Fantastic chair -- just don't sit on it

Times Staff Writer

WHEN Design Miami -- one of several side shows that takes place during the annual art exhibition extravaganza, Art Basel -- folded up its tent on Sunday, attendees were still talking about the $2.5-million lounge chair.

Forget all the hullabaloo associated with these four days of aesthetic mayhem, branded by some as Baselmania. Forget the all-night parties, the electronic music and the mango martinis. Forget the celebrity sightings, the 40,000 visitors, the performance and the hunger artists alike. All that's old school. Now in its fifth year, Art Basel Miami Beach can do little to surprise, but Design Miami, in its second year, is just starting to gather momentum.

Which is of course why they could ask the same price for a lounge chair as for a David Hockney. Sure, it looks like an oversized clown's shoe with rivets and is, in the designer's own words, "not even comfortable." This was, after all, the lounge that launched a thousand knockoffs, the prototype of the famed Lockheed Lounge, Marc Newson's masterpiece from 1986 that caught the eye of Philippe Starck and ignited the design world.

And there it was, up for grabs and nicely positioned on a pedestal as the centerpiece of New York gallery Sebastian + Barquet's space in the Moore Building in Miami's Design District. And if $2.5 million seems high, don't forget that a collector paid $1 million at auction for it last summer. But to focus on the cost of this Winged Victory is to miss the point of this year's show. If Design Miami had anything to prove, it was the ascendancy of furniture as "art." Which only makes sense seeing how Design Miami rides the coattails of Art Basel -- and, to some extent, vice versa.

Show director Ambra Medda, 25, played to this synergy when putting together Design Miami. Although she received hundreds of inquiries, she selected only 19 galleries to showcase their best one-off or limited-edition vintage and new furnishings.

"What we did is frame design in a way to make it understandable to the art world," says Medda, who came to believe that people of her generation weren't being served by other furniture fairs.

Newson is the perfect shaggy-haired poster child for her vision. The 43-year-old Australian was named designer of the year by Design Miami precisely because he represents the new ideal: creating furniture that carries a value like fine art. But he was not alone.

Throughout Design Miami's three-day run, more than 20,000 of the design-minded public wandered past pricy ceramic totems assembled in 1964 by Ettore Sottsass, a '70s three-tiered pink Fireball Lamp by Verner Panton and a 2004 couch, silk screened with newspapers, by Mattia Bonetti.

In addition to the Lockheed Lounge, Sebastian + Barquet had a coffee table that George Nakashima carved from buckeye burl and walnut in 1981 and four enameled chairs Jean Prouve designed for Electricite de France's headquarters in 1950. Across the back wall of the space were 8 1/2 -foot-high solid rosewood panels from the early '70s that are sequentially numbered to match the grain. On the first day of the show, a woman and her interior designer rolled out floor plans on top of a rare Max Ingrand stainless-steel desk to see if the panels would fit in the den of her Manhattan penthouse. They would and she dropped $150,000 for all 80 linear feet.

Singer Beyonce, rappers Jay-Z and Kanye West, and actors Keanu Reeves and Mandy Moore were there. So too were longtime contemporary art collectors, from billionaire Eli Broad to comedian Steve Martin. Even Martha Stewart came for a peek. And while Paul Schimmel, chief curator of Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art, organized a trip for a few dozen museum supporters to attend the Art Basel show, he knew that some in the group would cross the bay to see the furniture show.

Galleries paid $25,000 to $40,000 to exhibit at the show, Medda says. Zesty Meyers of R 20th Century in New York believes it's worth the expense to reach high-spending collectors, museum curators and dealers. "If they will fly to Miami and like what they see, they will fly to New York to see our gallery," he says.

The hunt for fine furniture is only going to get stronger, says Amy Lau, a New York-based interior designer and design curator who worked with Medda to start Design Miami last year.

"Furniture is no longer aesthetics' stepchild," she says. Those who come to this balmy city are looking for art, she says, whether it's on the wall or something to sit in; an old piece by an established name or a design by someone who may be the next Newson.

The gallery offerings were approved by a vetting committee that Lau headed along with Alexander von Vegesack, director of the Vitra Design Museum in Germany. This year, galleries were encouraged to bring more works by emerging artists, and the committee sought out pieces from Latin America. Espasso, a Brazilian firm with a showroom in Los Angeles, was invited to exhibit benches, chairs and tables by Oscar Niemeyer, Lucio Costa and Lina Bo Bardi.

Lau says that limited-edition mirrored tables by Ron Arad sold so quickly in Barry Friedman's space last year that it instigated a pricing structure used for art prints and photographs: As the pieces sell in the series, the price goes up. Wendell Castle's new black plastic dining table, one of only eight, was tagged at $37,000 "at this moment," qualified an R 20th Century salesperson on the second day of the show.

Although it's hard to predict its impact, Design Miami's success means more art galleries will be giving contemporary furniture the white-glove treatment. (In January, one of the most prestigious art galleries, Gagosian Gallery in New York, Beverly Hills and London, will unveil Newson's new marble chairs, tables and wall shelves.) Lau hopes the show will also make pieces by South Americans more available. Gallery owner Meyers thinks it proves that the American studio craftsman Castle, at 74, is hot property again since his work was shown in several spaces, including his own and New York-based Phurniture's.

Some of the experimental processes and materials here, such as Shlomo Harush's $60,000 crumpled aluminum sofa and love seat that were made for this show, may influence furniture down the line. And perhaps some new designer's prototype will sell in the future for $2.5 million.

There's a chance. A prototype of a clear resin chaise longue created from General Motors' software by 27-year-old Joris Laarman of Holland sold the first day of the show for nearly $50,000 (35,000 euros, to be exact) at Barry Friedman's space adjacent to the main hall. The unexpected sale, Laarman says, ensures that 20 more of his complicated design will be made.

"He's lucky," says Newson after hearing of Laarman's sale. Lucky to sell his chair or to be young and successful when the market is looking for new stars? At Design Miami, it was hard to tell. As of press time, no one had ponied up the $2.5 million.

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