September 1st, 2009
Living with Art
by Michaela Cordes
She exudes the charm of a modern day Audrey Hepburn but it is her instinct for high-end design that makes everyone gasp with delight. Meet Ambra Medda the director and force behind the highly regarded fair Design Miami. A young visionary who show the world that it is about time to locus on an art form that is suddenly becoming the hottest new trend. An extraordinary career that started with a very colorful childhood...
The Vitra Museum on a sunny day in Weil am Rhein, Germany. Final preparations for the big Campa-mi exhibition are underway. Last December, the Brazilian brothers won the Designer of the Year award at Design Miami. Amdra Medda, Director and Cofounder of the famous fair, has just stepped off the plane. She established Design Miami four years ago when she was only 23. having inherited her passion for art and design from her other, already a gallerist. Today Design Miami is the most prominent and substantive forum for international design, representing a convergence of commerce and culture. Its annual shows in Basel, Switzerland (June) and Miami. USA (December) bring together the most influential designers, collectors, dealers, curators and critics from around the world.
Ambra Medda's brainchild quick))' started developing into a new design trend. Her hand-picked designers were exhibiting their works in Basel last June and for the first time in a new location just a few steps away from the parent fair. Art Basel, which shows how seriously her work is regarded. Regu-lar visits by celebrities such as the devoted design fan Brad Pin or music producer Pharell Williams (who alto exhibited hi* very own furniture pieces with Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin). ultimately, adding to the hype surrounding beautiful design. Ms. Medda - your fair is only four years old but the Designers of the Future and Designer of the Year awards helped architects like Zaha Hadid gain even more popularity and gave designers their first international platform. Artiste such as Marc Newson ore fetching record prices In art auctions despite the recession. What has changed? I believe designers have never before felt such a sense of opportunity and never enjoyed such an enormous amount of public interest in what they do. The best way to describe what's happening is to call it a chain reaction. The media arc a big help in that they call attention to designers who in turn are picked up by the galleries and start producing more work. This new focus on design is creating all kinds of new opportunities for emerging designers.
When you put on your first design fair in Miami in 2006 you immediately gained a lot of attention. Were collectors ready for a new playground? Were they hungry for a new direction in art? Yes. I believe there's an element of truth in that. I think a alot of people arc always speculating and looking for the next trend ahead of the curve, it used to be that only insiders appreciated high -quality-design. But the recession will show us now what really has staying power. It's a natural cycle in which we will shed a alot of the stuff that only rises because of the hype.
Looking at the greatest names in design, they all seem to graduate from either Eindhoven or the RCA London's Royal College of Art. Why? I think that has to do with the type of training they get there. Take a look at the recipients of our Designers of the Future award or at the Salone del Mobile in Milan - all those designers went to one or the other of those two school*. Students are pushed hard and taught to extend their boundaries and think in a more-conceptual way rather than being forced to think about functional constraints. They are asked to do lots of experimental and conceptual work rather than just build a coffee table. They are instigated to think for themselves and motivated to go beyond what we tra-ditionally consider a chair, a table or lighting, to take design to a level where it even becomes unusable. Once they have arrived at that stage they can pull back and say, wow, that was a wild idea but it's not something you can sell commercially. Then, in a second step, students are asked to tame down their idea and rum it into something useful.
Does that mean good design needs to be commercially sellable? Not necessarily. But don't forget, you still have to nuke a living as a designer. If you ate a young, up-and-coming designer produces great designs on paper but is simply unable to sell them, you are shooting yourself in the leg. Of course it also depends on whether we're talking about industrial design or limited-edition design. When it comes to the latter, you don't have to focus so much on whether or not it will sell. But if you're do doing industrial design you have to ask yourself lots and lots of questions because you've got an industry backing your work and people thinking about how many pieces of your work they will want to produce on a mass scale.
What are the differences between design In the US, where you established your fair, and European design? Most limited edition designers come from Europe and I believe this to be for no other reason other than because of their design education. Students in the US are prepared from the outset to think in commercial terms and most probably eventually go into industrial design once they've graduated. Reality is. great designers come from all over the world there are huge geographic regions where we have no idea what talent lies and that is simply because there may not be the institutional infrastructure nor the media support to cast light on it. There is a world of opportunity in terms of undiscovered design talent. I think it's very promising and exciting to think of the future of design worldwide.
Why did you go to Miami to establish your design fair in 2005? I fell I would be given a better opportunity to fulfill my dream. I don't think I could have ever put together a fair like that in Europe, certainly not as an Italian. When I think of the years of bu bureaucracy it would have involved and all of the obstacles that would have been placed in my path ... No, I just had to go the States. I think I would have faced similar problems in countries like France or Germany, too. People are very open to new ideas in the US. they're wry open-minded. We're so bound up with our own history here in Europe and there's so much resistance to change that you can almost feel the weight of it pulling you down. In the US. however, the reaction was simply: Wow, amazing! Let's do it!
