Miami has always been a city of extremes, but never more so than during the week of Art Basel/Design Miami in December. On Design Miami’s opening evening, the usually sleepy streets of the Design District, a stone’s throw from impoverished Little Haiti, were jammed solid with flashy sports cars, luxury sedans, and even a few stretch limos. Inside the Moore building, where dealers in vintage modern and contemporary design exhibited their pricey wares, there were so many beautiful people with foreign accents milling and swilling champagne that it was a challenge to see what was on show. The most visible—and tone-setting—“art design” piece may have been the golden Cross Cabriolet concept car from Audi, a Design Miami sponsor, which sat on a platform surrounded by tension cables “simulating its design lines in three dimensional space.”
Recycling is a current trope in the design world and Design Miami took it literally, recycling several installations that first previewed in Milan last spring, such as Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Light Socks display for Swarovski. Composed of hundreds of lozenge-shaped crystals heaped into mesh sacks with a halogen bulb hidden within, the deconstructed chandeliers offered a fresh and truly dazzling take on modern glamour, even though the “double socks” looked like an illumined scrotum. On the top floor, Design Miami Designer of the Year Tokujin Yoshioka also reprised his Milan hit Tornado, an installation of huge, undulating swathes of plastic straw tubing, in which he nestled his “art chairs” made of experimental materials like glassine paper and baked polyester elastomers. Yoshioka greeted admirers while sitting on a futuristic crystalline throne. It was an image that spoke volumes, but seemed lost in translation to the crowd.
Next door and inside the fair were the dealers in contemporary design. Moss was center stage with the Dutch duo Studio Job’s limited-edition, gilded bronze Robber Baron furniture suite, comprised of a monumental table (above), cabinet, clock, lamp, and jewel safe, each an assemblage of emblems representing industrial power, pollution, war, and obscene wealth. Was it art, design, or satire? Who cares! Three of the tables from an edition of five sold immediately at around $180,000 each.
As a reaction against all this ostentation and excess, another band of designers presented sweetly provocative performance pieces. Among the most engaging: Brit Stuart Haygarth’s patient assembly of a striking teardrop-shaped chandelier made from water bottle bottoms, and Mexican-born, LA-based furniture maker Tanya Aguiñiga’s transformation of metal folding chairs into festive seating swathed in brightly colored felt. Outside at the so-called “GlassLab” set up by the Corning Glass Museum in collaboration with Vitra Design Museum, Constantin and Laurene Boym were among a group of designers playing gingerly but inventively with molten shards of glass. In keeping with its “Sustainability is an Attitude” theme, Artek recycled its Milan-premiere Shigeru Ban-designed pavilion, constructed out of a fiberboard made from surplus self-adhesive labels, to exhibit its 2nd Cycle initiative of reclaimed Aalto stools. Nearby, Dornbracht staged graphic designer Mike Mieré’s Farm Project. The controversial pioneer of the “New Ugly” trend in European magazine design, Mieré turned the chic minimalist kitchen on its head with a sensory-rich living/cooking environment replete with Staffordshire dishes, potted herbs, hay bales, chickens, bunnies, and goats (which is just how people in Little Haiti live, but with Martha Stewart-worthy pottery).
Next day, in downtown Miami, the British urban planner Ricky Burdett spoke to a packed auditorium about how urban design was affecting the lives of more than three billion city dwellers and the planet’s dwindling resources. After scaring the audience with factoids such as “58 people move every hour to Lagos, Nigeria, a city with no coherent urban planning,” he showed how cash-strapped cities like Bogotá, Colombia, were transforming themselves into sustainable organisms through modest but clever urban design and mass transit initiatives. After his talk the audience fled, apparently uninterested in local Miamian responses. This reporter stayed long enough to hear Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, dean of the University of Miami’s Architecture School, observe that if global warming continues at its current pace half of the city will be under water within a generation. Not the kind of climate forecast real estate developers want to hear, especially those behind Art Basel/Design Miami.