In a southern light
von Thomas Edelmann | Dec 13, 2011

Panorama views of palm trees, flamingos, speeding across the water, beauties in bikinis, Jai Alai players in action, horse and greyhound races. By all accounts: dynamism, style, glamour and glitz. That was the Miami image of the 1980s, disseminated the world over by the "Miami Vice" series. It was not only one of the first in which the baddies didn't always get caught at the end. But also, unlike series from New York and San Francisco, it offered a new lifestyle that prompted emulation internationally, too. Don Johnson as Sonny Crocker and Philip David Thomas as Ricardo Tibbs were both cool-cum-relaxed and tight as a gangster's garotte. And as undercover agents they did things that (at least on this side of the Atlantic) were definitely not on for cops. Moreover, they seemed torn by inner conflicts, not only investigated in the criminal underworld but evidently in their own emotional worlds, too. So who was the cop and who the robber? Because often it was friends, petty gangsters, partners and relationships of all kinds that got trashed along the way. The German version featured an irritating superficial psychologizing voiceover as if small-town German detectives were vacationing in Florida.

The series was fiction and yet based on the Miami success story of the time: a city's complete reinvention from the 1970s onwards by money laundering by the booming drugs industry. Miami's skyline, for example, is a product of the drugs boom and Florida's role as a gateway and trading hub for Columbian cocaine makers. Their ostensibly harmless beginnings, when normal citizens considered the drugs business as a perfect investment, mutated in the early 1980s into bloody gang wars as is depicted in great detail in the film documentary "Cocaine Cowboys". But there was another side to "Miami Vice", too: the way it defined a fashion and culture. Thanks to Sonny Crocker, it became an acceptable male fashion statement to wear a T-shirt under an Armani jacket. And the series impacted on the real fabric of the city. Its backdrop was modern architecture, often inhabited by truly evil guys, and specially restored Art Déco buildings. And thus it was that the TV series shows the citizens of the city what their city could look like: carefully tended, modern and yet aware of its tradition.

Transformation and salvaging the city

Property developer Craig Robins focused on precisely that mix after buying up and transforming traditional locations such as "South Beach" and "Lincoln Road", a territory covering 18 blocks halfway between downtown Miami Beach and the airport, now designated the "Design District", a prime place for galleries, luxury labels, interior design stores, offices such as that of his property company Dacra, and even design colleges. The careful mixture of old and new gave rise to new neighborhoods, unleashed new development potential. What happened with the Design District can be called gentrification, with the prior tenants, who did not have pockets as deep, squeezed out by persons interested in consumer spending and distraction. But you could also see it as salvaging the urban fabric.

In 2005, one of the historical buildings in the heart of the Design District the "Design Miami" trade fair opened its doors for the first time, prompted by Sam Keller, then director of Art Basel. As of 2002 he had been presenting Art Basel Miami Beach as a Florida sister fair to the traditional one in Switzerland. Since then, every June the art and design trade fairs take place in parallel n Basel, and in Miami in December. And because Design Miami grew, the two fairs become more closely intertwined whereby the audience they attract do not completely overlap.

The concept of design at large here still polarizes, and not just among art collectors. At first sight, things here would seem exclusively to focus on vintage products from past decades and design art, i.e., luxury one-offs that are more or less functional. Craig Robins is not only the co-founder, but also acts as quite the prototypical buyer and collectors. In the Dacra offices in the Design District you can peruse his acquisitions (both art and design) in the corridors and in the individual cubicles. Here, the customary office furnishings mingle with more unconventional unique items. For example, in the open reception area you are immediately greeted by two 30-year-old Ron Arad "Rover Chairs" and luminaires by Stuart Haygarth dating from 2004.

Prouvé as the ideal case

At the trade fair, the works of the one or other pioneer of design history appear in a new, initially irritating light. Initially conceived for everyday use, they have morphed into exclusive museum or private objects. And the wander, as Robin's office shows, from Europe to other regions of the world. A change that is possibly encouraged by the gallerists but rarely initiated by them. The usage and users of premises changes, the original interior furnishings then appear superfluous.

Despite their dry shapes (that have little in common with today's standards of comfort), pieces of furniture by Jean Prouvé are an ideal case in point. He made furniture for only a limited period of his working life. A red executive chair from the 1950s serves as the motif for the fair poster. When war time did not prevent him, he preferred to use metal, distorting it to create stable structures, from chairs to school roofs. Prouvé worked for friends who were architects and designers, such as Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand, and occasionally this spawned joint projects. Although Prouvé's designs share formal characteristics, he always opted for small series for individual buildings or rooms, verily ideal conditions for today's design market.

Alongside the Parisian galleries of Patrick Seguin, Jousse Enterprise or Galerie Downtown, New York's Magen H gallery had Prouvé furniture on offer. And the six small wooden chairs dating from 1945 that once stood in a restaurant in Longuyon nr. Nancy, France, had already disappeared from the booth on Day 3 of the fair: sold for about 85,000 dollars. The two "Visiteur" armchairs were on view longer, whereby the price tag for the two was 145,000 dollars.

