Miami Design District Developer Craig Robins on Why Nature Is Our Greatest Luxury
Craig Robins strongly believes that all good things take time. Since launching his vast real estate enterprise Dacra in 1987, at age 24, he has, with this ideology in mind, become one of Miami’s shrewdest mover-shakers. Intimately involved in the revitalization of South Beach in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Robins helped restore—and save from demolition—several now-prized Art Deco properties, including The Webster (designed in 1939 by Henry Hohauser as a hotel and now home to Laure Hériard Dubreuil’s flagship fashion boutique). From there he began to quietly shift his focus across Biscayne Bay, to the Design District neighborhood, unveiling the beginnings of his ambitious plans there in 2002. A visionary thinker, tinkerer, and doer, Robins also got involved in bringing the Art Basel fair to Miami in the early aughts and in 2005 co-founded the Design Miami collectible design fair.
Thinking about things slowly and holistically, Robins—unlike so many others in his line of work—does not follow a build-it-cheap-and-fast-and-flip-it edict. His is a long-haul, less-but-better vision. Robins cares deeply about the urban fabric and the textures of the city, about architectural serendipity and surprise, about moments of wonder and beauty and joy. A finger-on-the-pulse master of cultivating culture, he has thoughtfully constructed a synergistic amalgam of art, architecture, design, dining, fashion, and urban planning within the Design District, a New Urbanism–infused neighborhood that seems to subtly morph every month, if not every week, bit by bit. While it hasn’t been without its detractors and naysayers, the Design District clearly offers an alternative, human-scale approach to city building. Now home to standouts such as the Institute of Contemporary Art (which opened in its new location in late 2017) and the Pharrell Williams–owned Swan restaurant and Bar Bevy, the Design District is beginning to show its potential not as just a luxury shopping mall—though it’s certainly that, too—but as a dynamic cultural hub.
On this episode of Time Sensitive, Robins talks with Spencer Bailey about his big-picture vision, his early career helping rejuvenate South Beach, his forward-thinking approach to bolstering Miami culture, and his obsession with river rafting and disconnecting in nature.
Robins philosophizes on the importance of time in the contexts of real estate, urban planning, and city building.
Robins discussing his upbringing in Miami, as well as his studies in Barcelona and at the University of Michigan Law School.
Robins reflects on his first forays into real estate and neighborhood-shaping, and delves into his transformative early work in bringing new life to Miami’s South Beach.
Robins tells how he came to acquire the properties to develop the Design District in the late ’90s, then continues with how he’s evolved and expanded the project over the past 20 or so years. He also provides a bit of backstory into the creation of Art Basel Miami Beach in 2002 and the founding of Design Miami in 2005.
Robins briefly describes how he has amassed and organized his art and design collection—in large part, through following historical threads of who influenced whom.
SPENCER BAILEY: Today we have Craig Robins in the studio. Welcome to Time Sensitive, Craig.
CRAIG ROBINS: It’s great to be here. It’s a wonderful studio.
SB: In doing research for this conversation, I came across two quotes of yours, a couple of years apart.
CR: Now I’m in trouble.
SB: [Laughs] They actually have to do with time. And this being a podcast where time is the central conceit, I thought I’d open up with them. One, which was published in CityLab in 2015, was when you said, “Time is an important ingredient in making a neighborhood successful.” Three years later, last year, in Town & Country, you said, “Whenever you truly invent something, it takes time.” [Full disclosure: Spencer is a contributing editor at T&C, for which he occasionally writes about architecture and design.] I liked both of these quotes for similar and different reasons. But you’re somebody who clearly plays the long game. I wanted to talk to you about that. How do you think about time as a developer, as somebody who’s also been a lifelong Miami resident, seeing neighborhoods shift, being a part of those shifting neighborhoods?
CR: Everything has a process—it has a life. And if it’s real, then time becomes a source of strength. You need to allow things to evolve and to nurture them along the way, and then to be able to adapt to whatever’s contemporary. It’s all a process. I work with neighborhoods, and I’m not doing what Disney World does. I really admire Disney World, but they build something that’s fake, that’s an experience. They open it up and it essentially stays the same. Whereas the neighborhood is an organic place. It’s about people; it’s about structure. It evolves over time. And using that [method of thinking] is what make places special because, as each increment of time passes, a place can get a little bit better or can get a little bit worse. And if it continues to get a little bit better, then it really becomes special over time.
