Craig Robins: "The one thing you can’t do is replace something truly historical"

Part of what we realised was that it was better for somebody else to own a property, to make their own expression, so the neighbourhood had this competitive, collaborative spirit, where everybody was expressing themselves in their own way – the opposite of what Disney World does, which is also an effective business model but its idea is to give you a fantasy with something that’s fake and our business model is to do something that’s real. You can come here and just enjoy yourself. So part of what we did was we brought back furniture design stores. It was then that I realised the final ingredient that was going to really catapult this neighbourhood to another level of creative offering would be if we could bring the fashion business here. That was really a wonderful moment. I went away to school, of course – spent some time at the University of Michigan and the University of Barcelona – then I came home after college and went to law school. Ben Hobson: How did that then develop? It was a great time. Christian Louboutin opened a store and said, “I want people to walk through an art installation into the store.” I thought he was crazy. Over the years the Design District became a centre for furniture design, but by the mid ’80s, as places became more and more “mallified” in America, the district went into disrepair. Gloria and Emilio Estefan bought the Cardozo from us early on and did a beautiful job with it. These synergies came together and began to really churn in a way that was unexpected and, to some degree, uncalculated, because it was something new, a completely different approach to anchoring a neighbourhood. Craig Robins: I can’t speak for Art Basel but clearly it was a brilliant decision – not just because of the obvious success, but if you think about it, Basel is such a traditionally powerful, conservative city. Who would go through this space into the store to buy shoes? Chris Blackwell approached real estate like a guy who made records.Ben Hobson: So Miami overcame the seedy reputation and now it is emerging as a serious cultural centre. The success of the fair helped boost the redevelopment of the whole area, Robins claimed. So we founded the Design Miami collectors fair, which I continue to chair. Craig Robins: It was a big contrast to how things were done in the States. It was a special place. But I realised that design doesn’t bring in people. “So that became my career: trying to figure out how to adapt these great historical structures and put businesses that function in a contemporary way in them.”
Cardozo hotel in South Beach, MiamiWith artist Keith Haring opening a shop in the area and famous musicians Gloria and Emilio Estefan investing in hotels,   South Beach developed into a booming holiday destination throughout the nineties. They wanted to control the environment, and we took that on. That began to attract more people and more life, the idea of restaurants and nightclubs. “I knew South Beach was a rundown place where perhaps I could find an inexpensive studio.”
Webster hotel in South Beach, MiamiTogether with collaborators including fellow property developer Tony Goldman and   Island Records   founder Chris Blackwell, Robins renovated many of the Art Deco hotels along South Beach’s Ocean Drive and the surrounding area at a time when the general consensus was that the run-down and dilapidated buildings   “should be torn down.”

