January 6th, 2008
San Francisco Chronicle Magazine
Coming In Out of the Cold
by Zahid Sardar
Design Miami offers chance to see the bright future of design
Winter's pilgrimage to Miami is no longer just for the sun, but also to secure a place in the international art world spotlight.
Art Basel, the 37-year-old contemporary art show that originated in Basel, Switzerland, has a balmy counterpart in Art Basel Miami Beach, which was inaugurated by Sam Keller six years ago and is now a must-do on the American art-buying circuit.
The most recent version last month transformed the Miami Beach Convention Center with billions of dollars worth of art, indoors and out. More than 50,000 people - including collectors, gallery owners and gawkers from the Bay Area - swarmed to see it.
But a large number of them went for Design Miami, an offshoot of Art Basel Miami that has coincided with the art fair since 2005. It was co-founded by Keller and 25-year-old Sicilian art dealer Ambra Medda. It instantly created a stir, reportedly garnering more than $7 million in sales in its first days for objects such as chairs by Ron Arad and a $434,600 Swarovski crystal chandelier by San Francisco's Yves Behar.
Medda proposed the design fair to art collector and Miami real estate tycoon Craig Robins, who refurbished and owns much of the Miami Design District's 18-block area in North West Miami. She had little idea it would take off so quickly.
"It all happened organically. There wasn't a forum for limited-edition design before, and the response from the design community kept us moving," says Medda, who now curates each show as if it were her first. Limited-edition design is very expensive, both because of its rarity and the materials used in making it, but the idea is that such objects will break new ground for better mass-produced designs.
"Each episode is reinvented. We work with designers and look for new research, new ideas and the most important designs and trends," says Medda. Now that Design Miami is also part of the art show in Basel each spring, the search for the new is ongoing. "We have to work at a fast pace. We lock in a few things early but we keep it agile and super flexible."
Design Miami 2007, funded largely by HSBC Private Bank, was a confluence of several exhibitions of high-priced furniture, architecture and design, but it was leavened with a slightly subversive dose of social consciousness and green thinking.
"If you really scanned all of the different fairs in Miami, 10 percent of the presentations were ironic and trying to critique their context," says SFMOMA architecture and design curator Henry Urbach, who was trolling the sites in search of pieces for the museum's permanent collection.
A couple of outdoor installations - counterpoints to the limited-edition furniture and home furnishings on display or for sale in the showrooms - were just a few paces from the four-story Moore Building, a former furniture store and now the epicenter for Design Miami's international exhibitors.
One of those installations was designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban and the other by Cologne designer Mike Meire. They were each in some ways a commentary on waste, conspicuous consumption and the loss of individuality.
Ban's long, shed-like pavilion, "Space of Silence," made from Finnish company Artek's waste paper and plastic packaging material, was also a showcase for one of British designer Tom Dixon's pet recycling projects - the repackaging of vintage Artek school chairs designed by architect Alvar Alto. The used chairs have new labels that describe each chair's history. Dixon, a part-owner of Artek, had some of those chairs stacked in the center of Ban's poetic sustainable shed.
On an adjacent lot, Meire's conceptual piece called "The Farm Project," a simple barnlike structure made of plywood, metal and plastic panels over a steel frame, was reminiscent of the Ray and Charles Eames House in Los Angeles.
Sponsored by Dornbracht, the German company that has a reputation for sleek kitchens and baths and plumbing ware, Meire's project is anything but sleek. It was a smorgasbord of international cooking utensils, spices, food items, potted herbs and even livestock - pigs, lambs and rabbits were lolling in an adjacent pen - in a nostalgic kitchen setting with old-fashioned furniture. It was meant to decry the passing of individual craft cultures, in this case the craft of cooking that has yielded to antiseptic machine-made kitchens and homogenized ingredients.
Both these installations have appeared at other fairs in Europe, including the Milan furniture fair, but for a larger American audience, it is all new.
"In Basel it feels different. The show is under one dome, slightly more academic and buttoned up," says Medda. "Here when we have Artek outside and working artists in the Loft (as one exhibition warehouse is called), it is a crazier composition."
