MIAMI — LAST year at Design Miami, the premier U.S. showcase for rare vintage and limited-edition furniture-as-art pieces, the buzz was about a $2.5-million Marc Newson chaise longue and freewheeling hedge-fund Wunderkinder snapping up anything associated with a known designer. This year? As Gerard O'Brien of Reform Gallery in Los Angeles reported the second day of the show, after the parade of private collectors had subsided: "Lots of hugs, no kisses."
The four-day show that wrapped Sunday ran in conjunction with the nation's top contemporary art show, Art Basel Miami Beach. And, indeed, the quality of the furnishings was enough to have museum curators purring descriptions into their cellphones with hope that trustees would spring for a 1959 Jean Royere straw marquetry table, a 1955 hand-carved polychrome Paul Laszlo console or a new Pierre Charpin signed-and-numbered coffee table covered in blue Bisazza mosaics.
But the frenzied buying that many have come to expect at Design Miami never materialized for some exhibitors. Was the downturn in the economy to blame? Have rising auction prices for collectible furniture led to unrealistic expectations here? Was there too much competition from what's snidely called "artmageddon," the two dozen other art and design shows, showroom events and museum exhibits within a five-mile radius? Or is the market just beginning to see how few people are willing to spring for a $450,000 Jean Prouve vault ladder?
According to exhibitors and visitors alike, all were possibilities. They couldn't blame attendance, which at 20,000 was about the same as last year. Michael Ovitz trudged up stairs to the fourth floor of the Moore Building to meet the show's designer of the year, Tokujin Yoshioka, but afterward a publicist quietly declared, "He didn't buy anything."
Neither did Jane Adlin, a curator with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. Of the 26 galleries selected for the show, she lingered over the offerings brought by Donzella 20th Century of New York and Galerie Kreo and Galerie Patrick Seguin, both from Paris. But . . .
"I didn't see a 'must have' for our collection," she said Monday after returning to New York. She also noticed a drop in the pace. "I found this year less interesting than last, not sure why. Seemed like less energy."
The crowd, said Kenny Schachter of RoveProjects LLP in London, was "more seasoned, more measured." He sold one of 12 boomerang-shaped Belu benches by Zaha Hadid Architects for $200,000 to a private collector. A stainless-steel Big Rock by Arik Levy is on hold for $125,000.
For many who consider themselves connoisseurs rather than impulse buyers, the cool-down in Miami was welcomed. Christiane Fischer, chief executive of AXA Art Insurance, said her clients were in a better position to take their time this year and negotiate on price.
A rare exception to all the measured buying seemed to come from Design Miami's founder, Craig Robins. The developer and art collector announced during the show that he sold a part of Design Miami to the organizers of Art Basel, further gluing furniture to the art world.
Robins picked up pieces as if filling a cart at Costco. He acquired a wood-and-metal cabinet by Aranda/Lasch, the Fractual Cloud light sculpture by Levy and chairs by Yoshioka, Max Lamb and Pierre Paulin. He also bought from lesser-known designers, who were brought in to create hand-turned paper vases, a drop chandelier made from plastic water containers and other works on the spot.
For all the talk about six-figure deals, it was refreshing to find designers so accessible to the average show-goer. Tom Dixon stood underneath an Artek pavilion made from scraps of self-adhesive labels, explaining the thought behind the lighting overhead. Next door, Mike Meire unveiled his concept for a kitchen: a compact, sheltered farm with fresh herbs growing next to the Dornbracht gooseneck faucet, an aquarium with red snapper swimming about and a pen in the corner for squealing pigs. "A kitchen shouldn't be a showroom but a place where life takes place," he said.
The Corning Museum of Glass set up a mobile studio where the Campana Bros. and other artists directed glass to be heated, stretched and cooled into shape. Said artist Paul Haigh after a hot shift, "We are such consumers of end products that people are now becoming more interested in the process. It connects us to the material."
"The art is the process," said Murray Moss of the Moss showrooms in Los Angeles and New York. "The piece is just the souvenir." At Design Miami, Moss sold two of five editions of a suite of cast-bronze pieces called Robber Baron: Tales of Power, Corruption, Art and Industry. Imagined as functional objects in a robber baron's residence, the set by Studio Job of Belgium -- a safe, cabinet, table, mantel clock and lamp set on bases that look like blackened factories -- is priced at more than $1.1 million.