New and improved Design Miami

The German designer Konstantin Grcic has never been to Miami before. But he will arrive in the city for the first time on Sunday to supervise the installation of a piece called “Netscape”, a new commission in honour of his title as Design Miami’s Designer of the Year for 2010.

Grcic was given $50,000 to create this bespoke piece especially for Design Miami. He says he wanted “to produce a contextual piece, rather than just come to pick up a trophy. I wanted it to be something people could use and to avoid making anything that anyone would buy. It’s so specific, it wouldn’t work for a collector.”

He might be surprised. “Netscape”, in its economy and usability, is a thoroughly modern piece – an arrangement, to be hung outdoors, of 24 glass fibre seats swinging in netting. It came flat-packed from his native Munich and will stand outside Design Miami’s new location: a 47,000 sq ft tent designed by New York architects Moorhead & Moorhead, erected right next to the Convention Center where Art Basel Miami Beach takes place.

Design Miami, a fair focusing on 20th-century furniture and contemporary limited-edition pieces and offering a range of funky fringe events, was launched in 2005. The event began in the Moore Building, built in 1921 as a furniture showroom, in the city’s Design District, and its initial roster of participating galleries rounded up the most respectable names from Europe and the US: Kreo from Paris, David Gill from London. “It’s a niche, but a clever one. They’ve linked into the prestige of Art Basel in a short time,” says Grcic. Indeed, since 2006, it has also taken itself to the sister fair held in Basel each June. And now it is cosying up geographically as well as notionally to the bigger event in Miami.

Grcic is the latest in a line of major names it has celebrated (he will also be showing 15 of his pieces in the fair). “I was surprised to be invited,” says the 45-year-old, who is known more for his mass-produced design – the plastic cantilevered Myto chair, for example – than limited-edition work. “It’s not really on my agenda, though the pieces by 20th-century designers such as Jean Prouve and Charlotte Perriand, now so collectible, started out as industrial design and share my values.”

Craig Robins, Design Miami’s co-founder, is a property developer and president of Dacra, a company that owns much of the Design District. When Design Miami started in 2005, 50 per cent of the neighbourhood was occupied. Now it’s 100 per cent. Rental prices have climbed from $5 per sq ft in 1995 to $60 today, and buildings that cost $28 per sq ft would now go for around $500. Having first attracted design businesses including Italian furniture company Poliform, and then fashion including Y3 and Christian Louboutin, he is now “starting major things to transform the area and bring in big brands”.

Robins is a collector of design as well as of art. Sam Keller, the director of Art Basel from 2000 to 2007, came to him with the design idea. “His main advice was to improve on the quality year upon year,” Robins says. As it is, Design Miami has been a victim, or benefactor, of its times. In 2007, the frenetic hedonism of the Miami experience almost overwhelmed the serious business. On Design Miami’s opening night a drunken girl crawled through Tokujin Yoshioka’s installation of drinking straws, while a tipsy Florida wife lap-danced for her husband on a rare Frattini chair at the Donzella booth. By 2008 the bubble had burst and in 2009 the feeling was faintly fearful.

Design Miami’s relocation has, however, proved a boost. Twenty galleries are showing, an improvement on last year’s 14. And though sponsor HSBC has bowed out, Austrian crystal company Swarovski is bringing a super-subtle immersive piece by London-based young designers Troika (50 optical lenses refracting light to create a room filled with moving reflections). Sparkle will be added this year by the American magazine W’s impressive talks programme, with Pharrell Williams and John Pawson among its panellists.

Cristina Grajales, who has run a gallery in New York for 30 years and has participated in Design Miami since its beginning, is this year bringing high-value contemporary work, such as Sebastian Errazuriz’s “Piano Cabinet” ($60,000-$80,000), as well as curious (and politically important) pieces by Paraguayan architect Pedro Barrail. He sends chairs and tables to be tattooed by a Amazonian tribe, to help them survive and to celebrate the artist value of their traditions. Grajales sells them for around $3,000.

New Yorker Barry Friedman, who showed from his broader portfolio of photography and fine art in 2008 and 2009 at Art Miami, one of the many fairs that runs concurrently with Art Basel, is returning to Design Miami with star pieces by Ron Arad (the 2010 “Solid Rocker”) and the 78-year-old American designer Wendell Castle (two mahogany rocking chairs).

Didier Krzentowski, the influential Parisian dealer of limited-edition pieces by designers including Hella Jongerius and Martin Szekely, is also returning after a two-year absence during which he felt work at the fair had become too experimental and irrelevant. “It was not my type of design,” says Krzentowski, who estimates that it costs him around €100,000 to come to the fair. “Design is for use. We need content.” It’s the move to the new location, a 500m stroll from the Convention Center, that has brought him back. All the dealers agree that this proximity to Art Basel should ensure better visitor numbers.

While the dealers are anxious that the collectors will cross the road, Robins reckons that: “Design has remained solid. The US buyers have been replaced by the Brazilians.” Grajales, herself a Colombian, believes that the Latin Americans are not yet significant limited-edition design clients. “They’re not so avant-garde in their taste,” she says, “though they are slowly learning about design. Part of my job is to educate them.”

Now, Robins says, “the Design District can stand on its own”, with a programme of events ranging from the presentation at the Cappellini showroom of the Tron armchair – a piece by Israeli designer Dror Benshetrit inspired by Tron: Legacy, the follow-up to the cult Disney film – to exhibitions of Haitian art and Taiwanese craft. But he’s probably more interested in the fact that booking enquiries for next year’s Design Miami are up by 40 per cent.

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