Interspersed among the collectible design booths at this year's Design Miami fair are 11 thought-provoking presentations that span technological research, handcraft and creative production. They form a program called Design Curio, which was set up in 2014 to provide visitors with a snapshot of the global design landscape.
At this year's showcase, the largest to date, there was a visible tension between past and future. While some displays, like a radical show of Rapid Liquid Printing from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Self-Assembly Lab, focused on the possibilities of innovation, a number of designers showed concern that tradition and cultural identity are being left behind.
Russian artist Harry Nuriev teamed up with Russian tinsmiths to create a presentation of water collectors inspired by izbas, traditional log houses found on Russian farmsteads. The elaborate metal sculptures embrace decoration, and showcase the skills of a generation of craftsmen that is slowly disappearing.
"When we think of Russian culture as it's reflected on the global stage, what comes to mind is often the product of rural areas, such as the villages of Chekhov," Nuriev said. "But for a variety of reasons, that culture is vanishing. Much of rural Russia is rapidly aging; the young are leaving for cities, and those who remain face crumbling infrastructure, alcoholism, economic stagnation. It is my hope, in drawing attention to these traditional forms, not only to contribute to their preservation as cultural traditions, but to support the artisans still working in these communities."
Keeping tradition alive
Jewelry by Sevan Biçakçi, presented on concrete blocks by Ali Alizadeh Credit: Courtesy Sevan Biçakçi
Elsewhere, Turkish jewelry designer Sevan Biçakçi presented his intricate jewelry is presented on monolithic concrete blocks made by Iranian sculptor Ali Alizadeh. Encased within the blocks are rusty craft tools from days gone by.
"I may be belonging to the last generation of local jewelers to follow tradition," said Biçakçi. "Conditions started changing in the '80s. Hyperinflation in the economy and boom in incoming tourism forced workshops to produce what would sell fastest, namely copies of famous international brands products."
"Residual Time Energy Blowout" by David Lindberg, presented by Camp Design Gallery Credit: Courtesy James Harris
"Instead of learning a craft from a good master, one's chances became gradually reduced to positions along factory conveyor belts. Skills kept diminishing while robots kept becoming more and more of serious challenge."
Biçakçi decided to act, setting up a workshop that welcomed other designers and apprentices to create their own work. His success shows a younger generation that local crafts are still valued in on the global stage.
Similarly, Valentina Lucio, owner of Camp Design Gallery in Milan, lamented the lack investment in the arts in Italy, but believes the gallery's success has fostered a more entrepreneurial spirit.
"We go outside of Italy to showcase our work and when we come back, and others see our success, it inspires them to do the same," she said.
"Insubordinate Creatures" by Ellen Grieg and Elisabeth von Krogh, presented by Norwegian Crafts and Galleri Format Oslo Credit: Courtesy James Harris
"Craft is very much about locality," agreed Lars Sture of Norwegian Crafts, an Oslo-based organization exhibiting the tactile work of textile artist Ellen Grieg, and characterful ceramics by artist Elisabeth von Krogh. "Take the Sami people for instance. Craft is extremely important to them. It defines who they are. What we have to do is ensure that small populations like this have a seat around the table, and that's what we are trying to do at Norwegian Crafts."
Looking at the halls of Design Miami, it seems these crafts, although struggling to find a market or relevance in their own countries, are far from dead. There is opportunity here. With the right approach and platform, they can reach a pool of eager new customers around the globe, just waiting to discover them.