SB: Yeah. Well, and some of what we’re talking about actually is this idea of culture. I was just reading a book the other day where this came up. It’s pretty interesting when you understand the etymology of the word culture, which is this idea, from the mid-fifteenth century, of tilling the land, preparing the earth for crops. From the Latin, cultura, which means “cultivating.” Clearly what you’ve built time and again, and are trying to do now with the [Miami] Design District, is build a culture. Do you think about what you’re building in agricultural terms?
CR: Well, that’s a really interesting question. I think, societally, we all go back to a point where we went from being hunter-gatherers to moving towards an agrarian world. That is what facilitated us being able to live closer together and begin to build communities. So it’s not just the process of farming, but it’s the implication of being able to now take our time and spend it doing something other than just hunting and gathering in order to subsist. And that’s really the point from which mankind began to transition from being primitive to being modern.
SB: Obviously, cultivating crops requires tilling the soil, respecting the land. From an urban development perspective, how do you think about that? Respecting neighborhoods and respecting both the literal, physical environment, but also the social one.
CR: There’s two different starting points. One is when you walk into an existing neighborhood, and the other is when there’s just a piece of land. In most cases, I’ve worked in historical neighborhoods and when you do that, there’s a lot of things that are defined and there’s also historical assets. Mainly historical structures, but there’s also usually some kind of an urban grid. The key is then to figure out how to respond to it and move it forward.
When I began my career, I was working in what had become a seriously declining, nearing defunct area of Miami Beach called South Beach. It had transformed into becoming a retirement village and it had an elderly population that was dwindling. Their children had succeeded more, so it was a generation of post–World War II immigrants that had come to the U.S., worked in factories—primarily a Jewish population. On social security, they moved into these little art deco hotels. These tiny rooms, had maybe a little kitchenette, and [they] were able to live. But their children had done better and could do more, so there wasn’t a follow-up population to replace them and, for a period of time, they had preserved the buildings and the buildings were preserving them.
When I got involved, the question was—and conventional wisdom was—it should all be torn down because there’s no real way to take a three-story, fifty-room hotel and make it work. The business norms had proven, or thought they had proven, that that wouldn’t work. A group of us—there were preservationists, there were community activists, and there were developers (and we were the small, tiny minority of developers)—thought there was a way to make it work. And we had to figure out how to adaptively reuse those buildings.
From my point of view, when we all think about what a dynamic city Miami is now and how it’s a city of the future, that period, the emergence of South Beach and the fact that we had this unique architecture, the largest collection of Mediterranean revival and art deco architecture in the world in one place, that’s what was a catalyst to Miami going through this period of transformation and progress. It was a totally contrarian view, but it’s one that worked because it was special. We took what was there and we nurtured it in a way where that became the attribute, and then we added a lot of things to it and it caused a renaissance in Miami. It really made Miami an attractive and dynamic place to come to.
SB: I think it’s worth mentioning that this was, like, the late eighties through the nineties. You were 24 when you started Dacra, in 1987. I’m curious, how did a 24-year-old Craig Robins understand the importance of these buildings? What was it about your understanding of design, urban planning, or just culture in general at the time that led you to understand that these were worth saving?
CR: It was really interesting. At first, I was a believer, but only a partial believer, and then an experience that I had actually made me realize how important it was. It was an unfortunate experience for the community, but it’s one that really galvanized us. There was a group of people who had assembled a very large block of the art deco buildings. In fact, a block of properties that I, along with a partner and mentor, eventually acquired.
They had put a ton of capital into the neighborhood, buying these properties, and they felt they needed a parking lot. So they wanted to tear down one of their historical properties. It was called the Senator Hotel. It was on 12th Street and Collins Avenue. I remember these,—what I thought then; I don’t think this now—but these crazy preservationists were sitting out there and protesting and the symbol of the preservation movement, the leader, Barbara [Baer] Capitman, was standing in front of the bulldozers and blocking them. And I was thinking, Why can’t these people, who are putting so much in, take down one building?
