Porky Hefer's stork-shaped chair, with tiny seat-tester.
Ian Volner Porky Hefer's stork-shaped chair, with tiny seat-tester.

SHoP Architects's "Flotsam & Jetsam" outside the fair
Ian Volner SHoP Architects's "Flotsam & Jetsam" outside the fair

On Friday afternoon, Danish architect Bjarke Ingels went out onto the balcony of his new project, The Grove at Grand Bay, and took in the view. Twenty stories down, the sail boats in the marina adjacent to the Coconut Grove area of Miami were clustered like grapes on a vine; in the other direction, the first few floors of OMA’s Park Grove project could be seen rising from their foundation—“peanut-shaped,” as lead designer Shohei Shigematsu has described them—while in the far distance the towers of Miami Beach spiked the horizon. It was a rare moment of calm in the midst of the always-frenzied Design Miami, the annual fair that took over the city last week for its eleventh year in tandem with its sister show, Art Basel Miami Beach.

Bjarke Ingels in Coconut Grove
Ian Volner Bjarke Ingels in Coconut Grove

“Our idea was to re-grove the Grove,” explained Ingels. With a landscape design by the uncannily-named Raymond Jungles, the residential high rise is surrounded by dense tropical foliage, including a hanging garden atop a looping concrete entry marquee. Jungles has referred to concrete as the “native stone” of Miami, and while the natural limestone from the nearby Everglades might have something to say about that, the current pace of construction in every corner of the city is making the synthetic stuff ever more prevalent. So many new projects are popping up all over Miami Beach that the pace of building almost, if not quite, obscured the undercurrent of tension that hung about this year’s festivities.

The new ICA Miami
Ian Volner The new ICA Miami

In the Design District, the Institute of Contemporary Art’s new building by Spanish firm Aranguren + Gallegos Arquitectos was topped out and awaiting cladding and interior finishes, as well as the completion of a lush sculpture garden in the rear. More than 50 percent of the 37,000-square-foot space will be given over to exhibition space—“much more than most museums,” noted director Ellen Salpeter. The building will join the ongoing building boom in the area led by developer Craig Robins, whose empire of retail hotspots continued to expand with a new location for shoemakers Tod’s (designed by New York-based Bonetti/Kozerski Architecture) and a Gucci store expected to open next year.

The District will also be home to a new outdoor pavilion that graced the entrance to the Design Miami tent this year—an innovative, digitally-fabricated grotto from SHoP Architects, who took home the fair’s Panerai Design Miami Visionary Award this year. A lattice-like frame shaped into a sequence of biomorphic domes and apertures, SHoP’s “Flotsam & Jetsam” installation was poured in segments by machines at Tennessee-based Branch Technology, trucked onto the site and snapped together with simple zip ties. Philip Nobel, who’s been acting as the firm’s in-house intellectual guru for two-and-a-half years, found the process satisfyingly swift: “It’s the first thing that’s gone from start to finish since I joined,” he said.

David Rockwell's (sparsely attended) Nobu
Ian Volner David Rockwell's (sparsely attended) Nobu

For all the bustle of construction and innovation, there was a definite shadow over the fair. Attendance and hotel reservations were down, politics and mosquito-born diseases were no-go subjects, and even the parties seemed to always be winding down, never winding up. Even before one could get into an evening on the grounds of OMA’s new Faena Forum, one ran into hordes of attendees fleeing it for greener party pastures; designer David Rockwell debuted his new space for global restaurant brand Nobu, but Rockwell was nowhere to be seen. Où sont les catered dinners d’antan, one wondered.

Patrick Parrish booth with Fort Standard coffee table
Ian Volner Patrick Parrish booth with Fort Standard coffee table

The downbeat mood didn’t adversely affect the fair too much, with Design Miami director Rodman Primack describing sales as brisk. “Most of the people who are here are serious buyers,” said Primack, a view bolstered by New York-based exhibitor Patrick Parrish, whose booth—featuring never-before exhibited work like Fort Standard’s hexagonal Assemblage coffee table—was “slammed all day,” the gallerist said. Home-share giant Airbnb helped to buoy spirits at their booth, a model party space called Sobre Mesa that featured Mariachi bands and tequila shots; South Africa-based vendor Southern Guild kept things lighthearted with the work of designer Porky Hefer, whose animal-inspired seating included a giant stork in which one visitor deposited their infant child for a brief spell to the delight of a hundred iPhone-wielding photographers (including this one).

All in all, the prevailing spirit of 2016’s Design Miami might have been best expressed by architect Rene Gonzalez, who was unveiling a new, free-floating design initiative called Rocket with an exhibition of furniture inside a new residential project of his own design not far from the main fair. “It’s just people whose work I like,” he explained, and his tastes ranged from a custom translucent table Germans Ermičs to cutlery by Nina Gonzalez, who happens to be his daughter. In the subdued interior of the concrete-clad house, lofted up a story to avoid the increasingly flood-prone Miami climate, Gonzalez created an atmosphere of undemonstrative, almost guarded beauty, a place of refuge from the madness outside. In 2016, it seemed like everyone was just trying to stay high and dry.