July 16th, 2009
Craig Robins: Designer Developer
The Miami Design District is almost like a laboratory for creativity," says Craig Robins, the CEO and owner of Dacra, the real estate developer behind this aesthetically considered neighborhood, co-founder of leading international design show Design Miami and avid art collector. "It's the place in Miami where really special creative things can happen."
A stroll through this 18-block square of Florida reveals what he is referring to. Dotted amongst the designer showrooms and artists studios that Robins encouraged to open here in the late 1990s - as well as the more recent arrivals of destination restaurants and leading fashion retailers - are a number of outstanding structures he has commissioned by the most talented designers of the moment. Highlights are a Marc Newson designed school fence and a fountain designed by Kenny Scharf.
"In any project that I work on, I always begin by thinking about urban design, architecture, art and design," says the Miami-born entrepreneur. "I tap into those creative elements with the purpose of helping them to combine to give a real sense of place and community." Place and community is evident throughout Miami's Aqua, the Dacra-built "New Urbanist community" of architecturally designed residences mixed with site-specific public art and design, where Robins, 46, lives. It is also apparent - albeit in a more flashy form - at the city's South Beach District, which Dacra played an integral role in revitalizing after it was founded in 1987.
"Design Miami is a kind of cultural offshoot of the Design District," says Robins of the annual show that takes place in both Miami and Basel (and soon, maybe, Seoul) that he founded with his partner Ambra Medda, and for which he is perhaps best known. "It illustrates how the neighborhood can really incubate all kinds of creative ideas." Despite the world economic crisis, Design Miami Basel 2009, which took place in June, reported its best selling year yet.
It is this ability to generate dividends from design that is arguably Robins's greatest talent. As an important player in the design community (his conversations are peppered with references to "Zaha" and "Marc") and a passionate art collector (he is rumored to be opening his own exhibition space and is a trustee of the Miami Art Museum), he is also an extremely successful businessman. "There's always got to be a business model that works," he says of the economics. "We're innovating and the core of our innovation is that basically I produce creativity."
What inspired you to create the Miami Design District?
When I started to work in the Design District, I initially felt that Miami needed an alternative to South Beach, which is very commercial. I recognized that we needed a place where more sophisticated things can happen. I was also very intrigued by the crazy way that design was being distributed in America. It made no sense to me that all industrial designers sold in decorator centers where the public weren't allowed unless they had a license. Design was being treated almost like prescription medicine and if you weren't with a design doctor it was almost dangerous for you to look at it. If you think of a business model like that, it almost took design out of the psyche of America because it was all hidden and controlled by these professionals. It was with those two ideas that I began the Design District.
At what point did you decide to found Design Miami?
I quickly saw that there was an incredible synergy between art and design. As Art Basel came to Miami the Design District sort of became a cultural frontier. The selling part was happening in Miami Beach and a lot of the more entertaining and non-profit exhibitions were happening in the Design District, which really defined the neighborhood as the cultural hub of Miami. Through that process we founded Design Miami, which is a kind of cultural offshoot of the Design District. It began as a collaboration with Art Basel called Art Love Design and then eventually we decided to actually found a proper design show called Design Miami which was bom out of the Design District. It illustrates how the neighborhood can really incubate all kinds of creative ideas.
Which are your favorite structures in the Design District?
We've collaborated with designers to create some incredible public art and design installations. Two of my favorites are Zaha Had id's installation in the Moore building which was part of us awarding her the Designer of the Year award at Design Miami. Similarly. Marc Newson did a wonderful fence for Design and Architecture Public High School when he received the Designer of the Year award.
What has been the most significant development recently in the Design District?
About 24 months ago I realized that a key synergy was missing from the neighborhood - and totally missing from Miami in general - which was a really important fashion street. And so we began to market a section of the Design District on 40th Street to the more interesting fashion designers around the world. I'm proud to say that already Marni has opened a store, Tomas Maier has done a beautiful store, and my friend Christian Louboutin is going to open his US flagship in December. When you look at brands like Christian Louboutin, Marni and Tomas Maier, they're similar in quality and in their creative level to places like Vitra and Christian Liaigre - the design brands that are also here. It's exciting because it's going to be the first place I know of in the United States which really combines the interest in art, design, fashion and food from around the world.
What is the value for brands to be positioned amongst designers and great design?