I remember how my attitudes so dramatically shifted when the Senator Hotel was gone. That was a vacant lot. This group of people did absolutely nothing with any of their properties. And we would never have the Senator again. At that point, I shifted. I went from being a believer in preservation, but with exceptions, to feeling [that] it was really important that we not do that and [that] we figure out how to make things work without tearing down these irreplaceable parts of our legacy. So it changed me. I made a mistake. And sometimes the way you learn the most is by making a mistake.
SB: It’s interesting in the context of thinking about this thirty years later. Sustainability obviously has become such a buzzword in design, and a lot of it has to do with sustainable materials. But here there is a process that actually was sustainable from the start. It was trying to save these buildings and sustain them in a neighborhood.
CR: And figuring out how to make them work. Because a lot of times, things are built and they don’t meet the needs and the standards of a new period of time. So they have this incredible historic beauty, but they don’t function as well as new things. If you look at a car from the fifties, [compared to] the cars today, they all work better [now] in a bunch of ways, but that design, that legacy, that beauty, that collectability of that amazing car from the fifties, it’s also irreplaceable. As a collector, that’s what I really love. I love the new creativity, the frontier from which mankind is advancing, but it’s grounded in a history. The really important statements, they’re taking into account what’s been done and they’re moving it forward. That combination is a big part of what makes a community.
SB: We’ll get back to the Design District and collecting. I want to first go to your childhood in Miami, growing up there. You’re born in 1963. Your father, Jerry, was a broker here in New York City, and then he decamped to Miami, where he became a successful developer. I understand he raised you and your siblings on Star Island and was a huge influence to you. Could you talk about your father and your childhood?
CR: My father grew up in New York and, in the late fifties, he moved to Miami and began a career. He had a middle-class upbringing and became very successful in business. He’s a brilliant man, and I always look at my success as largely just attributable to him and [as] an extension of him. There were three great mentors in my life, and my father’s the most important one. My father taught me to think, and he taught me a pretty simple principle about business: You always want to minimize your downside and maximize your upside. It sounds very simple—and it is—but if it’s applied, you’re in a pretty safe position, because it means that you’re always putting yourself in a position where you’re less likely to lose everything. And you’re still getting the most out of it that you possibly can, without taking too much risk.
That translated for me into an important part of neighborhood-building. That is, to make sure that each little component that I build in a neighborhood that I work in makes financial sense and it stands on its own. That’s what most developers do. They buy a piece of land and they figure out how to maximize the value and turn it into something that’s profitable. But when you’re a neighborhood builder, there’s an extra ingredient, and that is that the criteria is not just that what you put on that one piece of land is profitable, but [that] it will make the whole neighborhood worth a little bit more. So you get two profits. The first profit is on the piece of land, but the second profit is that all the other assets that you own in that area, they’re worth more. So I took what my father taught me and have applied it, and it’s been really helpful. It gave me this sense of perspective.
A lot of times we’re all inclined to take risks that we shouldn’t take or to do things that we shouldn’t [do]. And just that one simple principle of always rubbing a couple of pieces of wood together and making a little flame and then nurturing it and getting it to be bigger and bigger without doing something to blow it out.
SB: Is that how you justify something, like say, the pergola is designed by the Bouroullec brothers, which might seem like a custom design thing? Is that really necessary, from among the most renowned designers in the world? Clearly that adds a value. Where do you see that?
CR: I think that art, design, and architecture establish a very profound sense of place. And by first thinking of the urban design, the way a neighborhood is laid out and then using art, architecture, and design to make it special, it increases the value. Returning to my father’s lesson for a moment: as your resources increase, you can always reinvest more into the quality of your brand or what you’re trying to communicate in any business. And the key is to do it within proportion to what you can afford. My partners at L Catterton and I were doing well in the Design District, and with the success we were having, we reinvested a lot of it into the design and the architecture and the way the whole neighborhood works. What that did was, it gave us this unique sense of place.
You can go to a lot of other streets in Miami and they’re like ours, but ours has the beautiful installations by the Bouroullec brothers and theirs doesn’t. So that makes ours special in its own way, and it gives you a connection to it that is different than you’ll get standing in a bunch of other corners in the city of Miami. So you’ll remember the Design District, in part, for that. You might remember it consciously or you might remember it unconsciously, but it’s going to give you a sense of connection and pleasure. It’s going to enrich the experience of being there in a way that will hopefully make you remember it, have positive feelings about it, want to come back and tell your friends, “You gotta go check out that place. It’s pretty cool.”