Anyone taking a closer look at the well-laid-out Design Miami will find not only the superficial but exciting thought experiments that have taken 3D form. For example at the booth of Murray Moss, who after a few years' abstinence has returned to Design Miami and presented Haresh Lalvani. Lalvani is a mathematician and architecture professor at the Pratt Institute. He has for decades sought to decode the formal principle of nature and a human-made environment to come up with something like its joint design gene. His main focus: serial sequences of discrepancies. Played out using a light, perforated pattern. Not one of the flat white metal bowls Moss presented resembled one of the others. Each of the sequentially numbered objects relates to its precursor and successor in an almost endless series, which Moss and Lalvani term "mass customization of emergent designs".

And how then to understand the hand-crafted works of Elisa Strozyk and Sebastian Neeb from Berlin, who in the fair's entrance forum presented an open workshop? Using leather that normally gets left over during production at Fendi, the luxury fashion brand they created three-dimensional structures based on historical furniture; these are not viable as everyday objects, but highly stimulating as etudes and very much caught the interest for collectors. With their staging of wall and floor elements, the two cited many a revered designer and also included abstract sections that they discovered in the Fendi head office in a palazzo in Rome.

Frank Gehry's "New World Symphony", an unusually block-like building for America's Orchestral Academy, opened in early 2011 close-by the somewhat banal Convention Center that now houses the fair. Urban space in Miami is changing. Something driven, for example, by buildings like "1111 Lincoln Road", a concrete Herzog & de Meuron edifice that explodes the scale of the surroundings. "All muscle, no clothes" says Jacques Herzog. The building belongs to Robert Wennett, likewise a property developer, and is a carpark with huge storey heights and is a cherished location for events and photoshoots. Another Herzog & de Meuron design opens in 2013: the new Miami Art Museum.

Learning from Miami

The city of Miami was founded in the 19th century by industrialists and oil barons and, with its specific colors, light and climate, its open and secluded spaces seem a bit like a lovable old place compared to other luxury centers such as Abu Dhabi und Dubai. Is it an Eldorado only for millionaires? For Europeans it's more a good opportunity to look more closely at things. Marianne Goebl, the new Design Miami director, can rightly be proud of the good atmosphere at her growing fair. And we can expect her to expand what is already functioning and give it greater depth. Possibly the globally networked transatlantic project of Design Miami in Florida and Switzerland offers a prospect for how European design can discursively overcome its current crisis of substantive uncertainty.

View from the parking deck 1111 Lincoln Road towards the skyline of Miami, photo © Thomas Edelmann
Reconstructions of the “Dymaxion Car“ and “Fly's Eye Dome“ by Richard Buckminster, photo © Thomas Edelmann
“Containers II“ by Studio Job at Vivid from Rotterdam, photo © Thomas Edelmann
Sir Norman Foster in a talk with Stefano Tonchi and Lady Elena Foster, photo © Thomas Edelmann
Also photo-studios present art, shop in South Beach, photo © Thomas Edelmann
Venice projects presented glas-objects made of Murano glas by Patricia Urquiola, photo © Thomas Edelmann
“Daylight Dome” by Mathieu Lehanneur and „Royeroid Armchair” by Robert Stadler at the Carpenters Workshop Gallery, London und Paris, photo © Thomas Edelmann
Gallery “Downtown” from Paris, photo © Thomas Edelmann
Workplace for handling leather by Elisa Strozyk and Sebastian Neeb, photo © Thomas Edelmann
View into the offices of Dacra of Craig Robins with Rover Chairs by Ron Arad, photo © Thomas Edelmann
Sound-object, photo © Thomas Edelmann
Miami downtown, photo © Thomas Edelmann
Parking deck and event-location at 1111 Lincoln Road by Herzog & de Meuron, photo © Thomas Edelmann
Pedestrian area Lincoln Road, photo © Thomas Edelmann
Designs by Liam Gillick for Pringle of Scotland at the „Design District“, photo © Thomas Edelmann
Prouvé and palm-trees: An armchair of the French ingenieur and designer turned into the add-motiv of the Design Miami, photo © Thomas Edelmann
Installation by David Adjaye at the entrance of the fair, photo © Thomas Edelmann
Prouvé restaurant chairs at the Magen H Gallery from New York, photo © Thomas Edelmann
French design put on stage by Matali Crasset at the Wolfsonian Museum in South Beach, photo © Thomas Edelmann
Floor lamp “LC VII” by Le Corbusier for Chandigarh at Patrick Seguin, photo © Thomas Edelmann
„Craft Alchemy” für Fendi Design Performances by Elisa Strozyk and Sebastian Neeb, photo © Thomas Edelmann
Creations out of leather-leftovers from the production of the fashion-label Fendi by Elisa Strozyk and Sebastian Neeb, photo © Thomas Edelmann
Vintage-chairs by Jean Prouvé in the Dacra offices, photo © Thomas Edelmann
Installation of Daniel Libeskind at Zumtobel, photo © Thomas Edelmann
BIG and Audi realize “Urban Future” at Design Miami 2011