Art Basel

Market experiences new vigour: Design Miami/Basel 2009

Dutch school of design is in the ascendant as the fair commences off Messeplatz


Fears that Design Miami/Basel would struggle in its fourth edition appear to have been unfounded. The move to a new location, down the street from the main Art Basel fair, has paid dividends with significantly increased footfall, up 25% from last year. And there were strong sales for some galleries.

The mood was in stark contrast to the gloom just six months ago at Design Miami, where muted sales reflected the chill winds of recession.

Design Miami founder Craig Robins hailed the move, the third in the fair’s four years. “We now have a more seamless partnership with Art Basel,” he said. “The audience for design is expanding, so even in a declining economy there is potential for us to grow.” That said, only four US galleries made the trip to Basel this year, down from ten a year ago.

A constellation of contemporary designers based in Holland, many trained at the Design Academy Eindhoven, are the hit of the fair. The latest star is Eindhoven graduate Nacho Carbonell, one of the fair’s Designers of the Future whose whole “Evolution” collection, 2008-09, on show with Milan’s Galleria Rossana Orlandi, was bought by film star Brad Pitt for a total of E84,000.

Pitt cemented his reputation as one of the most serious players in contemporary design with a string of Dutch-school purchases. He began his acquisitions before setting foot inside the exhibition hall, buying Atelier Van Lieshout’s Mini Capsule Hotel, 2009, which was installed on the grass outside the entrance. The accommodation block, bought from Carpenters Workshop Gallery of London for E95,000, is destined for his private beach in Santa Barbara.

Inside the fair Pitt bought two more Van Lieshout pieces: a Fossil chaise longue, 2009, for E23,000 from Vivid of Rotterdam, and a bronze female Family Lamp, 2008, for E17,500 from Carpenters Workshop Gallery. A year ago he bought the male version of the lamp.

Dutch designers also caught the eye of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who—with neither art advisor nor art-loving girlfriend beside him—made a spontaneous E9,500 purchase of Fragile Future 3.3, 2009. The interactive work using dandelion seeds is by the design duo Drift, Ralph Nauta and Lonneke Gordijn. When the designers were told who had bought their work, they had to ask: “Who’s Abramovich?”

If the Dutch dominated contemporary sales, the ballast of the fair was provided by Paris dealers showing classic French modernist design. Jacques Lacoste sold a Jean Royère Ours Polaire (polar bear) sofa and armchairs, around 1957, to a private US collector for E480,000 in the first hour.

Among the buyers of classic French work was UK collector Frank Cohen, who bought a pair of concrete outdoor lamps designed by Le Corbusier for the city of Chandigarh in India, 1952-56, for E22,000 each from Patrick Seguin. “I’ll put them in my garden,” Cohen said, adding: “I used to buy contemporary design, but the market moved too high, too fast. Why should I buy Marc Newson furniture for hundreds of thousands when I can buy work by great modernists for E20,000-E30,000?”

Although the fair has a special exhibition devoted to Newson, few examples of his work are on view with dealers. Ron Arad and Zaha Hadid, two equally sought-after designers in recent years, are also hard to find, and some in the field lamented their absence.

“The most important designers aren’t even here,” said Loïc Bigot of Tools Galerie, Paris, a contemporary specialist showing in Basel for the first time. He expressed his disappointment that the majority of galleries were not dedicated solely to contemporary design. “It is supposed to be a contemporary fair,” he said.

“It’s a real pity,” agreed Cologne-based dealer Gabrielle Ammann, who said the recession was particularly tough on contemporary design galleries because they have to invest in production and development costs, unlike their colleagues in contemporary art or classic design.

The overall success of this year’s edition, sponsored by HSBC Private Bank, was summed up by the acclaimed Dutch designer Maarten Baas, whose Real Time installation is wowing visitors, in his flattering comparisons with the Salone del Mobile in Milan. “It is very different from Milan, which is so much to do with who’s in and who’s out. Here, there’s a lot less tension and people see the real quality.”