Design Miami: Sun, Surf, and Sales

The design arm of Art Basel Miami Beach saw a frantic weekend of deals and some lofty prices for ultra-rare furniture and decorative objects

"Watch out for the flowers," warns Ambra Medda, the 25-year-old co-founder and director of Design Miami, a two-year-old trade show where ultra-rare modern and contemporary furniture and decorative objects are offered for sums well into the millions. This year, the select group of galleries with booths rose from 15 to 19, indicating the growing interest in the fair among elite design dealers and buyers.

The elegantly dressed Medda is sitting in the VIP lounge on the top floor of Miami's Moore Building, where Design Miami took place from Dec. 8 to 10. The flowers she refers to are rows of fresh daisies suspended from the ceiling. As if on cue, petals fall from above.

The showering flowers reflect the pleasant and relatively sudden deluge of interest in 20th century (and 21st century) design objects in the past year, culminating with the record-breaking sale in June of a 20-year-old aluminum chaise, the Lockheed Lounge, by Australian industrial designer Marc Newson. It sold for $968,000 at Sotheby's, the highest sum ever paid for a piece of furniture created by a living designer. The same object was on sale at Design Miami, via six-month-old, New York-based design gallery Sebastian + Barquet—this time for $2.5 million.

A Who's Who in Design

The Lockheed Lounge didn't sell at Design Miami, though pieces by Newson—who received the 2006 Designer of the Year Award from the fair's organizers—were clearly hot commodities. The Art Newspaper reported on Dec. 8 that 12 of the designer's limited-edition Chop Top tables (made this year) sold for approximately $170,000 each within 20 minutes of the opening of a private preview event held at the booth of Paris's Galerie Kreo—a day before the fair opened to the public.

And the gallery offering the Lockheed Lounge didn't do too badly itself. "We sold a table by [the late Japanese-American sculptor] Isamu Noguchi for $100,000 before the fair started," says José Antonio Lobón, the director of Sebastian + Barquet.

Design Miami is affiliated with Art Basel Miami Beach, the stateside sister of a long-established art trade show that takes place each year in Basel, Switzerland. Last year, Medda, formerly a design curator, co-founded the Design Miami fair along with Craig Robins, Miami real estate developer, art collector, and winner of this year's Design Patron award from the National Design Awards (see, 10/19/06, "Design's Night of Glamour").

"A New World of Collecting"

Last year, the inaugural edition of Design Miami generated $7 million in sales for the participating galleries—an impressive sum for only a few days work. The venture was deemed so successful in terms of sales that a sister fair in Basel was held in June, 2006, with a similar roster of galleries.

While it's too early to tally the sales results of this year's Design Miami, interest was higher than in the previous year, based on anecdotal evidence from Medda. She says the same real estate moguls, top corporate executives, and hedge-fund managers known for shelling out millions for contemporary art are starting to buy more 20th-century design pieces as a way of diversifying their collections—and investments.

"I've understood that many people in the financial world who collect art are turning to design. We open a new world of collecting," says Medda. "Maybe they hadn't considered design in a serious way. Last year, a lot of people who came to Miami Beach for Art Basel Miami Beach came to Design Miami. This year, I've met many people who came specifically for the design show."

Range of Works

Work by up-and-coming designers without the name recognition of Marc Newson also proved popular, indicating that collectors are interested in investing in the design stars of the future. New York's Phurniture, for example, sold a unique, sculptural chair made of aluminum by Shlomo Harush, a 40-something designer who is better known in Europe than the U.S., for $18,000, and an aluminum couch also by Harush for $60,000. Paul H. Johnson, Phurniture's owner, said that "every sale was to a new collector," stating that all buyers were first-time buyers of the gallery's offerings—or new to design collecting.

While the design fair was dwarfed by the week's main attraction, Art Basel Miami Beach—which presented 200 booths manned by galleries from around the globe—the smaller design event was consistently jampacked with attendees. At the opening night on Dec. 7, even those people holding VIP cards had to wait in a long line up to an hour for admission. And Design Miami attracted the glamorous, wealthy clientele the fair's organizers and sponsors hoped for. Milling about the fair were actor Keanu Reeves, for instance, and fashion designer Donna Karan.

Objects on view in individual retailers' elaborate booths ranged from historical works such as a 1947 bookcase by French designers Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Jeanneret, to unusual ultra-contemporary pieces by relatively unknown international designers, such as stark white furniture with whimsical toy-like figures attached, by the Chinese design collective Wok Media.

Timing is Everything

Near the official fair venue in Miami's Design District were presentations by luxe furniture retailers such as New York's R 20th Century, a popular TriBeCa gallery; Moss, a stylish Manhattan design emporium; and London's Established & Sons, which sells sophisticated limited editions by leading architects and designers (see, 9/21/06, "A British Formula for Fantastic Furniture"). The latter presented sleek, elegant pieces by "starchitect" Zaha Hadid and hip architecture firm Future Systems, lit subtly from above as if they were pieces of sculpture, presented in a spare, sophisticated space.

As a marketing move to capitalize on the buying frenzy promised by Design Miami, Established & Sons purposefully held up the release of Hadid's black Aqua table—an ebony-hued version of a white piece previously available, of which a prototype sold at auction for $300,000 this year. The company waited six months to debut the black table in public so collectors would "anticipate" its official debut during Design Miami, says Mark Hughes, design director of Established & Sons. Hughes says that Established & Sons is still finalizing sales and states that editions of each piece on view were sold in Miami.

For the first time, corporations saw the marketing possibilities of Design Miami, too. Carmaker Audi had a display showcasing a vehicle as if it were a sculpture—although it seemed more like a car showroom presentation—immediately on view upon entering the fair's venue.

High-Wealth Clientele

Audi provided free rides to and from the faraway Design Miami fair (in the city of Miami) and Art Basel Miami Beach (at the Miami Beach Convention Center) for collectors carrying a VIP card—the transportation sponsorship was a clever way to introduce wealthy potential buyers to the buttery leather seats and smooth rides of their newest models.

The main sponsor of Design Miami was HSBC Private Bank, which caters to high-wealth individuals. "Our clients are the type that look toward art and design as something they want to look forward to owning. They're looking for advice and financing of the acquisitions," explains Gonzalo Acevedo, manager at HSBC Private Bank (HSBC). The marketing strategy parallels the relationship of another bank, UBS (UBS), with Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach. HSBC decided to focus on the emerging 20th century design market to reach potential banking clients in a different arena, rather than compete directly with UBS and sponsor a rival art fair.

"We didn't want to go head to head with UBS. Design is trend-setting, fresh, everywhere, very practical, and it made sense," explains Jeannette King, marketing director for HSBC Private Bank . The bank is committed to sponsoring the Swiss version of Design Miami in June, 2007, but will then evaluate whether the sponsorship will continue.

Heading East, Too?

Manuel Luciano Diaz, president of HSBC Private Bank, adds that the bank was able to make contact with new international clients while at Design Miami, from countries ranging from Mexico to China, all in town for both the art and design fairs.

In fact, one rumor circulating throughout the fair was the possibility of Design Miami launching a spinoff design fair in China, to reach wealthy Asian buyers.

"We're definitely interested in a design fair in China, but we haven't made a formal announcement yet," says Medda. "We feel as though there's great potential in China. We would love to grow, but we want to pace ourselves." Even if it doesn't expand immediately into Asia, with increased support from sponsors and collectors, Design Miami is clearly an event to watch, to track the value of coveted 20th century furniture as well as fresh corporate marketing strategies.

Click here for the slide show on Design Miami.