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Written by Helen Hill, BT Contributor   
January 2019

Design Miami/ was a hit with sellers and collectors

VDesign_1isiting Design Miami/ this year reminded me of the old Ivory soap slogan: “​99 44⁄100% Pure.” Apart from a couple of purists overheard wondering how some works were admitted (i.e., muttering “near-kitsch”), all the exhibitors and visitors I spoke to were complimentary about the 14th edition of the fair, which ran from the December 4 invitation-only preview through December 9.

According to Jennifer Roberts, CEO of Design Miami/, the mix of significant collectors and exhibitors presenting 20th- and 21st-century design and decorative art has been well received. “Both in Miami and Basel, people come from several continents to see the best of collectible design,” she says.

From an exhibitor’s point of view, Robert Aibel, owner of Moderne Gallery in Philadelphia, says the fair generates tremendous energy, excitement, and anticipation: “It ranks high on dealers’ calendars. When they come to Miami, they don’t know what they’re going to see and what the ‘audience’ will be.”

This year, 33 galleries and 12 Curio section presentations (small-scale, immersive installations) from 12 countries featured furniture, objects, ceramics, jewelry, and a wealth of creative work from 278 designers (dead and living, alt, vintage, and contemporary). Expanding the range of exhibitors this year were four contemporary fine art galleries: Kasmin and Salon 94 Design from New York, Functional Art Gallery of Berlin, and Kurimanzutto from Mexico City.

In another first, the annual Design Miami/ Visionary Award went to a married couple, Pedro Reyes, a contemporary artist, and fashion designer Carla Fernández.

“Pedro and Carla’s work has always brilliantly synthesized a spectrum of influences -- from Brutalism to Mexican indigenous culture to social progressive values -- into a remarkable body of work,” explains Craig Robins, founder of Design Miami/. Their site-specific sculpture, featuring two large-scale anthropomorphic steel pylons titled Unite, marked the entrance to Design Miami/. Visitors could meet the couple in a program of interviews, panel discussions, and at their exhibition booth.

Design_2A wide-ranging “Talks” program on subjects related to art, design, fashion, and architecture vied for attention with “Collaborations and Satellites/” located around the fair. Collaboration played out an emerging theme this year. Contemporary designers experimented with materials and textures to create applications in unexpected forms.

For example, Marcin Rusak of London’s Sarah Meyerscough Gallery debuted a series of furniture pieces made from discarded flowers sourced from florists and cast in resin, leaving the petals, stems, and buds on display. Sang Hoom Kim, of New York’s Cristina Grajales Gallery, pushed the boundaries of foam to create a furniture series that looked as though it was made from modeling clay or painting on canvas.

Galleries reported strong sales. Some exhibitors were happy to disclose eye-popping prices, while others preferred discretion.

A large brass sculpture by Harry Bertoia sold at CONVERSO (Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York) for $425,000, while a custom Warren Platner sectional sofa set went for $140,000. All six of Katie Stout’s Girl Army lamps at R. Company (New York) fetched $55,000 each in the first 40 minutes.

Lebreton, from San Francisco, here for the first time, sold nearly all its Jean Cocteau hand-painted plates, priced from $14,000 to $35,000. A large-scale Beth Cavener ceramic at Jason Jacques Gallery of New York sold to a private buyer for $250,000. Sales by Moderne Gallery included a Wendell Castle table and chairs, which sold within five minutes of opening.

A commissioned monumental bookcase by George Nakashima is going to Belgium, and the Olivia/Helen/Sophia set of nesting tables by John Conver Lutz is destined for Canada. Closer to home, a major Miami Beach collector purchased a large early bottle vase by Peter Voulkos.

In conversation with several gallerists, I heard recurring themes. Maria Foerlev, owner of Etage Projects from Copenhagen and here for the first time, explained, “We came because it’s the blue stamp for artists and a great way to meet American collectors.” American buyers want to be first to buy, she said, while European buyers play it safer: “They won’t buy something unknown that the neighbors might not understand.”

