiosity at guests’ every new visit.

A home has to feel like a home. It can’t be a faux gallery. AS: Home has to be—and feel—like a home. You just can't live in a faux-gallery or in a setting carefully staged to show off. When I welcome guests, I hope that they feel cozy and relaxed. Most of all, [my partner] Nicoletta and I want the house to be warm, somehow different, and with a touch of eccentricity.

AC: At home, which designers do you each gravitate towards? Are they different or similar to what’s inside the gallery? Whose designs do you actually live with?

EN: My passion for design touches every aspect of my life, so both my home and the gallery strongly mirror this attitude. There are pieces in the gallery that I would like to enjoy and live with in my home, and vice versa. It is a continuous interchange. Too many beautiful things have been produced in the past to necessarily settle for just one designer. There are a few pieces in my apartment that I consider untouchable and not expendable, though. Among these are some Gio Ponti and Fausto Melotti ceramics, as well as works from the Futurist period of Nicolay Diulgheroff and Ivos Pacetti, and a small collection of boxes by Pietro Chiesa for Fontana Arte. There are also some Murano glass vases by Flavio Poli, Archimede Seguso, and Fulvio Bianconi. And then there’s what I call “lamp forest,” a thick group of small lamps from the 1950s produced by Gino Sarfatti, Oscar Torlasco, Angelo Ostuni, and the Stilux masters. And then I’d never want to miss my objects from Ettore Sottsass, Jr. and others masters of Italian 1980s postmodernism. 

AS: I have pieces by Ilmari Tapiovaara, Bruno Munari, De Pas D'Urbino and Lomazzi, Enzo Mari, Joe Colombo, Achille Castiglioni, and others. Many of my pieces are from the 1960s, while the gallery focuses a lot on the 1940s and 1950s. This wasn't planned, but it is some kind of a common thread. I'm also happy to own a few works from some contemporary Italian photographers and artists: Francesca Iovene, Arianna Vairo, Nicolò Parsenziani, Stefano Ricci, Riccardo Banfi. And of course, as a writer and publisher, I'm a proud book collector, too!

AC: Do either of you have a prized design possession at home?

EN: I love Italian design, but, to be honest, the multi-prized design classics are a bit boring for me, even if I recognize their greatness. I'm more oriented towards rare pieces produced in small series. When design distances itself from serial production and comes closer to art—to become an altogether unique and original product—in my opinion, it reaches the highest results.

Going back to your question, if I have to think of a famous object within my home, I’d pick Gino Sarfatti’s Model 1055 (1950s) for Arteluce; it won the Compasso d'Oro prize in 1955.  It was a lucky and unpredictable find; more than 10 years ago, I picked it up at 6am in a flea market, entirely rusted and stained with white paint. Returned to its original splendor after the patient work of cleaning and re-cabling, it is one of the fundamental pieces of my collection.

AS: The Ilmari Tapiovaara sofa in my living room was awarded a gold medal at the Selettiva in Cantù in 1957. It's also special because it is the prototype of the model that was produced in a small series by La Permanente Cantù; you can see that they experimented on it in many details, which were slightly changed in the final version. I found it in a secondhand shop, caked in dust, riddled with woodworms, with some broken leather strips and worn-out cushions. I patiently restored its beauty, and it was my first renovation ever. 

AC: What’s coming up for the gallery this year?

AS: We just finished a pop-up showroom in the center of Milan; we called it Cabina in vetrina, for which we moved for a couple of weeks into a small shop in a historic building. Nothing else is planned yet, but we hope to find other occasions to display our pieces in less usual contexts—perhaps in a special bookshop, for example, or a multifunctional space.


  • Text by

    • Anna Carnick

      Anna Carnick

      Anna is Pamono’s Managing Editor. Her writing has appeared in several arts and culture publications, and she's edited over 20 books. Anna loves celebrating great artists, and seriously enjoys a good picnic.
  • Photos by

    • Giada Paoloni

      Giada Paoloni

      Giada is an Italian-born photographer and stylist with a passion for travel, food, and art.