Design Miami/Basel: ‘The insistent marketing of limited-edition design art has proven quite fruitful’ 21.07.17

  • Sou Fujimoto was one of the many architects whose work was exhibited at Design Miami/Basel

  • Emergency housing designed by Jean Prouve, seen at the Galeries Patrick Seguin stand

  • Laufen, one of the corporate collaborators of Design Miami Basel, comissioned its past designers to create objects that embody the creativity of the firm

  • Friedman Benda Gallery from New York curated a small Ettore Sottsass retrospective

  • Victor Hunt Gallery from Brussels showcased contemporary designers such as Sabine Marcelis and Tomas Alonso

The Swiss show aims to sell design to the one per cent – but is surprisingly interesting and varied nonetheless, says Peter Smisek

The market for collectible design, at least the one that tries its best to mimic the overheated contemporary art market, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before 2006, auction houses and dealers used to sell furniture and vases under the rather old-fashioned sounding label of ‘decorative art’. Eleven years later, it is clear that the insistent marketing of limited-edition design art has proven quite fruitful – there is now a thriving cohort of young-ish designers happy to supply the market with their rare and rarefied creations.

So it was at Design Miami/Basel, the slightly smaller Swiss sibling of the original Miami outfit, in June. Hand-picked by the show’s curators, 47 galleries took part in the event – their booths contained within the ample, sublime spaces of Herzog & de Meuron’s Messe Basel New Hall. It goes without saying that the younger generation of critically-acclaimed designers got its commercial dues. Brussels-based Victor Hunt gallery, for instance, showcased designs from the likes of Sabine Marcelis and Tomás Alonso. Gufram, riding on the renewed interest in all things postmodern, invited Studio Job to display their gym-inspired high-kitsch wares. New York-based Salon 94 Design gallery brought out Max Lamb’s latest work alongside artist Lucas Samaras’s Gold Chickenwire series began in the 1970s. Swarovski’s trio of young designers, presented in partnership with the fair, is fairly successful element. Marjan van Aubel’s contribution is a crystal solar cell that powers circular LED lights. It is rather a shame that the solar cell itself remained out of sight. The small, fragile-looking 3D-printed crystal vase clusters by Takt Project and Jimenez Lai’s terrazzo-like material made of resin and waste crystal fragments are somewhat more accessible.

Contemporary architects had their chance to shine too: Galerie Philippe Gravier commissioned a series of steel-rod bookshelves that mimic intricate 19th-century ironwork and Kengo Kuma designed a very Group Zero-looking canopy, Fu-An: essentially a large floating balloon from which a gauze-like sheet of fabric was suspended. Mad’s Ma Yansong, perhaps currently the only architect that could confidently take on Zaha Hadid’s mantle, created a drippy Martian collection for Gallery ALL.

So far so good – these designs are perhaps too singular to fall into the old ‘decorative arts’ category, nor are the projects necessarily an aspiration for anyone not in on the whole thing. A large part of the offering at the event, however, easily fits under this old-fashioned label. From opulent French art-deco desks, to the comfortable, if slightly anonymous 1950s Italian designs, there were heaps of more or less conventional furniture – no doubt masterfully well-crafted and beautiful, but items that should, at best, be on display in one of the V&A’s free galleries, or in a high-end antiques shop. Not a gallery. They were not made for an art-like market in mind and their presentation as art-objects is slightly baffling. Even Friedman Benda’s mini retrospective of Ettore Sottsass’s vases, idiosyncratic and unique as they are, belongs in this category.

More baffling still, was the large amount of Prouvé-nalia. The sale of original or early-edition pieces of his furniture that are, to this day, produced by well-regarded manufacturers such as Vitra, shows that even the more radical manifestations of modernity can be effectively marketed with patina and nostalgia. Similarly, the inclusion of Prouvé-designed doors designed for a provincial cultural centre, or even a whole, emergency shelter, smacks of somewhat opportunistic scavenging. These larger objects will most likely end up in private collections of people who would one day like to set up their own museum or be purchased by museums themselves. In the end, the galleries’ goal is to extract as much value out of this process as possible and while this might help preservation of these demountable structures, it is perhaps a little sad that they are not truly public.

On the other hand, this perplexingly wide scope is quite effective in provoking deeper conversations about the changing role of design. Despite the seemingly eclectic nature of the exhibits, the organisers select the participating galleries, and tried to put emphasis on what they believed would entice buyers. This is the core of the fair and the few undisputed masterpieces of earlier eras, as well as less known designs from canonically relevant designers, add enough historical interest. Laufen, one of the Design Miami’s corporate collaborators presented an installation ‘A Curated Art Show. What?’ in which 17 of its designers – including Patricia Urquiola, Toan Nguyen and Konstantin Grcic – produced a small white sculpture from ceramic, resin or plaster. The display itself is at once more and less corporate than anything else on display: more, because it serves marketing interests of a single commercial entity, and less, because none of the works are for sale. But it does not seem at all out of place. Indeed, next to it is a line-up of iconic car designs called #Manual – including two, mid-noughties prototypes by Zaha Hadid – courtesy of Rove Cars, and a presentation booth for Muraba Residences by RCR Architects (who won the Pritzker prize this year) in Dubai.

Design Miami is a fair that aims to sell design as art to the one per cent. But in all its variety, it may well be the most interesting design exhibition you never knew you should have visited.




Peter Smisek

quotes story

Despite the seemingly eclectic nature of the exhibits, the organisers select the participating galleries, and tried to put emphasis on what they believed would entice buyers

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