KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Art lovers are in Miami Beach this week because it's Art Basel, the world-class art fair. Just a short walk away, there's also Design Miami, which begins today. As NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, Design Miami has become the place to admire and buy the hottest collectible objects.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: A chair is just a chair unless it was designed as a sound-insulated isolation sphere, a space-age pod shaped like an egg that was created by a French architect in 1971. It's a kind of unique object you can find at this year's Design Miami. The fair features everything from vintage furniture to contemporary ceramics to handcrafted jewelry - collectible objects from the 20th and 21st century.
RODMAN PRIMAK: Everything that you can consider for the home in many cases has been put through this lens by a designer. And if it's something special, then it might end up at Design Miami.
DEL BARCO: Rodman Primak is chief creative officer of the fair that's a marketplace for unique, limited-edition pieces or prototypes commissioned by 34 galleries from around the world. He expects as many as 40,000 people this year - many of them are also in town for Art Basel. As the market for contemporary art is increasingly expensive, many collectors are attracted to designer tables, chairs and light fixtures, says Zoe Ryan. She's the chair and curator of architecture and design at the Art Institute of Chicago.
ZOE RYAN: Because it is more affordable, of course it's a great entry point, especially for younger collectors or first-time collectors that feel that they can get a really fantastic example of modern or contemporary design for much less than, you know, modern or contemporary art.
DEL BARCO: Ryan says Design Miami also offers a chance for people to see experimental objects. For example, there's an interactive installation at the fair called a wild thing. Belgian artists Fien Muller and Hannes Van Severen have created a replica of their own living room complete with sounds from their family dinner table.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).
DEL BARCO: Hidden speakers in the walls and furniture play recordings of their family members talking about their lives and objects.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #2: I made this small black chair when I was only 7 years old. It is strong and wild.
DEL BARCO: The artists partnered with Airbnb to offer their real home for $244 a night during Design Miami. Rodman Primak says design tends to reflect cultural shifts. A few years ago, designers worked with more synthetic materials - plastics, for example. But over the past few years, Primak says he's seen more interest in collecting handmade, perhaps imperfect ceramics that may seem more authentic and things made from traditional materials - leather, bronze, copper, marble.
PRIMAK: It speaks to a kind of shift away from, like, an optimism that thinks about the future as being really shiny and happy and polished and bright to something that's more about burrowing and needing a kind of comfort and coziness. Over the last couple of years, I think we are kind of barraged every day with bad news about the environment, bad news about, this, bad news about that. So suddenly, it feels so important, I think, to have your home be a place where you can go and feel safe.
DEL BARCO: That's where designers like Christy Matson fit in. On a rare loom in her backyard studio in LA's Highland Park neighborhood, Matson weaves painted paper yarn to make framed artworks. Two of her hand weavings are being shown at Design Miami.
CHRISTY MATSON: They're both very subtle - it's like a white-on-white, kind of tone-on-tone thing. You really have to see them in person to understand sort of the subtlety or the complexity of them.
DEL BARCO: For the past 20 years, Matson has been making her art with a Jacquard loom - invented in the early 1800s - as a way to produce textiles with complex patterns. The original loom used punch cards to control the patterns - an early precursor to the computer. These days, she uses a laptop to connect her hand-painted designs to the loom.
MATSON: It's really my drawing tool, if you will.
DEL BARCO: So Matson's wall hangings still have that handmade quality collectors are seeking these days.
MATSON: It's kind of a reaction against maybe all the things that are mass produced that we're surrounded by on a daily basis. So I think there's an attraction to things that come from the natural environment. You know, people want to be knitting, making their own ceramic mugs. There's a return to wanting to use our hands.
DEL BARCO: The lines between craft, art and design are blurred these days, Matson says, adding that most collectors are looking for things they can enjoy living with for many years.
MATSON: I mean, I don't know who the people are that can, you know, spend $20,000 on a chair, but it's not me (laughter). But they're out there - right? - (laughter) and they do.
DEL BARCO: At Design Miami, Christy Matson's hand weavings are selling for $10,000 to $20,000 each. But that's still less expensive than buying, say, a Michel Basquiat painting. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
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