I find personally that we're connected with a similar sensibility and mutual appreciation. It's not as much about a commercial transaction, in that we really believe in what we're doing and we also believe in what each other is doing. It's almost like we have a common mission to advocate creativity on a certain level. I'm not an expert on fashion and certainly not women's shoes but I'm in awe of what Christian Louboutin does and how he does it. It's handmade art in a sense. Because there's this oasis with this appreciation, I think brands are attracted to the DD.
Did you always see the value of design in terms of potential profit or was this a happy coincidence?
I think that what I do is produce a market for creativity and that manifests itself in the form of neighborhoods and the things that need to go in to neighborhoods. There must always be a business model that works. In that sense the survival and success of our business necessitates that we think prudently about business but we're not trying to work in the normal parameters of real estate. We're innovating and the core of our innovation is that basically I produce creativity. Going back, the people that taught me were a combination of very savvy business people who were also very interested in the creative side as well.
What do you see as the relationship between luxury and design?
I would say there's a transformation going on in the world. Some people think that today because the economy is bad that luxury is a bad word. I don't think that's the case at all. I think luxury is an important word but the meaning of luxury is shifting because what's really valued today is creativity and not just something that's expensive and branded. Something that's brilliant and creative is what people will pay a premium for because there's appreciation and experience associated with it. That to me is what luxury is now. No one can get away with their old tricks anymore.
As well as your work in the Design District, you also created Aqua, a design community where you also live. What effect do you think living with great design has on your life? Can you imagine a life without considered design?
Gertrude Stein was living in Paris surrounded by paintings by all the modern masters; Picasso was painting her portrait. I think it's possible to be so connected to our time that we get to live with the great creative talent that's produced now, as did Gertrude Stein. At least for me. it's an aspiration. I try to live with the most important creative thinking of the moment. Ultimately, to me. art, design and these creative processes are like frontiers upon which mankind advances.
You have been asked to bring Design Miami to Seoul, Korea. Will you accept the invitation?
The mayor of Seoul actually sent a delegation with an official request that Design Miami announces an event. The announcement would occur during their design week in 2010 and we would do something in Zaha's building in 2011. Having visited Seoul twice this past year, I think it's an extremely interesting city. There's a lot of support there for art and design. The mayor seems an incredibly visionary person, defining his city by art and design. Of course, Zaha is one of my favorite architects, designer and people, so the idea of inaugurating her building with a Design Miami related event is idea. I'm hopeful that we will work something out.
Do you have ambitions to create another Design District elsewhere?
I'm very interested in doing neighborhoods in other cities. To me the key is picking the right city, having the right location within that city and then having the right partners. It's pretentious to think that I could go to Seoul and execute as well as I can in Miami or the United States. It's very important that I work with the right people. It's something I'm interested in under the right circumstances, but those thee elements would have to align.
Which of your projects would you say you are most proud of?
For me, it's more a series of these moments that just seem totally magical, where the results far exceed my personal expectations. In 1990 when I presented Spanish flamenco dancer Joaquin Cortes for the first time in the US, he was totally unknown. He was dancing on a street that I owned on South Beach and there was an amazing sense of magic there. With Aqua, the art pieces realty astounded me. The experience of seeing Richard Turtle's mural realized and knowing that Miami would be left this legacy was mind blowing. With the Design District, there have been so many of those moments. Today in retrospect it doesn't seem like a big deal, but at the time when the entire design industry was trying to crush the notion of bringing design to the streets, and the most important design showroom in the US. Holly Hunt, bucked the trend and opened a 20,000 square foot showroom, it was a really big deal. For me. it's a series of points where ideas become reality and I feel the implications of that and it resonates so profoundly in me that I guess it's a feeling of awe.
Which designers are on your list to work with?
I'd really like to do something with SANNA. Even though I've worked with Zaha, I'd like to do a building with her. The other thing I'd like to do is take Aqua and the Design District, which seem to be very different projects, and combine them in a new way and do a larger neighborhood or small town and work with a lot of different architects and designers in creating the structures and art pieces in those towns. More than working with a specific designer, I like to work with lots of them at the same time to create a really special place.
Who are the future greats of design?
At Design Miami we give two awards. In Miami, we give the more traditional award for designer of the year. We try to think about the person who's making the biggest contribution to the moment. It is also someone that we're interested in collaborating with, so that's part of the criteria. For that we chose Zaha Hadid, then Marc Newson, Tokujin Yoshioka, and then the Campana brothers. Those are the people we felt are making an enormous contribution to design in our time. We give an award for younger designers called designers of the future in Basel. There is an extraordinary list of people who have participated in that.