Ten years of Design Miami


17 June 2015

Fittingly for a design fair dedicated to collectible items for the home, the tenth anniversary edition of Design Miami in Basel takes visitors through an entrance hall in its Messeplatz venue that presents prefabricated dwellings – the very containers needed before starting to collect anything.

However, these structures are not just a collection of sought-after design pieces. Here, Jean Prouvé’s 1969 prefab filling station and the cave-like structure The Original Dwelling, made especially for the exhibition by Atelier van Lieshout, sits next to the flatpacked Better Shelter, a structure conceived for emergency situations and refugee camps, and the Volkswagen T2 camper van.

The exhibition, part of a series called Design At Large, is dedicated to large-scale design. It is curated by real estate magnate, restaurateur and hotelier André Balazs, with assistance from design historian Tiffany Lambert. It puts the fair in an intriguing context and one worth pondering while walking through its exhibition halls that are filled with galleries specialising in selling limited edition designs to customers with higher-than-average incomes.

“Since the moment in 2005 when Sam Keller, Patrick and Laurence Seguin, Didier and Clémence Krzentowski, Ambra Medda and I had our first conversation about the possibility of a design fair, the market for collectable design has flourished and grown,” said Design Miami chairman and founder Craig Robins at the opening press conference. “This is in large part due to the efforts of the dealers that you see here this week.”

While Miami's sister art fair Art Basel, just across the Messeplatz from Design Miami, services an already well-established market, the design market is still growing. “We had 12 founding galleries, today we are at 46 galleries, five curios and four satellites. So the family keeps expanding and the appetite for collectible design keeps growing,” said Design Miami director Rodman Primack at the same conference.

But while Design Miami turns 10 this year, the corridors of Design Miami remain far from as busy as those of Art Basel. It’s a reflection of the size of the design market, but also a reflection of the interest from a general audience.

Many who visit Art Basel are not there because they want to – or even can – invest in art. The majority of the 92,000 annual visitors to Art Basel are there because of the opportunity to see artworks by some of the world’s most well-known artists, all while sipping champagne and socialising.

It is this general audience that doesn’t attend Design Miami in the same numbers as Art Basel. There were 26,000 visitors to the Basel edition of Design Miami last year and while this number is still high, its a clear reflection of design’s standing in the art-design hierarchy. As one visitor was overheard saying, “I wouldn’t spend that amount of money on something I’m using.” While it's true that there is a functional aspect to the pieces on display at Design Miami, that is the beauty of it. Because you use it, it has an inherent value beyond serving as decoration or status symbols.

This is where the Design At Large's exhibition of prefabricated dwellings creates such an excellent starting point for this year's fair. Without a roof over our head it becomes complicated to indulge in any type of home decoration. With a roof over our heads, decoration becomes a natural human instinct, as Johan Karlsson, the founder of the Better Shelter initiative, attests to: “People customise the shelters in really varied ways and they take a real pride in it.” Even in this most basic and temporary of dwelling, people’s desire to personalise and adapt their space is present.

The design on display at Design Miami is far from accessible. It comes at a price tag that reflects its exclusivity and elaborate use of material. Yet it also reflects the pieces' innovation and is still all part and parcel of what eventually filters down to the mass market. Take, for example, Tomás Alonso’s 47° collection of trays, light and mirrors for Swarovski’s Designers of the Future’s exhibition. Alonso's project utilises the crystal coatings and UV bonding that you find in all Swarovski trinkets to enhance the reflectiveness of the crystal, but Alonso employs it in an enlarged format, transforming the normally 'bling" quality of crystal into sober and captivating designs.

Elsewhere, Gino Sarfatti’s 1947 floor light with a sheet metal shade on display at Galerie Kreo experiments with ways of dimming light before light-dimming technology was even thought of. 6A architect’s Dust Free Friends collection of furniture made from sheets of plywood and a limited edition book of blueprints, sold by Maniera gallery, is an update on Enzo Mari’s Autoprogettazione project from the 1970s, which predates the current focus on and trend for Open Source software. Even if the particular pieces on show at Design Miami won’t touch all of our lives, aspects of it certainly will, regardless of the humbleness of our dwellings.

The reflection on dwelling is also fitting during Design Miami’s tenth anniversary year; the trajectory of Design Miami is itself an exercise in making-do. Although it now occupies a beautiful exhibition hall designed by Herzog & De Meuron within the Messeplatz, the first edition of Design Miami in Basel was hosted in a church. “There were furniture piled in pews and it was so different from today,” recalls Primack, who was appointed director two years ago. “At that time there were people who collected these pieces of furniture and these objects of architecture and design, but it hadn’t quite coalesced into a true market yet. Design Miami has created this platform that has really allowed for this market to grow.”

In ten years Design Miami has graduated from an ad-hoc shelter for a handful of design dealers to a design fair with plenty of room to grow still.