SB: Well, it’s interesting. You hear people talk a lot about place-making, but I think what you’re describing is sense-making too, it’s actually engaging your senses. I experienced that anyway with the Bouroullec installation. I wanted to touch it. I was obviously looking at it, and it does create something that is unlike anywhere else. It does cause you to slow down, does cause you to think about that thing.
CR: All marketing can penetrate you in the most superficial way, or it can penetrate you in a much deeper way. And I’m not speaking of marketing in the commercial sense, I’m just saying [that] what makes you remember things and connect with them has to do with how profoundly they impact you. I think that art, architecture, and design is vital if you want to impact people in a more profound way.
SB: So where did this all start? I understand when you were 19 you were studying at the University of Barcelona, and that’s where you found your love of these things you’re describing: art, architecture, and design. It was [seeing] Goya and Dalí and the Prado Museum or…
CR: Well, I began in Madrid and didn’t know much about art and started to go to the Prado Museum just as a tourist. And for some reason that I can’t explain—it seems weird describing it—I became fascinated with Goya, so much so that for a week or two I went back to the Prado every day. I would bring books, and I would stand in front of the paintings, and I’d read about the art-historical importance of them and look at the paintings. After that, I was affected in a different way. I don’t think I could have ever stopped looking at art after having that experience. Goya, to me, was the gateway, and in the Prado there’s amazing paintings by Velázquez, Bosch, Rubens, and there’s lots of great art there. But for me, the one that affected me most profoundly was Goya. And it was probably the black paintings.
SB: If I read this right, the first piece that you got in your collection was around that same time, and it was a sketch by Dalí that you managed to get for $5,000.
CR: Yes. I don’t think I paid that much because doubt that at 19 I had that kind of money. But after living in Madrid and going to school there over the summer, trying to learn Spanish, I then began at the University of Barcelona for two semesters. The academic year. In that process, at the beginning, I was really living an interesting Spanish lifestyle. I would get up sometime around 10 or 11 o’clock; by like 12 or 1, I would have my act together, go to lunch at 2, at 4 attend some classes—or 5, after the siesta period. Then I would go out to the nightclubs, and then I would go to sleep and wake up again late in the morning. I was studying in between a little bit. Then I started to meet some artists, and I was walking around Barcelona a lot and discovered Gaudí and the Parque Güell and his buildings and I transformed. I stopped becoming interested in the nightclubs and became more interested in the art.
At one point, they took us to see the Dalí Museum in Figueres, which has changed quite a bit. Then, Dalí was still alive, and it was much more his hands-on creation. It’s still an amazing place, but it was different. So I just became fascinated with surrealism and Dalí, and wanted to have a work of art and was lucky enough to buy [it], It was meaningless, but it was something that Dalí had touched and that I could barely afford.
SB: You still have it?
CR: I do. It’s just a little thing, a personal thing.
SB: How did you end up in Spain? What led you to Spain?
CR: I was living in Miami, and Miami is really a gateway to Latin America. There’s an amazing Cuban population and South American population there. I didn’t speak Spanish. I thought it was important for me to get away and go to Europe and see what Europe was like. Really, I wanted to learn Spanish. I didn’t realize how much it would impact me. Just being an American, we sort of think we are the entire planet. That’s the way we’re raised: It’s such a vast country, and basically everybody is speaking the same language and the variations on the culture are all Americanized variations. And being in a place that was so much older, [that] had so much more history, integrating into that culture, learning a language, [and] learning about art and architecture really had a big impact on me. It put me in a position where I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life.
My father was a real estate developer, and I thought I wanted to go into real estate, but it seemed kind of boring. Building a strip mall and putting a supermarket and a drug chain in wasn’t exciting me after being in Barcelona. I also thought maybe I would be an art dealer, but being an art dealer in Miami—it was obvious to me even at that young age—was totally impractical, and I didn’t know what to do. So I went to law school.
SB: That was the University of Michigan?
CR: I graduated from Michigan and then I went to University of Miami Law School.
SB: Yeah. You got a B.A. from Michigan in what?
CR: Michigan had this ideal degree for me—it was called a bachelor in general studies. Why people have to get stuck having a major, I don’t really know. And the requirement was that half of your classes were just upper-level classes. I took writing, history of art, literature, and business classes, all kinds of things that interested me. So I got the kind of education I wanted to get, which, in a way, I also did in law school. I studied a lot of business-type classes in law school. So it wasn’t just learning about law, but I also got some aspects of an M.B.A.