In that sense, Design Miami has become the heir to Milan's furniture fair that incorporates the whole city, and the whole city - not just the design industry - embraces it.
American designers seem to be mostly absent from the limited-edition club at Design Miami. That's because "American designers have lost the tradition of craft," says Medda, who is actively seeking more American designers. "The furniture industry is so colossal in the United States that being a designer here has to be about joining a big company. In Italy, just producing 200 clocks can be meaningful. At Design Miami we've focused on that point," she says. And art collectors like that "it celebrates the designer in the way artists are celebrated," says Robins.
So, Design Miami gathers celebrities like Marc Newson and Zaha Hadid as well as newcomers. In the Loft, Medda points to Joseph Heidecker, an American designer who was creating Polaroid montages on furniture with images of anyone who volunteers to pose. Alongside him, Briton Peter Marigold was quartering thick tree branches lengthwise to form corner wedges for an organic shelving system he calls "Split."
Marigold's fascination with a mathematical fact - when a circular log is divided into four wedges, the angles of the wedges always add up to 360 degrees - helps him recycle tree trimmings and form shelves.
Nearby, a working tattoo parlor manned by New York writer and curator Aric Chen and artists Josee Lepage and Tobias Wong touted tattoo patterns by several designers including Hella Jongerius, Tord Boontje, Juergen Mayer and Behar.
Perhaps Behar's auction bonanza in Design Miami's first year prompted him to look for another winner - this time to benefit Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child project for which Behar's firm Fuseproject designed a low-cost XO laptop to promote literacy in the developing world. Eight artists, including Cindy Sherman, Jorge Pardo, John Baldessari, Richard Tuttle and Olafur Eliasson, whose work is currently at SFMOMA, were invited to create original artwork either by using or incorporating the laptop. Their creations as well as prototypes for the laptop were exhibited at Luminaire Lab, one of the avant-garde showrooms owned by sponsor Nasir Kassamali.
Art Basel's stratospheric prices, fueled in part by the steadily rising Euro, were discussed giddily at parties and ancillary events all over Miami. That may explain why collectors are flocking to buy less expensive limited-edition furniture to add to their collections and making Design Miami the haute apex of the United States' reportedly $65 billion furniture industry. It has also led to more designers opting to produce limited-edition designs for the lucrative instant collector's market.
But for some it is not a good sign. On the top floor of the Moore Building, where Designer of the Year award-winner Tokujin Yoshioka's work was shown amid his surreal landscape of piled white plastic straws, Urbach was interested in buying a chair for SFMOMA. While a $15,000 Honey Pop, 2002 paper chair, with an appropriate museum discount, was within reach, a more recent $63,000 polyester Pane (bread) chair by Yoshioka was not.
"At SFMOMA we have a strong collection of chairs, including one by Shiro Kuramata. Tokujin worked with him and we can show the link," says Urbach.
Art Basel Miami Beach has become an attention-grabbing event, with the design fair a star attraction. "But, ultimately it is a mixed experience," says Urbach. "There is an educational component because there are things from around the globe. But rapacious consumerism and the prices one sees in Miami are quite extraordinary," he says. "There's also pressure to buy now."
Urbach's perspective as a former dealer of design goods is important even though his current concern centers around a museum's ability to participate in gradually building a collection the public can see.
"It is astonishing," agrees San Francisco collector Norah Stone, who has attended the Miami art show since its inception with her husband, Norman, a trustee at SFMOMA, and is no stranger to high price tags for the Jeff Koons, James Turrell and Richard Prince works in their own collection. What shocks her is to see people paying more than $50,000 in the heat of the moment for art watches.
"The pessimistic read is that this spells the disappearance of the middle ground and moving to great disparity," says Urbach. "During the panel discussions about collecting design now, it became clear that there is a lot of confusion. I hope the market will build in a more reasonable way."
There may be, as Medda insists, a popular benefit because "limited-edition design releases a further stretch of creativity.
"My feeling is that both fields of design (limited-edition design and mass-manufactured design) are important," says Medda. "They feed off each other and are more complementary than we think."