Design_3Foerlev brought a group exhibition that highlights artistic collaboration: three designers and artists had passed creative works among themselves over several months, allowing for interpretation, development, and subversion. 

Patrizia Tenti, an architect and founder of Erastudio Apartment Gallery in Milan, says she returned for the sixth time because of the importance of Italian design dating from the 1960s to 1980s. She sold three pieces the first day. “In the U.S.,” she says, “people understand the concept and political history of the designers, and want to know more.”

It was the fourth visit for Yu Wang, co-founder of multidisciplinary Gallery All in Beijing and Los Angeles, one of the first design galleries in China. “We need a fair like Design Miami,” he says. “I consider it one of best dedicated to contemporary design.” He adds that Miami is more open than conservative Basel, and celebrates talented designers like Michael Young, whose MY collection was on display.

Lezanne Van Heerden, gallery director of Southern Guild, traveled from Cape Town, South Africa, attracted by the “great mix of American and South American collectors.” Exceptionally broad programming and good organization also rated with Van Heerden, whose gallery specializes in collectible design from Africa, with a focus on Porky Hefer, whose human-scale nests and living pods handcrafted from leather and woven grass are both fantasy world and functional furniture.

John Keith Russell’s booth marked a new direction for Design Miami/. The South Salem, New York, gallery specializes in Shaker antiques, and first appeared in the Curio section last year to test the level of interest in historical artifacts. “I thought it important to put as many eyes as possible on their timeless craftsmanship and was dumbstruck by the attention from a reasonably sophisticated group that appreciates design.”

Russell explains that Shaker design, dating back to 1800-1870, is neither fish nor fowl in the antique world, “but so much vintage design was inspired by the Shakers. In fact, Nakashima was called a Japanese Shaker,” he adds. “They believed that physical labor was an act of worship, using only real material like first-growth maple, birch, and butternut for their furniture.” An original Shaker stove sold immediately, and he took orders for four more, which may take him years to find.

Looking back 14 years, the idea of collectible design was barely known in this country. There were art fairs, craft fairs, and newly minted Modernism fairs, but nothing quite like the small-scale Design 05 fair launched in Craig Robins’s Moore Building in the Design District. The invitational design event, offering “some of the world’s most significant postwar to contemporary furniture galleries,” became an annual event, running concurrently with Art Basel Miami Beach. From the beginning, Robins, director of the executive board and chairman of the Design Miami/ Organization, has been a major supporter through DACRA, his creative real estate development company.

When Design Miami/ outgrew its first home in Miami, it crossed the causeway to land in a very large tent neighboring Art Basel at the Miami Beach Convention Center and has been located there ever since. Robins had worked on bringing Art Basel to Miami Beach in 2002 and later became a partner with Basel-based MCH Group AG, an international marketing company that owns both Art Basel and Design Miami/.

“There’s synergy between the sibling fairs, which have the same mother and different fathers,” he says. “We’re now working to share collectors’ level of access to Art Basel and Design Miami/.”

While reflecting on the obvious success of Design Miami/ 2018, CEO Roberts says, “From an administrative point of view, we’ve had complaints that too many people on the preview day made it hard for galleries to attend to everyone. It’s something we have to work on.” She’d also like to see galleries with more representation from Asia, and more historic objects, such as Vienna Secessionist and Native American pieces. She notes that Aric Chen, appointed to the newly created annual position of curatorial director, will bring a different voice to the fair.

Design Miami/ 2019 will also see a different scenario in its current location. “The parking lot we’re on will be transformed into a permanent grassy park,” she adds, noting that “we’ve worked closely with the City of Miami Beach on the redesign, with the tent entrance facing Art Basel in the Convention Center. I believe that, like Art Basel, Design Miami/ will continue as the best in its field.”

 

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