SB: How has law school shaped you as a developer?
CR: Well, law school was an amazing time in my life. I was doing triathlons, so I was exercising vigorously, I was eating very healthy, I was studying. So it was like studying, exercising, eating. It was an amazing time in my life. I spent a lot of time thinking. Law school teaches you how to think; it teaches you how to analyze things and how to dig in deeper and how to express yourself and the different angles of things. Law school was a great experience for me. It really helped me get ready. In business, it made me more sophisticated, especially about the terminology and the meaning of things. So much of business involves contracts and understanding the mechanical process of business. So I felt like I had a real advantage when I went into real estate. If I was working on leasing or buying a building, or going under contract for it, or negotiating alone, those documents meant more to me than they possibly could have had I not gone to law school.
SB: I’ve read that initially you wanted to have a studio space so you could invite artists. That was your entrée into real estate?
CR: Yeah. While I was in law school, I had rented some storefronts in South Beach. It was a cheap place to get space and I would invite artists to come and work there and then I would quasi-manage their careers, like organize a show or sell some artwork. I’d organize their supplies. So I was working with artists in that way. And this good friend of mine from Barcelona came, and he was in the storefront. And he’s not a difficult guy at all, but he was complaining because all these homeless people would just wander in the store and bother him. So he didn’t want a storefront. I realized I had to up my game. So I wanted to find a loft that would be above the ground, on a second-floor space, and that would have all northern exposed light. So there’d be constant light, which is the ideal space for a painter.
I had great fortune. I met the second mentor in my life, a man named Tony Goldman. He owned several properties, but he had just acquired two buildings in South Beach and asked if I wanted to be his partner. I was trying to get him to just sell me the studio on the second floor of one of those buildings, but he said, “Oh, no, no, you can’t buy just that. But if you want, you could buy fifty percent of these two buildings.” And I’m sitting there and thinking—I didn’t know Tony at the time—I’m thinking, This New Yorker thinks I’m a Miami bumpkin; he’s going to take me for a ride. So very innocently I looked at him and I said, “Well, how much capital would I have to pay you for these two prime corners in South Beach, the corner of 5th and Washington and the corner of 5th and Ocean Drive.”
Tony looked at me really seriously and he said, “You’re going to have to put $20,000 down.” I paused and then said, “If I give you all that money, can I have the studio for free?” So Tony and I shook hands and we were in business together, and I really learned a lot from him. Tony was a great community-builder. He understood going into areas and helping to transform them, also getting the community to work together. He was a real community leader. Tony was a very important influence on my life. His daughter, Jessica, now runs the business, and she’s doing an amazing job.
CR: After working with Tony for a while, I had bought this old hotel in South Beach on 12th and Collins called the Webster Hotel. Then a short period of time after that, someone who I didn’t know, Chris Blackwell, bought the Marlin Hotel, and the architect who had worked on the Webster was talking to Chris, and Chris wanted to meet me. And I remember when Chris and I first met, he came to the Webster and looked around and asked if I wanted to be his partner in developing the Marlin, and it sounded like a good opportunity.
Anyway, Chris taught me to produce creativity. He approached real estate like making a record album. It was a different kind of thing. He’s such a brilliant guy. He was a major factor—as was Tony—in this transformation of South Beach. When we opened the Marlin Hotel, [it] was a twelve-room hotel—we put a model agency in there, of course, and a recording studio because it was Chris’s, and he had an apartment there, and there was a little Jamaican restaurant. But it was the opening, basically, of a twelve-room hotel in South Beach, which wasn’t much at the time. U2 came to the opening. It was the top-model era. So Naomi [Campbell], Kate [Moss] and Christy Turlington came. It was the biggest deal, and Miami exploded. South Beach exploded. Everybody was talking about it. And there was a lot of buzz and energy. Chris was a powerful force. He still is, but he was a central component of what made South Beach work. I had this amazing experience working with him.
SB: Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting. Now you look at it, and it’s become so developed, and it’s gone from this age of people associating Miami or South Beach with, like, Julio Iglesias, Miami Vice, or something to now actually associating it with luxury hotels [such as the Faena Hotel and the Edition Miami Beach]. A very different kind of Miami Beach, a less seedy one, perhaps.
