On the third floor of a posh gallery just off Park Avenue, a Ron Arad chair, shimmering like a gorgeous metallic cucumber, sits resplendent on a green carpet. It's an aluminum-mesh beauty, crafted at the same plant that turns out chassis for Aston Martin. Indeed, a signed, numbered, limited-edition Arad chair is as sleek as James Bond's beloved DBS—and can cost just as much.
Truth be told, most folks would find the thing, for all its aerodynamic curvaceousness, to be a pretty punishing piece of furniture. But for the crowd that already has a Warhol, a Koons, and a pickled Damian Hirst shark, comfort is hardly the point: Acquiring a piece of furniture built by a modern-design master is simply the next logical step in the fine art of filling one's fine home with fine things.
For that rarefied group, the hottest ticket this summer is Design Miami Basel, the new sibling of Art Basel, a 37-year-old art fair that has become the world's premier showcase for 20th- and 21st-century art. This year, the art show is expected to draw 55,000 collectors, dealers, curators, and art groupies to ogle and buy work by some 2,000 painters and sculptors. Based on that success, Sam Keller, the show's director, last December backed an offshoot focused on high-end design. Design Miami Basel (the design and art fairs will shuttle together between Florida and Switzerland every six months, landing in Basel in mid-June) was an instant smash: The 15 participating galleries did $7 million in business over four days. New York's Barry Friedman Gallery, which represents Arad, among others, sold all three of the designer's chairs it exhibited, for $50,000 to $250,000 apiece, as well as 35 of his mirrored stainless-steel tables, at $35,000 to $60,000 a pop. Not bad for a few days' work. "Barry was quite overwhelmed," says Marc Benda, the gallery's director.
As was the show's organizer. "Going into it, I had no expectations," says Ambra Medda, the young Sardinian who cofounded the show with Keller and now serves as its director. "I thought, I hope the dealers sell enough to pay for their booths and transportation. I hope there's a good vibe. And I hope everyone makes good contacts with clients. But then furniture was flying out the door even before the opening." Among the more stunning sales: an Yves Béhar chandelier ($434,600); a Pierre Szekely screen (sold to Donna Karan for $350,000); and, to a buyer with either a sense of humor or a mother fixation, an Axel Salto vase covered in breasts ($75,000).
It's hard not to think of these prices simply as examples of what happens when too much money collides with too few coveted objects, be they condos on Central Park or shares of Google. And on some level, this is tulip mania applied to tables and chairs. But unlike fine art, which never descends to earth, design is meant to be both functional and, usually, reproducible—which means it's less precious, more accessible. Eventually, some of the designers will influence the mass market.
Think of the design food chain in fashion-industry terms, with Design Miami Basel as the equivalent of haute couture (Karl Lagerfeld's stratospheric creations for Chanel, say) and the retailers exhibiting at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in New York, or mass retailers such as Design Within Reach, as the ready-to-wear collections (Lagerfeld separates at Bloomingdale's). And it extends all the way down to the nice Lagerfeld tuxedo shirt at H&M for $40, or the Michael Graves teakettle at Target for $30. In these cases, the designer's name is on the product; in others, their influence is more subtle, visible as colors and shapes derived from iconic designs. But that influence is there.
So while a $200,000 chair may be both uncomfortable and meaningless to all but a few, it may ultimately turn into something we can all plant our less-privileged butts on. And these days, if you want to glimpse the future of design, you go to Basel in June or Miami in December—where an electric new show is suddenly setting the agenda for the American home. "In any given marketplace, there's a triangle," says Ben Watson, managing director of the Italian manufacturer Moroso. "There's a line of Dior goods at $25,000 that creates the sharp focus you need to sell $100 scarves to every woman. When [Design Miami] Basel popped on the scene, it proved there's a market for the top of the design triangle, which will lead the wide base beneath it." That wide base—the U.S. furniture market—now represents a $65 billion business.
It's late Friday afternoon, and Ambra Medda is holding court in an appropriately artsy condo overlooking Central Park. Tin pieces from Richard Tuttle's Alphabet series hang above the sofa, and every surface is stacked high with art books. At 25, Medda is stunningly young to be orchestrating such a complicated and ego-driven event, but remarkably self-possessed and erudite on the history of design and its place in the culture. No surprise, perhaps, since she was born into the business: Her mother had galleries in Milan and London, where she showed an eclectic mix of contemporary designers and Italian historical design. "As a child, I was dragged to every auction and warehouse she went to," Medda recalls.
After studying Chinese at London University, Medda planned to move to the Far East and work in contemporary art. Instead, she found herself in New York, privately dealing and curating shows with her mother's inventory. She found Manhattan stimulating but the city's hard-edged, money-driven art scene off-putting. A trip to Florida for Art Miami Basel in 2004 sparked a relationship with Craig Robins, 43, whom she had known for years—and in whose New York apartment she is now sitting.
