December 1st, 2008
Art Basel Miami Beach
by Alix Sharkey
Raised on art and culture, Ambra Medda sets the pace with her sought-after fair, Design Miami.
Design is definitely in fashion at the moment, and has an air of hipness about it,” says Ambra Medda, “but my focus isn’t on the fashion aspect. I am interested in what’s here to stay.” In other words, it’s all about the work. For 27-year-old Medda, that means scouring the world’s galleries, exhibitions, universi¬ties and studios for the best contemporary and modern design and bring¬ing it to public attention via Design Miami. Her biannual forum for designers, collectors and galleries shadows Art Basel as it shuttles between Switzerland and Miami.
Medda can’t remember a time she wasn’t fascinated by design. Her mother, London gallerist Giuliana Medda, was a pivotal figure in her growth. The younger Medda was always encouraged to look at, touch, contemplate and ask questions about the objects surrounding her. Raised in a salon atmosphere, her family home was inundated by designers, collectors, dealers, critics and fellow gallerists. From a young age, Medda followed her mother to design shows, warehouses and auc¬tions, absorbing her knowledge.
Similarly, she has always lived amid a variety of cultures and lan¬guages. Born on the Greek island of Rhodes to an Austrian father and Sardinian mother, Medda spent her childhood in London, moved to Milan when she was 10 years old, then attended the UK’s prestigious Stowe School before taking a degree at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, where she studied Chinese language, literature and art. Medda spent her second year studying in China, immersed in the lan¬guage and culture.
After graduating, she expected to work in Shanghai or Hong Kong, dealing contemporary Chinese art. But after a few months of living out of a suitcase in New York and selling design pieces from her mom’s inven¬tory, she began to curate design shows. On a trip to Art Basel Miami Beach in 2004, Medda decided to move to Miami so she could realize her dreams of a world-class international design show — one that would do for design what Art Basel had done for contemporary art.
Craig Robins, instrumental in the South Beach revival of the 1990s and responsible for revamping Miami’s Design District, was equally enthusiastic about her idea. And so at the 2005 Venice Biennale, Medda, Robins, then-ABMB director Sam Keller and a handful of the world’s top design dealers drank a toast to Design.05, the design show they would launch in December of that year. The event that would eventually become Design Miami was born.
The show was an instant success, with the 15 participating galleries doing $7 million in business during its four days. And, of course, it also needed to be even more international, so the next move was to open Design Miami/Basel the following year alongside the original Art Basel fair, held every summer in Switzerland. But for Medda it was just the beginning, and with each successive year she has worked incessantly to make Design Miami and its Switzerland counterpart better, bigger, more exciting and innovative. Meanwhile, she has overseen a constant refine¬ment of quality. “The company’s objective is to balance highly profes¬sional business activity with progressive cultural programming,” Design Miami’s mission statement explains, “to create exciting collaborations with designers and design institutions, to draw in the foremost design collectors and enthusiasts, and to construct the most provocative design showcase anyone has ever seen.”
As a result, entry requirements have grown increasingly stringent. To protect the buyer, Medda says, every piece on show is vetted for authen¬ticity and provenance (with prices approaching contemporary-art levels, the number of design forgeries has increased accordingly).
Much of Medda’s time is spent traveling the world, cultivating links with exciting galleries and looking for new talent. “Right now, the most promising young designers are in Europe,” she explains. “So I always attend the end-of-year shows in London, the Netherlands and Switzerland. I also visit Milan and Paris regularly to stay in touch with my gallerists.” Recently she has spent considerable time in Sao Paulo, as well, with Brazilian designers Fernando and Humberto Campana, the frater¬nal duo being honored as Design Miami 2008’s Designer of the Year. “Their studio is full of people welding or making chairs out of dozens of plastic dolls” Medda enthuses. “It’s very craft-based, very colorful and totally refreshing.”
But as jet set lifestyles go, hers is almost monastic. Usually she’s in bed by 9:30. So, how does she strike the elusive work-life balance? “I’d love to tell you I do yoga and go for long walks on the beach, but I don’t. My life is my work, and vice-versa. I know it sounds corny, but it’s true.”
But when it comes to diffusing the stress of running an ultra-success¬ful, world-renowned design show with a staff of only six — two in Basel, four in Miami — Medda says “soup, sun and a good book” are all she needs. And that, like the recipe for all great design, sounds like the perfect union of form and function.