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Is High-End Design a Good Investment? Design/Miami After the Market Crash

Design/Miami’s Craig Robins talks about the market crash, who’s still selling, and why Middle Easterners are secretly buying up high-end, haute-couture design.

Cozying up to Alpha Dog ArtBasel which traditionally takes over the Convention Center, DesignMiami/will hit the Beach this December when the art throngs converge
on Miami for their annual art festival-cum-bacchanal.

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Craig Robins, Design Miami’s co-founder and the developer behind that city’s burgeoning Design District, was in New York this week to reveal early plans for this year’s show, which will be held from Dec. 1-5. The major news: instead of pitching its tent in the District, which it has done for the last few years, DesignMiami will now be in close proximity to the city’s main art attraction, ArtBasel on Miami Beach. The show’s signature tent, this year designed by Moorehead and Moorhead, will take over the parking lot across the street from the Convention Center, likely making an already difficult parking situation — at least for schleppers not being whisked around town in VIP Audis — even more challenging.

The Design District, which recently began adding fashion retailers to its extensive roster of design shops, will still be home to lots of programming, Robins says.

We sat down for coffee with Robins at the Crosby Hotel to get the dish on how the show is weathering the nasty economic climate, and how it’s faring since star CEO Ambra Medda stepped away, and who’s secretly buying some of the best stuff.

Until recently, it’s been a difficult climate for the art market. How has Design
Miami weathered the downturn?

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Last December was very tough. Dealers were imperiled. Since most of them are European, it costs them a lot to ship furniture to Miami, and that was a hurdle. But by June, we put on our biggest show ever in Basel. And we expect to grow 50%, in both sales and number of dealers, in December.

Can you increase that much without diluting quality?

We actually shifted gears a bit. We decided, as part of our growth strategy, not to worry so much about size but to focus on quality. And in Basel, surprisingly, we did both. We had a more rigorous selection process. Certain galleries were not asked back. And we insisted on better quality merchandise from the ones that were chosen.

How is design holding up as an investment?

Where you once had younger artists and designers who were getting a lot of attention — and whose prices were perhaps increasing more than they should have — that’s been corrected. There’s more of a focus on blue chip material. But both art and design are now accepted as asset classes. They’re not necessarily an investment to flip in a year, but people are now less likely to spend money on extravagant luxuries than something they believe in. If you buy a Ferrari, it will be worth half as much the next day. But a Marc Newson will retain its value and appreciate.

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[Johnson Trading Gallery‘s presentation of CNC-routed, computer-modeled furniture created by Aranda Lasch]

So, who’s selling?

Newson, Zaha Hadid, Konstantin Grcic, the Bouroullec brothers, the Campana brothers, and Tokujin Yoshioka are all doing well. Ron Arad is in a strange moment. He wants to be considered an artist, not a designer, so he’s undermining himself a bit. Still, I have huge respect for him and I collect him. But everybody’s doing less business. You have to give more, charge less. Collectors are willing to spend money, but they want good deals right now.

And who’s buying?

Americans are still very important. Europeans had a big advantage because of the strength of the euro. There’s a fair amount of buying in the MidEast, but secretively. They’re buying to fill up the spaces in their new design museums. Plus, design for them is more acceptable and less political. There’s no nudity, no figurative art.

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Can you quantify how design has done as an investment for those who were savvy enough to buy when this whole thing got started?

Over the last 10 years, if you bought right, you’ve probably seen 10, 20, or 30 times what you paid. The multiple was higher before the crash — it’s probably 30% off the peak. But if you bought something for $15K and it’s worth $150K instead of $250K, it’s still not too bad. It’s shocking how much art and design has appreciated.

[Perry Rubenstein Gallery‘s presentation of shelves and storage by artist Richard Woods]

How has Ambra Medda’s resignation as director affected the show?

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She’s still a creative consultant for us, and she has significant responsibilities, just not in a day to day sense. Her real talent is her creative vision. She was a good CEO and she did a good job in implementation, but that was not her core strength.

You’re a real estate guy. Has the Miami market bottomed out yet?

The hardest hit was residential, and that’s being discounted and absorbed at a very fast pace. We now have an enormous infrastructure of housing for people’s primary residences or second homes. New stakeholders will have lots of appreciation in those assets that will ultimately help Miami. On the commercial side, personally, we haven’t contracted but we’ve grown more slowly than we used to, Which is painful. But we managed to hold on.

Has Miami bottomed out?

(Long pause.) Yes, it’s bottomed out, but it hasn’t started to shoot up. The desperation opportunities are largely gone, so there’s a stabililzed market that’s slowly gaining traction. But the U.S. economy hasn’t really kicked in, and neither has Miami.

[Up top: Mitterand Cramer Gallery‘s presentation of furniture by Maarten Baas]

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About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.

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