Fascination with the tried and true
von Znidaric Amelie | Jun 21, 2011

The floor arrived at 11. The steel beams were in place by noon, a little later the first wall panels, followed by the gables. By about 2 p.m. the first window shutters opened, then the roof was covered, and at around 5 in the afternoon Jean Prouvé's "Pavillon démontable" was complete. Overnight three men took the 6x6m wooden hut that the Frenchman designed for war refugees back down – only, next morning at 11 a.m., to start re-erecting it again.

It is somehow strange that an emergency prefab has morphed into being the center of an exclusive design trade fair: 450 of the construction kits were deployed in 1944 and 1945 to create shelters for people who had lost their homes in the Lorraine to bombing raids. Over half a century later, at the Design Miami Basel 2011 (which has just ended) Parisian gallerist Patrick Seguin put one of the prefabs up for sale – with a price tag of EUR 600,000. Yet the "Pavillon des sinistrés de Lorraine" is very appropriate in this setting, as the structure is hard to top in terms of the simplicity of its beauty. And also as Prouvé is one of the highest-priced designers of all time.

By June 16, two days before the fair closed, Seguin had still not sold the straightforward wood-and-steel hut, but had attracted a buyer for a Prouvé dining table for EUR 140,000. The other exhibitors, and there were 43 dealers on the floor, mainly from Europe, but some from the States and Asia, were probably all fairly satisfied. Word was that Parisian gallery Jacques Lacoste sold an entire suite by French interior designer Jean Royère dating from 1958 – for EUR 750,000. Downtown - François Laffanour, another gallery in Paris, chose, like Patrick Seguin, to focus exclusively on bestseller Prouvé and reaped as much as EUR 120,000 for a table and six chairs.

Anyone spending so much money hardly wants to face a risk. Collectors of design are conservative, as a glance in the pages of Modern Magazine, a trade journal for so-called "collectible Design" soon shows. There, American Michael Boyd as one of the world's most famous collectors explains that new does not necessarily mean good and that innovation is over-rated. His column is illustrated by chairs created by both Prouvé as well as Charles and Ray Eames. (Incidentally, all three were of course highly innovative in their day.) Design Miami Basel is, after all, a sales fair, and supply follows demand. Small wonder that in parts the exhibition hall resembles an antiques fair: dignified living rooms furnished in Bauhaus, Mid-Century Modern and Art Deco.

Yet the trade fair has evidently made an effort to field contemporary design, too. On the upper floor of the exhibition hall die Design Miami Basel also presents the winners of its Designers of the Future awards. The three young teams were each challenged to create a "Conversation Piece" for the fair, with the focus being less on a piece that got talked about and more on one that fostered conversation. By far the best in this regard was the entry by Austrian duo Mischer'Traxler. "Collective Works" is a machine that first starts making a basket if attention is paid to it. The more people throng around it, the more colorful the basket is. If the spectators' interest flags and they walk off, the machine goes quiet again. Likewise, "It takes more than one" only functions if (nomen est omen) more than one person is nearby. Anyone gazing into the mirror on their own sees nothing other than opaque glass. If two people look at it, however, their mirror image appears.

Brit Asif Kahn developed an installation called "Cloud" that, or so he says, is designed to function as a shady space for conversations: eight pots out of which a mixture of soap foam and helium rose up. The little foam clouds got snared briefly in a net spanned over the device – and gradually evaporated leaving drops on the floor. Hardly surprising that the "shady space" did not attract so many conversations after all, and only children enjoyed playing in it. Singapore's Studio Juju was less originally minded and simply served up a tent-like edifice as a conversation space.

Galleries also prioritized current design and defied the really big bucks that beckoned if you successfully sold something by Prouvé & Co. Above all in the rear section of the hall and on the first floor many presented and sold contemporary items. Geneva's Mitterrand+Cramer cameoed the "Cubist Lamp" by the marvelous British label Freshwest: a heap of little metal rods thrown together which, when seen from the right angle, emulated the silhouette of the "Anglepoise Lamp". And London's Carpenters Workshop Gallery brought along a new luminaire from the "Fragile Future Series" by Dutch duo Drift. The principle used is LED circuits with dandelions was already to be seen in Miami, New York and Milan, but it is always entrancing.

Some contemporaries even dared opt for solo shows. For example, Parisian gallery Kreo exclusively presented pieces by 49-year-old Frenchman Pierre Charpin – and by the end of the fair had almost sold everything, at prices ranging from EUR 8,500 to EUR 32,000. New York's Johnson Trading Gallery likewise successfully plugged only one designer, namely Max Lamb, and at the end of the opening had already sold six furniture items the Brit has coarsely hewn from granite. Price tag: EUR 121,000, as much as a table and six chairs by Prouvé.

Table by Mischer'Traxler
Light-installation by Astrid Krogh, photo: James Harris
Luminaires by Nacho Carbonell exhibited by the Gallery BSL
Gallery Jacques Lacoste, photo: James Harris
Installation by Studio Juju
Gallery Perrin, photo: James Harris
Installation by Mischer'Traxler, photo: James Harris
Gallery Kreo, photo: James Harris
Gallery Patrick Seguin, photo: James Harris
"Pavillon démontable" by Jean Prouvé
„Cloud“ by Asif Khan
Luminaire from the “Fragile Future Series” by Dutch duo "Drift"
Visitors at Studio Juju
Gallery Ulrich Fiedler, photo: James Harris
Carpenters Workshop Gallery, photo: James Harris
Objects by Max Lamb exhibited at the Johnson Trading Gallery
Cubist Lamp by Freshwest Design