Related story: Landmark architecture helps turn Miami into the “capital of Latin America””There was a group of us who not only thought they should be preserved but that they could become this incredible legacy that Miami could offer to the world,” Robins said. Artists like John Baldessari and Nate Lowman are doing buildings. When I was in law school, I started acquiring properties on South Beach. But it was very rundown. There’s a reason for you to come back each year for the next three years and catalogue the art, design and fashion happening. We’re getting a lot of freedom to do things. We had that going for us. He had the perfect studio but told me if I wanted it, I had to buy a 50 percent interest in some buildings he owned, including the one with the studio, which I did. Some of them we developed or collaborated on with others or sold to interesting people. It was treated like a prescription drug where it would maybe hurt you to see it. They were all boutique hotels. Dezeen Book of Interviews: our new book, featuring conversations with 45 leading figures in architecture and design, is on sale now”Initially I wanted to have a studio space so I could invite artists to paint or make art in Miami,” he told Dezeen last December, when we interviewed him at Design Miami as part of our Dezeen and MINI World Tour. Ben Hobson: When will the Design District reach completion? And when you combine the solidity and power of Basel with   the sex appeal and excitement of Miami, you get this amazing result that was beyond what anyone could have imagined.”
Miami Design DistrictBy that time, Robins had sold most of his properties in South Beach and had moved his attention to redeveloping another run-down area of the city –   Miami’s Design District, so called because of the proliferation of furniture companies that set up there in the 1920s. Craig Robins: Miami with South Beach had become known as “funinthesun.” The transformation from a hedonistic place that people were flying to from around the world to a city of cultural substance really happened with Art Basel, not just as a commercial fair
but also as a cultural happening, with parties and events, with exhibitions that weren’t necessarily oriented for profit. At the time I was living in this other magnificent building adjacent to it called the Webster. The goal is to make it a great place to shop, find furniture, eat, but most importantly to just walk around.”
You can read the full interview below, which is one of 45 interviews with leading figures in architecture and design featured in Dezeen Book of Interviews. It had become a retirement village for an ageing population that was dying off. Elastika does that beautifully in the Moore building. A few years later when I was working in South Beach and I’d tell people I was from Miami, they would think of an Art Deco building. There were a lot of people who thought the buildings should be torn down. It’s hard to believe, looking at the urban sprawl now. The first phase of the Design District is complete and there are some great shops. They didn’t want the client to be able to walk in and look at things. I knew South Beach was a rundown place where perhaps I could find an inexpensive studio. I didn’t really know anything. We had the world’s largest collection of Art Deco and Mediterranean Revival structures in the same place. Some of the brands are doing their own buildings and they will also be really powerful additions to the neighbourhood. “It was a brilliant decision,” he told Dezeen. In 2005, Robins launched the first Design Miami collectible design fair in the Design District alongside Art Basel. The Design District became the place where that vision was launched, and it became more and more recognised as a cultural destination. Our great collaborator in the neighbourhood was the furniture designer Holly Hunt, who has a beautiful showroom in the Design District and is an important person in the American design industry. The Fujimoto building will be complete, as will this ArandaLasch building that will house four brands, including Tom Ford. It’s not like fashion or restaurants. That was an important renaissance in Miami. That led to other brands. So now stores are being operated or built by Vuitton, Dior, Céline, Pucci, Hermès, Cartier… Even more perfect because Zaha Hadid – she won Design Miami’s Designer of the Year in 2005 – was commissioned to do Elastika, a magnificent installation inside the space. Ben Hobson: How did these hotels help transform South Beach into the hip destination it is today? Ben Hobson: Did Art Basel influence your decision to launch the Design Miami fair and the Design District? “People began to realise that furniture could be collected like art,” he said. People were prohibited to enter if they didn’t have a licence. Craig Robins: It’ll happen in waves, and in part that’s intentional,because we don’t want it to be like a mall. A lot of elements will make this neighbourhood
a pleasant experience, hopefully. The competitive malls also had a monopoly. We should invest in culture, not necessarily profit and business, to continue to build the brand.”
Hermès store in the Miami Design DistrictBen Hobson: Today the Design District is as well-known for its fashion stores as it is for art and furniture design. Craig Robins: I was born in Miami Beach and I’ve always lived in Miami. From Chris I learned to produce creativity because he approached real estate like a guy who made records with artists and ended up with a great creative product. He became instrumental in   renovating the city’s iconic Art Deco district in the nineties, before moving on to redevelop the Miami Design District and co-founding   Design Miami. Craig Robins: I remember in 1982 I was in college in Barcelona and I would tell people I was from Miami and they would immediately say, “Julio Iglesias!” Then I came home and a few years later I went back and I’d tell people I’m from Miami and they would say, “Miami Vice!” That was their image of Miami. Craig Robins: When I look back at South Beach, there were obviously hotels but there was no one to stay in them. Carlyle hotel in South Beach, MiamiBen Hobson: Which hotels did you work on together? I began renovating one of the buildings to create storage spaces in order to afford the studio. That’s the goal. One of the things that was really nice was working with another visionary, Chris Blackwell. The structures are smaller. Marlin hotel in South Beach, MiamiBen Hobson: What was South Beach like in those days? But the one thing you can’t do is replace something truly historical. Some of the other properties that were especially prominent were the Victor and the Tides hotels, the Cavalier, the Cardozo, the Carlyle… How did that happen? The neighbourhood is pedestrian-friendly, which in Miami is almost nonexistent. Miami Design DistrictBen Hobson: So tell me about the Miami Design District. This guy Theodore Moore, who built the Moore furniture company, built his first furniture store in the area in the ’20s. Dezeen Book of Interviews is available to buy now for just £12 To me it’s a great example of how a brilliant architect or designer can interact with a historical structure and enhance the experience, not detract from it. People began to realise that furniture could be collected like art, so you could do these limited-edition contemporary pieces, which offer a level of freedom and experimentation, a creative approach that’s different from mass-production. So we were doing well but we didn’t have a lot of people. She was one of our first tenants, and that began a process where now you can walk around the Design District and see a lot of great furniture design. By redoing the Art Deco buildings, a lot of media came to do fashion shoots, bringing in the beautiful people, creating an industry in the neighbourhood. Craig Robins: The first exciting thing was that I convinced Keith Haring to open a variation of his New York store, Pop Shop, in South Beach. And when you combine the solidity and power of Basel with
the sex appeal and excitement of Miami, you get this amazing result that was beyond what anyone could have imagined. Fashion is a powerful industry; it fuels the ability to do more.Ben Hobson: What’s next for the Design District? Suddenly furniture design was being collected side by side with this great art fair. Hotels became more in demand and the need for office space for music and film things happening in South Beach increased. Craig Robins: Furniture was very successful. There was really nothing else in South Beach at that time, so it was a great way to start. There were also areas that had become difficult slums. They had a radius clause, so retailers weren’t allowed to open within 20 or 40 miles of where the mall was. Restaurants were starting to open. South Beach is much more European. You can buy the book now for just £12. I met this incredible guy named Tony Goldman, who became an important mentor. “Basel is such a traditionally powerful, conservative city. Craig Robins: I felt that things were becoming so commercialised in South Beach that Miami needed a creative laboratory, an important place where interesting things could happen and where the definition of what could happen was not so rigid. One of the great things about having Tony as a partner was that he gave me the freedom to do a lot of it myself but also provided guidance. There will be 16 more stores, 15 buildings, retail shops, restaurants – a continual experience. We commissioned a prototype from Konstantin Grcic. It was an enormous success. The goal is to make it a great place to shop, find furniture, eat, but most importantly to just walk around. A lot of the designers who got commissions from the stores in the mall didn’t want design to be on the street. I think we have a chance to be the most interesting neighbourhood in the world, with this balance of art, design, fashion and food. There was a group of us who not only thought they should be preserved but that they could become this incredible legacy that Miami could offer to the world. In November 2014 there will be 15 new buildings; the Baldessari and the Grcic installations will be inaugurated. We commissioned a prototype from Konstantin Grcic. Craig Robins: The Design District is located in what was originally a pineapple farm. We’re doing buildings with architects like ArandaLasch, Sou Fujimoto, Keenen Riley.

Updated: 29.11.2014 — 21:12