As the Design Miami juggernaut sweeps into town, real estate developer Craig Robins explains why he's taking his concept of cultural communities to a wider audience
Miami real estate developer Craig Robins built his reputation on the belief that design, architecture, and what he calls "cultural content" are the building blocks of a community. He has famously transformed South Beach and the city's Design District, and called in 10 architects to create a residential enclave in Miami called Aqua. And with the event companies Design Miami and Design Miami/Basel, Robins has spearheaded the art-meets-design exhibition strategy in conjunction with the Art Basel fairs.
Now, as president of Dacra Development, Robins is moving beyond his base in Miami with a series of projects and business deals that will extend his company's reach and take his concept of cultural communities to a global audience.
For instance, in one deal, MCH Swiss Exhibition (MCHN), the Basel, Switzerland, company that runs Art Basel, is taking a 50% stake in Design Miami Basel and a 10% stake in Design Miami, intended to broaden the appeal of the events. Separately, Robins has teamed with Russian developer Mirax, which has bought 10 homes at Aqua to be refitted with high-end design and art and sold as luxury residences with hotel services. Finally, Robins has become a partner with a Chinese developer Modern Investment Group in a major mixed-use real estate project in Beijing designed by architect Steven Holl. Dacra Global, a new business entity, will take over the building's retail, restaurant, and hotel programming. With his focus on design, Robins has hired Yves Béhar, of San Francisco's hot consultancy, Fuseproject, to rebrand the project. On the eve of this year's Design Miami event, being held this weekend, BusinessWeek.com contributing writer Ernest Beck spoke to Robins about his sudden flurry of global activity.
Craig, why go global now?
I am fascinated by what is happening around the world, so I decided it was time to connect what we do here in Miami with other cities. The idea is to build a global platform that will make us stronger; in turn, this will bring resources back to Miami.
So you are not abandoning or scaling back your Miami operations?
No, we are still committed to our ventures in Miami, but we are taking what we created here from a cultural content point of view and working internationally with strategic partners. It is a whole new experience for me. We will now have corporate entities and relationships in Switzerland, Russia, and China that we can use to expand our business. It is the ideal way to move forward.
As far as design is concerned, does the link-up with MCH, the owner of Art Basel, mean more design shows based on the art-and-design synergy that has worked so well in Basel and Miami?
The connection means we can carry the message of art and design to different parts of the world. [Before Design Miami,] nobody put design in the same category as art, and doing so placed design on the map, giving it a foothold with art collectors. It has transformed the way we think about design. Creating a partnership with MCH is an extension of our collaboration with the company; it formalizes the relationship. We could expand the art and design strategy to other cities and grow the brand; we are seriously thinking about doing something in China and possibly Moscow that would be related to design.
Russia's Mirax has bought 10 residences at Aqua and plans to refurbish and sell the properties. How does that play into Dacra's global strategy?
It will allow us to collaborate on many levels. Design Miami, for example, can be a resource for Mirax's real estate projects in Russia, in terms of cultural content. In Miami, Mirax has a plan to redesign and differentiate the properties at Aqua with exquisite design and art, and we will be involved in this. We can also offer the hotel services.
In Beijing you are involved in a huge project—a 210,000-square-meter "city within a city" with nine linked structures including apartments, long-term-stay residences, a boutique hotel, and retail on the ground and on sky bridges. It seems to be well under way already. What attracted you to the project at such a late stage?
I met the developer and felt a strong connection with the company. It is truly the first dynamic mixed-use project in the city. There will be a commercial universe in the bridges with retail, spas, swimming pools, and cultural exhibits in the sky. For me that was a commonality with what Dacra has done in South Beach and the Design District [in Miami]; it isn't a boring shopping mall. Our role will be to organize the nonresidential end of the business, which includes retail and hotel programming and the cultural aspect. We will come in and brand it and make it into something special. Design Miami will have a role in this, and there will be an art component as well. So it is a good fit with what we have to offer.
What else impressed you about the project?
[Architect] Steven Holl's design is astounding. It is the first entirely sustainable neighborhood in the world, and that really blew me away; it is something we want to do with the Design District in Miami. Holl's design is based on Matisse's "The Dancers," and the system of linked bridges he created is similar to the dancer's arms that touch in the painting. I had looked at several projects in Beijing, but this was the most interesting for a partnership.
Why did you pick Yves Béhar for the branding?
He is one of the people I admire most in the design world, and I have always wanted to collaborate with him. He will design the logo and signage and participate in the implementation and variations of the concept. Our mandate to him was to take the values of Dacra, as a creative company, and that of the developer, a strong and dynamic Chinese company, and bring that together.
How do these global projects tie into what you have done in Miami?
We started with South Beach and transformed the vision of Miami. Then the Design District became a cultural center, a laboratory for creativity. We own cultural content like Design Miami and use that as a way to build a community. You would think these are separate and unrelated concepts, but they are all woven together by the same vision—and now we can apply them globally.