How did you interpret the design market in two very different cities - Miami and Basel? Design Miami and Design Miami/Basel are such different fairs with completely different yet complementary audiences and environments. The two cities are polar opposites and that is what makes both shows so exciting. Nobody cares that it hasn't been done before. After all. everything has to start somewhere. It wasn't just the idea that was unusual at the time. You were only 23 years old. very young for such an endeavor. I was always given more responsibility as a child than any of my same-age friends. Strangely enough, I have always felt a little ageless. perhaps because of it. As a girl. I used to prefer to hang out with people from my mother's generation rather than my own.
How about your family? Were you raised with siblings I have a pretty eclectic famiily everyone of us was born in a different country and has a different father and my mother never married. I have one brother and one stster. I'm the youngest in the family. My mother is front Sardinia and my father is from Austria I have a great relationship with my mother but not much of one with my father because he left when I was still little. I was actually bom In Greece. In Rhodes. At the time, my mother traveled to the Far East and to India quite often and brought back ad sorts of artefacts such as glass, rare textiles and jewelry, which she sold in her boutique. We eventually moved to London because my mother was dissatisfied with the limited education available on Rhodes, which is a tiny island. I remember that when my brother was eight, he was still doing land painting in school, which my mother decided was not enough, so we moved. In London my mother opened a gallery with a friend called Themes and Variation* and then another gallery called Spice after that. She wan primarily working and dealing with important historic Italian designers and architects , later adding contemporary designers as well. It was her, for instance, who brought Fortusetti to London fort he tint tune. I lived in London with my family from age 2 to 13 and really loved it 1 used to spend all my free time at the gallery after school doing all sorts of little jobs:. stuffing envelopes, making phone calls and arranging transportation for the art.
Sounds like an exciting life for a young girl. It was all very exciting for me! My brother and sister showed little interest in the gallery and had absolutely no desire to follow my mother's path. My brother eventually went into film and my sister now works in the hotel business. A couple of yean later we moved again, this time to Milan where my mother placed me into a nunnery. I suddenly had to follow all kinds of rules and fit into a pretty rigid religious structure, some thing I wasn't used to at all. My mother was quite obviously - not Catholic. The reason was that 1 needed to learn proper Italian. I only spoke English at the time and had practically no knowledge of Italian grammar. Looking back, it was a wonderful period of my life. Hut was a very new experience for me. My home life had always been chaotic became my mother was away traveling to much, she was often gone tor three or four months at a time. As kids my siblings and I were encouraged to take on a DYI attitude which ultimately helped us become very independent individuals each in their own way. So who used to take care of you? My friends or my mother's friends. But I often had to take care of myself.
Was your work Inspired by a particular moment in your Ufa or even by a particular designer? I would say I was inspired by Tom Dixon or at least have very fond memories of seeing show Tom worked in his studio and how designers collaborate with galleries. There were so many designers coming and going from the house and the gallery between meetings and dinners it was a constant Bow of engaging creative characters. I hare very vivid memories of that period in my life. We used to keep all kinds of pieces in our house by designers who only became famous much later. We lived with the art: our house was like a showroom. I remember coming home one night and finding my bed gone - it had been sold! Our surroundings were incredibly eclectic. My mother would make a trips to Bali. Africa, all over Europe and come home with containers full of "La Merce" as she called the merchandise, which was our bread and butter. She would mix it with unique pieces by Bugatti, things of museum- quality that had never been exhibited before. I was terribly intrigued by the way my mother dared to mix different styles. You have to have a certain amount of pride to be able to do that. Not that my mother was proud, but she always trusted her instinct, and the result was a very natural harmony. Did you notice at the time that designers rarely received the respect that they deserved? They are certainly paid the respect now* Let me tell you those bad old days in which designers worked virtually in the dark arc over! (she laughs).
Every year your fair seems to be getting more and more attention - what do- your mother say about your incredible success? Actually, the thinks I'm crazy. She never really expected very much from me at all. My parents were never particularly encouraging, either. They are definitely from a different era. They weren't hippies per se but their attitude is: Make enough money so you can be free but don't every complicate your life. And here I am now hopping from airport to airport always on my Blackberry, that's something they would never understand. Who knows. I might not end up doing this forever. Tilings started rolling and then snowballed, getting bigger and bigger. I never dreamt that the response to Design Miami/ would be so huge.
What might be next? l've got so many ideas it's almost scary. And deep inside I've got a desire to change things and not simply accept the status quo lust because certain things have always been the way they ate. Who knows what I'll be able to achieve. I'm a very deter mined person; it's probably my Sardinian nature. If I really believe in something there's nothing that will stop me from doing it.