Innovation & Design

Design: A Strong Showing in Miami


Galleries from around the globe showcased works and sold many limited-edition pieces at last weekend's Art Basel Miami and Design Miami events

Wall Street may have some investors worried, but that didn't stop crowds from mobbing last weekend's annual art-and-design blowout in Miami—featuring the Art Basel Miami and Design Miami shows—and spending as if the subprime mortgage mess and liquidity crunch were already a memory.

While most eyes were on the art fair to gauge whether mounting financial woes among hedge fund-owning art collectors would tame the red-hot art market (apparently it did not), design galleries reported brisk sales and buoyant prices. Limited-edition pieces by celebrity designers and architects were especially in demand. A $39,000 Zaha Hadid lamp, anyone?

Collecting Tangibles

The VIP opening night event at Design Miami got off to a roaring start as well-heeled patrons gathered in the city's Design District, the once scruffy neighborhood that has been transformed into a design and home-furnishings mecca. In the first hour, Moss, the New York design emporium that had set up shop at the fair, scored a major sale. A private collector purchased a limited edition suite of five pieces, called Robber Baron, by Belgian design firm Studio Job.

Commissioned by owner Murray Moss, the suite consists of polished cast-bronze, highly detailed furnishings including a cabinet with a hollowed-out bomb crater in the middle and a jewel safe with a jack-in-the-box popping out of the top. Robber Baron is meant as a riff on "the outrageous excesses of America's 19th century tycoons and Russia's new oligarchs," according to a Moss brochure. The price: $700,000.

Whether these furnishings will ever find their way to a living room is unclear. Yet such pieces, which are produced in limited numbers—in this case, only five were made—are increasingly popular among art and design collectors. "People want to invest in things that are part of their lives, that are tangible, not just shares of stock," says Moss, explaining the attraction of the suite, which includes a standing lamp in the shape of the Empire State Building with a zeppelin docked at the top. Not only do they look good, but limited-edition pieces tend to work like the stock market: the price of each edition of the Robber Baron series increased by about 20% as each one was sold.

Classic and Cutting-Edge

Many galleries were less experimental, showing and selling acknowledged midcentury classics, including a 1960 bookshelf by Jean Prouvé and Charlotte Perriand for $200,000. But there was plenty of cutting-edge material on hand, too.

London's Albion Gallery had a 7-foot-tall fiberglass and resin lamp, painted jet black, in the form of a lumpy standing figure with three toddling children in tow. The lamp, a prototype by Atelier Van Lieshout, was priced at $60,000. Another standout at Moss was a set of chromed clay standing electric fans by Dutch designer Maarten Baas. Set on spindly spider-like legs, the fans ranged in price from $24,000 to $34,000, and a few found buyers. London's Kenny Schachter Rove gallery reportedly sold the painted floorboards from its stand, designed by Richard Woods, for $35,000.

The high prices at the design fair track similar rises and record prices for iconic design pieces sold at auction, as well as the sticker shock of some modern and contemporary artists. Increasingly, art collectors are adding design to their holdings, betting that the work of some designers will eventually be as valuable an investment as a Warhol or a Rothko. "The market is healthy, and there's more curiosity, more players, and more awareness than ever before," observes David Gill, owner of London's David Gill Galleries, who was selling furniture designed by architect Zaha Hadid, among others, at the show.

Two works by Hadid, priced from $39,000 up, were sold on opening night. One was a sleek, polished fiberglass wall shelf painted gold, in an edition of eight. Part of the Dune Formations series, it was described as an "organic ensemble of furniture elements" made using 3D-modeling techniques. Although you might not want to stack too many books on the shelf, the work's unique styling and Hadid's celebrity status meant an easy sale. "When buyers can identify with a name, you don't have to do too much convincing," Gill, who has helped pioneer the field of design art, explains.

Defying and Adhering to Trends

By contrast, New York's Friedman Benda gallery focused mainly on Italy's Ettore Sottsass, a grandee of late 20th century design. The gamble paid off: Two cabinets by Sottsass—one made of zebrawood with cast aluminum shelves, the other a cantilevered version of stacked geometric volumes—were sold for around $100,000 each "to young collectors," says gallery director Jennifer Olshin.

Olshin says the interest in Sottsass defies trends within a design world fixated on rising young stars who are experimenting with new production techniques and materials—Japanese designer Tokujin Yoshioka, for example, created an installation for the show made of 2 million drinking straws. "It's not just about what's cool," Olshin explains. "Now that the market has broadened, there's more demand for Sottsass' work than ever before, because there is a basis for comparison."

Still, with the design market riding high on big names and bold gestures, no design gallery can do without a hot designer to draw in collectors. Friedman Benda also sold two marble benches, etched with a lace-like pattern and standing on painted steel legs, by Dutch designer Marcel Wanders. No ordinary benches, these squat, sturdy creations, in an edition of only two, were priced at $40,000 each.

Ernest Beck spent almost a decade as a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal in Budapest and London. After leaving the Journal in 2002, he became a freelance contributor to numerous publications including the New York Times, Metropolitan Home, and SmallBiz. He is the editor of the book Brancusi's Endless Column about a mysterious sculpture in Romania (Scala, 2007).

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