Robins, president of Dacra Development and a passionate art collector in his own right, is the real-estate developer responsible for the rehabilitation of 18 blocks of dilapidated buildings into the Miami Design District, home to dozens of furniture and design firms. Over Bellinis at the 2005 Venice Biennale, Robins, Medda, Keller, and several top dealers vowed to mount a design show equal to Keller's art fair. And before you could say "la dolce vita," it all came together—through the divine alchemy of big money, boldface names, and glam parties—to create a new paradigm: design as the cooler cousin of the stuffy art world. As Medda puts it, "designers are the new rock stars." Even Robins was transformed. "After this show," he says, "design and art became one in the sense of something I would collect. It shifted even my consciousness."
This summer, the show promises to be even glossier, set in an old Elizabethan church, with three added galleries and a new award, Designer of the Future, for the British firm Established & Sons. That group, which is being honored for its ability to manage the entire creative process—from nurturing little-known designers to manufacturing and selling their work—has explicitly adopted the fashion-industry model. "As a manufacturer," says Alasdhair Willis, its CEO, "we're the first to offer high-quality, high-volume production pieces at lower price points, and then high-end edition pieces—at far, far higher prices—for the collectors and curators who go to places like Design Miami Basel."
That top-tier market has exploded in the past 12 months, Willis says, with collectors ready to pay prices close to those in the contemporary art market. Case in point: A prototype of Pritzker Prize–winning architect Zaha Hadid's Stealth-bomber-like Aqua table recently sold at auction for a staggering $300,000, which is considered a steal by the cognoscenti. "In the collectors' world, $300,000 for an iconic piece is a relatively low investment," says Willis. "They know the market is there, and it will increase in value."
For the broader market, Established & Sons offers a cut-rate mass-market Hadid at $23,000. And if that's still too rich, just being a design voyeur has its own rewards. "There's nothing wrong with going to see things that are sublime and not available," says the Museum of Modern Art's architecture and design curator, Paola Antonelli. "It's education. And it will inspire you when you shop for things you can have."
That education has been slow in coming to these shores. Accustomed as we are to the bland output of High Point, North Carolina—the epicenter of conventional furniture—Americans have lagged our international peers in embracing sophisticated design in our homes. But it wasn't all our fault.
"I'm sorry to sound like such eurotrash, but in Europe, people have always had an appreciation for design," says Antonelli. "Not in the sense of contemplating a chair for three hours, but as a normal part of everyday life." Americans, she says, have been hampered by the long-standing practice here of keeping the best stuff barricaded in design centers, accessible only in the company of a decorator. "That never existed in Italy," she says. As good design has become more available, Americans' taste, she says, has concomitantly improved.
Medda thinks the interest is driven, in part, by the fact that Americans are drawing inward. "Design is your life behind the curtain," she says. "It's the door handle you turn every day that makes you smile, the toothbrush holder, the table you fell in love with when you were with your husband. It's a way of expressing yourself, with your home as your own little museum."
And not just in furniture. Some would argue that Americans in general are becoming more discriminating. "America is a great, rich country," says Ivan Luini, president of retailer Kartell USA Inc., "but a very busy country. In the past, a certain quality of life was neglected." When he first came to the States in 1989 from Italy, Luini says, he had a tough time finding a decent cup of coffee. Now, he says, great coffee is everywhere, along with better clothes, better restaurants, and better furniture: "In recent years, Americans have learned to live better."
Credit Martha Stewart, if you must, or Michael Graves's willingness to put his talent to work on toilet-brush holders, but once Americans learned to appreciate the joy of a well-turned egg timer, it was only a hop, skip, and a jump to a George Nelson lamp. "We can lay a lot of the credit for that side of the business on the 'DWR effect,'" says Moroso's Watson, referring to Design Within Reach. "They took the mystique out of contemporary furnishings, made them easy to purchase, and made pricing transparent. That brought in a lot of consumers who had been on the fringe of interest."
While contemporary furniture has always had a larger audience in Europe, in the States those fringy consumers have now become a stampede, says Phil Robinson, senior vice president of Little Management, which produces ICFF. He remembers back in 1989, when the show had a mere 112 exhibitors. This year, they numbered 600, and drew 23,000. "Over the last four years, we've seen tremendous annual growth in the double-digit range, in both the exhibitor and attendee side," he says. "American consumers are embracing design."
We've seen this kind of adoption curve before. The same way architects such as Frank Gehry and Richard Meier have become household names, designers are finding a fan base among people who, 10 years ago, couldn't have cared less about Tord Boontje or Hella Jongerius. Just ask Brooke Stoddard, who runs a design consultancy in New York: "Once you're at a cocktail party and people outside the industry start telling you about wonderful designers, you know something's happening."
Linda Tischler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior writer.
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.