MIAMI BEACH — It was refreshing to wander around a Miami fair that doesn’t appear to have a fear of pretty things. In the design world, unlike the art world, beauty isn’t considered a dirty word, so, wandering through the aisles of the 2013 Design Miami fair, I could see an obvious affection for beauty in a way that oozes status and wealth. The name of the game at this fair is clever juxtaposition, stylish silhouettes, luxurious materials, and money — lots and lots of money.
Every year Design Miami commissions a hot firm to design an “environment” for their entrance, and this year the Bronx-based Formlessfinder combined sand and aluminum to form a hill surmounted by a canopy, under which visitors would pass to enter the fair tent. The piece stays true to the firm’s name and mission to experiment with architecture beyond form, and here the strangely unwelcoming but comforting (I’m not sure how those two things can coexist, but they certainly did here) mass creates a sense of fascination, like staring at a child’s monstrous sandpile or a very eroded pyramid. In an era when everything looks great on Instagram, Formlessfinder’s creation resisted the contemporary urge for photogenic sleekness in favor of the experience of being there.
Inside, Design Miami was spacious and filled with the type of luxury brand booths that would make most art fair organizers smile from ear to ear with dreams of dollar bills raining down from the sky. A Swarovski booth featured a “Mangue Groove” installation by Guilherme Torres across from Maria Pergay’s installation for Fendi, and around the corner was Simon Heijdens’s “Phare No. 1–9” installation for Perrier-Jouët, featuring a reinterpretation of Art Nouveau that seemed largely meaningless.
When Marcus Fairs of Dezeen interviewed Heijdens about the installation, the result was the journalistic equivalent of a car crash (Fairs’s own words), but it highlights something that felt prevalent at Design Miami: the emphasis on surface rather than the underlying processes and ideas.
Asked about the nature of the dye in his suspended forms, Heijdens tried to change the topic: “I don’t think that’s a conversation that I’m interested in. I think it’s not the point, it’s not because it’s a secret but I think the true value of people walking in here, without any baggage or any understanding, hindered by any kind of perception, is just the sudden wonder.” Pressed further, the dialogue between Fairs and Heijdens becomes absurdly telling:
Marcus Fairs: But how does it work?
Simon Heijdens: You’ve seen how it works. I find it really important to not make that the basis of this story and the piece.
Marcus Fairs: I want to know how it works.
Simon Heijdens: I told you.
Marcus Fairs: You’re not going to tell me.
Simon Heijdens: We could have a three hour conversation about the science of wavelengths of light or we can speak about what you thought when you walked in there and what you felt like.
Marcus Fairs: Honestly, I want to know how it works. When I saw a Polaroid for the first time, I wanted to know how it worked. I think people will look at this and wonder how this works.
It’s certainly not fair to characterize Heijdens’s reluctance to delve into the science and technology of his installation as representative of all of the work on display, but it does emphasize the reliance on surface for designers, who aren’t accustomed to having their designs dissected in a way that contemporary artists regularly expect from art critics.
But the divide between art and design has always been fuzzy. Jorge Pardo regularly shows at Art Basel Miami Beach, along with other art fairs, and there were a large number of contemporary artists on display at Design Miami, though largely through their jewelry designs.
Those included Mariko Mori, Anish Kapoor, Lucio Fontana, and many others at the Louisa Guinness Gallery of London booth, and while they were attractive objects, they looked largely like gift-shop versions of the artists’ signature styles rather than a reimagining of bracelets, necklaces, or bangles. Only Sue Webster and Tim Noble’s contribution of a bird claw holding a stone seemed inventive.
In Didier Ltd’s booth, works by Louise Nevelson, Man Ray, and others were more responsive to the jewelry form and mainly resisted — only occasionally succumbing to — the need to be gift-sized versions of gallery works.
One of the most impressive booths was Benjamin Rollins Caldwell’s display at Washington DC’s Industry Gallery. Made completely of computer parts, including cushions fashioned from ribbon cable, Caldwell’s furniture looked like the chic waiting room of a start-up ready to go IPO.
In one corner was a booth of four proposed designs by starchitects for a parcel of land on the Miami waterfront. Curated by Terence Riley, a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art and former director of what has since become the Pérez Art Museum Miami, Four (4): New Visions presented designs for luxury condos in a city that has been trying to criminalize the homeless for eating and sleeping in public. These designs — surely inadvertently — emphasize the negative side of a city known for real estate booms and busts, and that continues to warmly welcome the rich while turning a blind eye to some practical housing problems faced by the poor and middle class. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to ask a design fair to address a larger swathe of societal problems — most art fairs also shy away from any kind of inclusiveness — but I think it would be a great opportunity for designers and architects, who are often at the forefront of utilitarian beauty, to find solutions for more than the 1%.
At one last booth I saw black scrawlings — “The End Is Near,” “Of Course It’s Art You Fool,” etc. — on white metallic rectangles hung on the wall. They looked like they were better suited for an art fair. “Why are these here?” I asked the gallerist. “They open up,” she replied, as she revealed one of them to be a shallow medicine cabinet. “If they didn’t have a purpose, they wouldn’t let us show them,” she explained.
What often differentiates design from art is its use value, but the question of who those uses truly serve is a bigger one that this design fair could do better to address in some way.
Design Miami 2013 (Meridian Avenue & 19th Street, adjacent to the Miami Beach Convention Center, Miami Beach, Florida) took place December 4–8.