November 28th, 2009
When culture meets commerce
by Nicole Swengley
Culture converges with commerce in Miami next week as designers, collectors, dealers and critics from around the world zone in on the city’s annual art and design shows. Now in its fifth edition, Design Miami could be considered the younger sibling of Art Basel Miami Beach (last year it attracted 22,000 visitors against the art show’s 40,000) but is proving equally effective as a force for change in an area now known as Miami Design District.
Five miles from the art deco hotels along South Beach, Miami’s previously blighted midtown area is undergoing radical change in the hands of property developer Dacra, which for the past 10 years has been turning an 18-block, semi-industrial area of neglected 1920s and 1930s buildings into a hub for design, art, fashion and cuisine. “I’ve always believed in art and design as an economic driver,” says Craig Robins, chief executive of Dacra. “We try to combine quality, long-term businesses with alternative uses such as cultural events, art exhibitions and limited edition experiences. Then the area becomes an amazing, unusual place. It’s this dynamism that creates long-term growth.”
Barbara Hulanicki, founder of the iconic London store Biba in the 1960s and now a Miami resident, whose design work was instrumental in revitalising many South Beach hotels, agrees. “Design has been the real impetus for the changes,” she says. “The art and design shows have been very important for the city, encouraging galleries to open up, while restaurants keep the district alive in the evenings and at weekends. Miami Design District is a commercial area that doesn’t look commercial. It’s taking a while to warm up because of the general slowdown but there’s an energy there and, thankfully, always parking.”
Robins, 46, is the lawyer son of a local developer, an avid collector of art and design and a member of the Board of Trustees at the Miami Art Museum . Dacra, the company he founded in 1987, played an integral role in the revitalisation of Miami’s South Beach district through the restoration of art deco landmarks including the Marlin, Tides and Victor hotels. In 1999 Robins acquired 8.5 acres on the southern tip of Allison Island and turned the area into Aqua, a gated residential enclave with modern architecture and site-specific public art. Around the same time, he began buying properties in Miami’s run-down midtown area.
Robins takes a curatorial approach, courting a mix of high-profile design showrooms (Vitra, Driade, Cassina, Kartell, Fendi Casa, Poltrona Frau, Knoll, Ligne Roset, Poliform, The Rug Company), fashion houses (Tomas Maier, Marni, Marimekko and Y-3) and restaurants (five of Florida’s top chefs have opened here). It’s an ongoing process, with French fashion designer Christian Louboutin’s flagship store and showrooms for Bisazza, the Italian glass-mosaic tile specialist, and avant garde furniture company Cappellini opening this month.
Site-specific sculpture and architectural hardware, commissioned by Dacra, have enhanced the ambience. These include Zaha Hadid’s “Elastika” sculpture in the historic Moore Furniture Company building, Marc Newson’s bespoke fence for the Design & Architecture Senior High School and Cuban artist José Bedia’s murals in the Buick Building. Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco’s eye-catching mural “Sol” and Kenny Scharf’s “Fountain of Life” enliven the Buena Vista building’s atrium while “Diamantina”, an outdoor installation by Brazilian designers Fernando and Humberto Campana, was the site-specific commission for winning Design Miami’s Designer of the Year award 2008.
“All these pieces give the neighbourhood a very special sense of space,” says Robins.
New public art commissions to be unveiled this winter include Cosima von Bonin’s mixed media sculpture called “Life is Too Short to Stuff a Mushroom”. Another work in wood, glass and metal by Rirkrit Tiravanija replicates architect Philip Johnson’s glass residence on a child-sized scale. “Untitled 1997 (Playtime)” is designed to introduce youngsters to architectural ideas and was originally shown at the sculpture garden Johnson designed for New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Also in the mix are commercial art galleries, artists’ and photographers’ studios and other creative businesses. Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz’s personal art collection is now open to the public in a new 30,000 sq ft gallery, while the Rubell family’s private art collection (including work by Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Cindy Sherman) can be viewed by appointment, as can Robins’ own design/art collection at Galleria Aqua. Worth visiting is Martin Margulies’ growing collection of photography, video and sculpture at the Warehouse and Ella Fontanals-Cisneros’ art space dedicated to contemporary artists from Latin America.
It is an emerging creative scene that Robins nurtures with monthly art and design nights, online social activities and initiatives such as Limited Edition Experiences, the first of which will see pop-up shops by Fendi, Proenza Schouler, Christian Dior Homme and other top fashion groups offering limited edition designs from this Monday until the Super Bowl in February. Audi will also hold the launch of its A8 model on Miami Beach on Monday alongside specially created art and design elements.
Previous visitors will be surprised, promises Robins, by “new material, a very special installation by Dutch designer Maarten Baas [Design Miami’s Designer of the Year 2009] and performance art in partnership with Fendi. All the retailers will be doing something special at their showrooms too.” Robins’s belief in art and design as an engine for change is endorsed by Dacra’s property statistics. Commercial property values in Miami Design District rose from $100 to $400 per sq ft between 2000 and 2009 compared with a $250 to $750 per sq ft increase in South Beach. It is also bucking the current national trend. “There are few places in the US where there’s growth – everywhere is suffering – but Miami Design District is growing, just more slowly than it would have done,” says Robins.
However, Tony Goldman, chief executive of New York-based Goldman Properties, which has developments in Miami’s Wynwood area, believes “it will take three to five years for the [Miami] market to absorb an oversupply of housing built in the bubble two or three years ago.” In the meantime the rental market is coming to the rescue. “The volume of residential real estate leases in the design district has surged over the past 12 months – so much so that investors are being drawn to the area by the lure of being able to easily rent their new investment properties,” says Ron Shuffield, president of Miami-based EWM Realtors. “The area has a New York-feel, which appeals to our international clients.”
Goldman takes a long-term view. “It’s a quality product but it will need perseverance,” he says. “The area needs a street-life that’s more than 9am-5pm weekdays. But the showrooms have given the area prestige and a cosmopolitan flavour. People no longer have to go to New York for these products.”