CR: Yes. I remember Chris taught me this analogy. There was a period in the sixties [when] you could go and see the Rolling Stones playing in a bar, and a lot less people saw them. They became fans. I mean, there’s a magic to that moment that’s irreplaceable: being there. And then over time they progressed, and at some point, they’re playing in a football stadium for 40,000 people, and they’re never going to be those same guys that were the guys in that bar. But it can still be a great experience, and they can still evolve and improve. That’s really what I was saying about neighborhoods. As time passes, they will evolve, but they can get better and better, or they can get worse. They can get over-commercialized.
I think in Miami Beach there’s good examples of both. The overall progress is really positive, but you can also see how certain parts of it became over-commercialized and less interesting. That’s why now, in Miami, you have these other neighborhoods like the Design District or Wynwood, which is adjacent to the Design District. Tony Goldman was really the catalyst for Wynwood becoming what it’s become.
SB: In the late nineties, what led you toward that Wynwood area, toward where the Design District is now?
CR: I’d like to say it was some great vision, but it was much simpler than that. We became the largest property holder in South Beach in the historical district. We owned blocks of property on Collins, Ocean, Washington, south of Fifth Street, Española Way, Lincoln Road. And really, if you look at it in a commercial neighborhood sense, it ends there. Miami Beach becomes Collins Avenue, one street, and residential neighborhoods. So the next commercial neighborhood is over the bridge, in the city of Miami. And if at first everyone thought that I was crazy to try to do things in South Beach, then they thought I got lucky in South Beach. But that I was really crazy to start investing in the city of Miami, because at that time, the city of Miami was thought of as hopeless.
When people think of Miami, they would be thinking of, like, Coconut Grove, Coral Gables, Miami Beach, Bal Harbour, these areas that are not really technically the city of Miami. And the city of Miami was fairly run-down. There was downtown, but downtown was pretty unimpressive. And there were a couple of great buildings by Arquitectonica on Brickell Avenue. But people thought I was crazy. I loved it because it was the next neighborhood and that’s what I’d been doing. I started in one section of South Beach and I kept going south and north. And when I hit those borders, the next place was over the bridge. So I thought that would be easy.
SB: Andrés Duany and Liz Plater-Zyberk.
CR: Yes. Sorry. I’m sorry.
CR: [Laughs] Of course I would just assume everybody would know to say Andrés and Liz, but some people might think it’s a rock band or something. Yes. So DPZ is their firm, and they founded the New Urbanist movement. One of the things that I think was just incorrectly judged is that New Urbanist communities always had classical architecture. So Modernist architects were anti–New Urbanism and DPZ, which was a tremendous mistake. It was a complete [misunderstanding] because you could do a New Urbanist neighborhood with modern architecture. You could do it with historical architecture. What was important was [that] you were thinking about urban design, which no one ever thinks about. Andrés and Liz were advocating for that, and I really believed in it. So when we started in the Design District, we worked with them to create a master plan and [to] begin to think about it. They were very helpful. They’ve also just had a big influence on me.
SB: Yeah. Well, I think with New Urbanism, some of the complication comes from history. Even a polarizing figure like the architect Léon Krier, who comes from this moment, and was a proponent of Albert Speer, which has plenty of complications. How do you view New Urbanism in terms of where Miami’s going, where the world’s going? Which is more about automation, less about auto travel, more about community, I think.
CR: Well, that’s the thing. What New Urbanism, in its moment, was saying was, stop building suburban neighborhoods around golf courses and build places that have a sense of community. Use the traditional urban design as a catalyst in community-making. I think that was right. When you look at existing cities, there are urban-design features that can enhance them, and you can think about them when you’re looking at new places. How they’re laid out is a material factor. And I think that there’s, in general, migration during this period back to the cities.
People realize that living farther and farther away and spending more and more time in your car and having more space isn’t necessarily the best trade-off. So, finding that balance between living in a real community and also having the right kind of space is what we’ve evolved to. It’s certainly what interests me. Because if I want to be out in the country, I’d like to really be out in the country. In nature, not driving for an hour and a half to be in a suburb. That’s my own personal value system. I’m not criticizing anybody else because everybody has what they like and that’s what makes the world an interesting place.
