Back to nature: the design world ups its sustainability game

Under the theme of “Human Kind”, the works on show at Design Miami are focused on diversity in all its forms

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More than 100 beautifully crafted metal sculptures, such as the lizard, mouse and frog seen here, form Austrian designers Mischer Traxler’s work Embodied Nature (2021) at Perrier-Jouët’s Design Miami stand courtesy of Perrier-Jouët

More than 100 beautifully crafted metal sculptures, such as the lizard, mouse and frog seen here, form Austrian designers Mischer Traxler’s work Embodied Nature (2021) at Perrier-Jouët’s Design Miami stand courtesy of Perrier-Jouët

It is not easy for a design fair to have an overarching theme at any time. But in the middle of another chaotic year, it is probably even harder. Still, in line with a curatorial overview introduced by Aric Chen after he was named Design Miami’s curatorial director in 2018, the practice is being sustained by Wava Carpenter, who took over the position in 2021. Fortunately, the chosen theme for this year is “Human Kind”, which gives a fair amount of interpretative scope.

While deliberation of design as a social practice will be played out more particularly through a talks programme that includes some star names including the artist Daniel Arsham and the fashion designer and artist Samuel Ross (in the hope, presumably, that some of Design Miami’s influential VIPs will sit up and pay attention), there is also a fundraiser in the works to create scholarships for Bipoc creatives. “We need to bring in a greater diversity of voices,” Carpenter says, “and open up the creative world to as many people as possible.” Equally, she says, there have been plenty of conversations about remembering the local audience and, with the scattering of Studio Proba’s sculptures throughout the Design District—super-sized candy-coloured anthropomorphic works upon which people are invited to sit and play—even the least design-minded resident will feel involved.

Watch this space

But a critical point of view can also be found among the fair’s exhibitors, and even the luxury-focused partners of Design Miami are upping their stakes in the sustainability game. Watchmaker Panerai, for example, is focusing on its Submersible E-Lab ID watch, launched earlier this year, which it claims is made of 98.6% recycled materials by weight. (And, at $60,000, hopefully built to last.)

Meanwhile, at the stand of the champagne house Perrier Jouët, the Austrian duo Thomas Traxler and Katharina Mischer will be drawing visitors’ attention to the critically interwoven nature of, well, nature. The pair, who have been interested in issues around biodiversity since they graduated from the Eindhoven Design Academy in 2008, have a knack for creating seductive installations with strong messages. In this case, a dramatic screen-based work, demonstrating the complex interconnectedness of all living organisms and species, will be accompanied by 101 exquisite metal models of everything from near-invisible bacteria to fish to fruit to trees that rely on each other to survive. “We need to get rid of the idea of human domination and begin to understand this incredible entanglement,” say the pair, who describe their designer roles as “needing to work out what is the right question to be asking, rather than thinking of the solution.”

iHlati (Forest), 2021, by Andile Dyalvane at Southern Guild Courtesy of Christof van der Walt and Southern Guild

If Mischer Traxler’s work manages to be simultaneously delightful and deeply serious, it is a combination you can find at some galleries, too, where human narratives are told through the world of objects. Sure, people are here to shop, but the very world of design is inextricably linked to the world of human history and possibility. Southern Guild, for example, is a Cape Town-based gallery, which since its inception in 2008, has championed excellence in African craftsmanship and design. In Miami, it is showing new ceramic works by Zizipho Poswa, Andile Dyalvane, Madoda Fani and Chuma Maweni, all of whom explore and reveal aspects of Xhosa culture and spirituality in their work.

We need to get rid of this idea of human domination and begin to understand this incredible entanglement
Mischer Traxler, designers

“It’s funny to think that when we first applied to Design Miami in 2011, we got feedback from the committee that they didn’t understand our practice,” says the gallery’s co-founder, Trevyn McGowan. Now, happily, a fair would not be complete without this broader view, with work that is both virtuosic and unconnected in every way from the Western cannon.

At Philadelphia-based Moderne Gallery, furniture by George Nakashima serves as a reminder of another kind of spirituality. Nakashima, particularly well-travelled for his times (he lived from 1905 to 1990), discovered the philosophy of Mingei—finding beauty in the everyday—in Japan, and then the spiritual beliefs of Sri Aurobindo in India, translating both into unique works in which the tree is heroically given a new life.

New opportunities

If 2020 and 2021 were years of sizeable upheavals, they also opened up new opportunities. Chris Shao, for example, has succeeded in expanding his gallery Objective from Shanghai to New York. He has just signed a lease (with his business partner Marc Jetara) on a 4,000 sq. ft space on the corner of Spring and Greenwich streets. “I want to establish a more universal context for Asian design,” says 30-year-old Shao. “It’s not about dragons and temples anymore. It doesn’t necessarily identify as Asian, though there are cultural traces.” At Miami, he will show two designers, one of whom, Eny Lee Parker, was born in Brazil to Korean parents, grew up in Los Angeles, and now works in New York. “Her lighting columns are inspired by Roman architecture, by what humans bring to the world,” Shao says. Huge spiky metal lamps by J McDonald, a former art fabricator, on the other hand, tell the story of visits to Joshua Tree.

Cultural cross-pollination

For the citizens of Beirut, where even Covid-19 was upstaged by a massive blast that destroyed a vast section of the city in August 2020, designers were badly hit, their studios clustered in the most affected quarter. “We had to start from scratch,” says Cherine Magrabi, who runs the not-for-profit design platform House of Today, and appears in Design Miami’s Curio section. “We launched a blast grant and sought contributions; a number of international design agencies came through immediately with help. That’s when you realise this is a community that can be responsive and caring.” While some designers rebuilt their studios, others simply wanted to escape. “So we paid for them to get away—to Naples, Aspen, LA…”.

NN chair (2021) by Khaled El Mays at House of Today Courtesy of House of Today and Khaled El Mays

The designer Khaled El Mays, who is the focus of Magrabi’s stand, slipped off to Mexico City. “Actually, I came on holiday, to escape, but Cherine set me up with some producers,” he says. The result is extraordinary new works—including chairs and a bar—combining wood, metal, ceramics and leather “hair”, all created in small Mexican workshops. “I had a huge discovery of the available craft here,” El Mays says, “but also the available energy. There’s something about this cross-pollination of cultures and techniques, between the makers and I, that you could almost call a healing process.” The tangible joy, then, of world’s colliding and the potential of humankind.

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