Art Basel & Design Miami 2021

by Victoria Fong

“Want to see this NFT I bought for 30 Ethereum?” A man who offered to buy us drinks boldly showed off a cartoon monkey on his Apple Watch while my friends and I were sitting at the dining area in Art Basel Miami Beach. For reference, one Ethereum blockchain token is worth nearly $4,000.

This year’s Art Basel and Design Miami fairs had me questioning how we value things – especially art, which is appraised on such a subjective level – and what it means for art and design. Digital art, lacking any tangibility, is being valued at such a high level. Is this a joke? A scam? An opportunity?

This year was the first year NFTs (nonfungible tokens), would be available for sale at Art Basel Miami Beach, the largest art fair in the United States. This factor attracted a large group of tech folks from around the world who were willing to drop exorbitant amounts of money on a single piece of digital art that they could show off to a group of strangers on their Apple Watch.

One night in Miami, we were having dinner at a restaurant that later transformed into an auction event for NFTs. The room became crowded with tech folks and New Age-y types. A large projector displayed a walk-through of a rendered mansion, with rooms full of art, suggesting this as a reasonable use of the NFT you just purchased.

While all of this is speculative, one thing is still certain: the physical reality we live in daily still integrates art and design in very real ways. Design Miami showcases architectural elements, like furniture, light fixtures, and other products. Many of these objects push the boundary between form and function, making them thought-provoking and fun. This year was full of fresh, up-and-coming artists and designers. Here are my top five favorite displays at Design Miami:

  1. 1. Harry Nuriev (Crosby Studios): The Bedroom 
    1. This cube-shaped room is fully covered with reflective vinyl. Inside are pillows and a duvet to match. Nuriev, a Moscow-born architect and interior designer, is inspired by digital art. The juxtaposition of something metallic, which is usually stiff and cold, into with something soft and malleable, is fascinating to me. The vibrant lighting is reflected on the surfaces, creating a futuristic, space-age setting.


  1. 2. Rem Denizen and Nick Weddell (Jason Jacques Gallery): Ceremony
    • Rem Denizen, based in Portland, Oregon, designed a large wooden geodesic dome covered in moss. It houses a series of psychedelic ceramics and tapestries designed by Weddell, based in Austin, Texas. There is an alien quality to the ceramics, with its bright colors and irregular organic forms. His knit tapestries display scenes of animals and insects.

  1. 3. Pelle: Infinite Lure
    • Brooklyn-based design studio Pelle unveil a series of light fixtures and furniture inspired by nature. Made with cast cotton paper and painted with vibrant colors, these pieces feel like they came straight out of a Dali painting.

  1. 4. Daniel Arsham/Kohler: Rock.01
    • New York-based artist Daniel Arsham, integrated 3D printing to create the amoeba-like sink basin that is Rock.01. What I love most about this exhibit was the giveaway: a 3D-printed incense holder.

  1. 5. Fendi and Mabeo: Kompa Collection
    • This year, Fendi collaborated with Botswana-based design brand Mabeo to create a curvaceous wood furniture series. The sleek pieces display the traditions of Botswanan craft, subtly integrating the double “F” symbols representing Fendi.


Outside the elitist world of Art Basel, several tangent events showcased a different side of the Miami art community. There were sculptures and murals wrapping every public street corner, and people were dressed to the nines in vibrant colors and eye-catching prints. There were ongoing live graffiti artists painting murals in Wynwood. At night, there were live performances and art shows for queer and trans artists of color like PermaQueer. This side of the community was alive and bubbling with energy, but still very much in the margins of the art world.

Interactive graffiti piece in Wynwood Arts District.

This year’s Art Basel symbolized two major changes happening in the post-Covid world: inclusion and the shift towards the virtual. 2020 was a year of reckoning. Over 70% of jobs went remote, and the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers opened a hard look at the reality of racism still present in the United States today. Besides the brow-raising introduction of NFTs, this year’s Art Basel was the most inclusive yet. For reference, last year’s online event did not include a single African-American owned gallery. This year, out of 253 galleries, four were Black owned, three African owned, eight Latin American owned, and one Korean owned.

Collage by Lauren Halsey, Los Angeles-based artist.

Painting by Sungi Mlengeya, Tanzanian artist.

Painting by Kim Tschang-Yeul, a Korean artist.

Close-up Image of Tapestry by Bonolo Kavula, a South African artist.

While I am hopeful that the growing presence of artists from diverse backgrounds will continue the push for equity, I am skeptical of the growing enmeshment of physical and virtual reality. How can community be built when we are all so physically isolated? How can we shape these new environments to be more inclusive? Is it possible to minimize the environmental impacts of these digital territories?

Our first instinct may be to scoff at these new ideas, but our dependence on the digital world is increasing, for better or worse. Many experiences take place online: work calls, political discourse, and even romantic relationships.  Being online does not make them any less real.

As Ian Rogers, chief digital officer at LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton,) put in an interview Bloomberg, Why the Metaverse is Fashion’s Next Goldmine, “We have one consciousness, right? I can read Twitter and get pissed off. I don’t get digital pissed off. We kind of need to let go of this notion of… ‘oh, that’s digital, this is physical.’”

As architects and designers, it is crucial for us to stay open-minded and aware of these trends if we are to have any chance of changing them.

Glass piece by Olafur Eliasson.

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