SB: Yeah. So you get these eighteen square blocks or so in the [Design] District. How do you go about deciding, or figuring out, how you want to approach developing this neighborhood?
CR: Well, the first thing we did was we acquired and assembled property quietly. And the reason for that was we, in a local sense, had developed a name, a big name because South Beach had become very successful. We didn’t want to drive a lot of speculation, which would inhibit our ability to make acquisitions. I spent probably two or three years buying up property quietly in the Design District. Then I had to figure out with the team that I was working with, what we were going to do with it. Part of it was this urban design, but then programmatically, what were we going to do? It was historically a furniture neighborhood.
SB: Right. Theodore Moore, who built a furniture company—and now there’s the Moore Building named after him—had his first store in the area in the 1920s.
CR: Yes. What his son told me was that he owned a pineapple farm. Then he built the Moore Building as, like, a furniture showroom. That was in the twenties. Eventually the Design District became like a furniture place, where you’d have these high-end showrooms.
Places like the D&D Building in New York, it was the business model in the U.S. In the eighties, it really started to decline. And by the nineties, it was really—much more so than even South Beach—practically defunct. It was half-occupied. [In] the residual furniture companies there, rents were five dollars a foot. It was barely, barely alive.
SB: What was it about the eighties culture that led to this demise?
CR: Well, what had happened was a similar thing that had happened to Lincoln Road, on Miami Beach, with retail. Lincoln Road was the center of retail. Then this beautiful mall was built in Bal Harbour called Bal Harbour Shops. And Bal Harbour took all the life out of Lincoln Road and Lincoln Road’s model became less desirable. People wanted more of a mall environment. Similarly, the Design District, which was also a neighborhood and had all these furniture showrooms, became very challenged by a building in Fort Lauderdale called DCOTA, which was a furniture showroom building. So by the time I got involved, I would say DCOTA had somewhere between ninety-five and ninety-nine percent of the market and the Design District had somewhere between one and five percent.
I found something extremely bothersome, not about DCOTA, but about design in the United States. That was that most of this high-end design was sold in these furniture showroom buildings. You weren’t even allowed to walk in if you weren’t with a licensed professional. Some people would resent this, but it was like legal kickback system, so the designers were the only ones with access to the showrooms and they would get a commission for selling the furniture in the showrooms. There was a big commission, it was like thirty percent or something. The whole system was ingrained that way. The problem with it—because I didn’t care about the way people are remunerated I’m not saying it wasn’t disclosed or whatever. But the problem with it was that design was hidden from the public. I mean, you think about fashion or art, you think about people walking in and having access, but there, literally, design was being treated like a prescription drug. If you didn’t have a design doctor next to you, you weren’t allowed to look at it. Design was not important to people, it was important to decorators who would help you out.
SB: And access is education. I think about that all the time. Why is Europe so much more cultured and educated on design? Well, education—it’s access.
CR: I wanted to challenge that. Which was challenging the way the national industry was working and I wanted to bring design back on the street, like it is in Europe. Because in Europe, the furniture is accessible. It’s on the street. It’s not this system. It took time, but within a few years we probably had about fifty percent of the market share. Dakota would have this weird thing. They had a “radius clause,” which was illegal. If you wanted to open there, where you would do all the business, you weren’t allowed to open anywhere else in South Florida. I hired a really good lawyer and we actually prepared a lawsuit because we knew that that was illegal. It’s a restriction on trade that’s illegal, to have a radius clause that’s too over-broad.
SB: Here’s your law school coming in.
CR: Yeah. And it’s anti-competitive, my law school. I was ready to file the lawsuit as soon as I had a problem. But what happened was, I was talking to everybody and, because we had this new vision, all the new people that were coming to the market were choosing us over DCOTA.
SB: Like Holly Hunt.
CR: Holly Hunt was the first and really validated us because she was a huge name. And Knoll came and there were lots of good furniture brands that came. This anti-competitive thing that DCOTA was doing was actually working to our advantage because everyone had to choose, and they were choosing us. After a few years, as I said, we ended up going from one percent to fifty percent of the market. The DCOTA people responded that they were going to expand DCOTA. That was their response, and they expanded DCOTA and it never filled up. The Design District became more and more the place. DCOTA still existed, but we ended up gaining market share. The problem with that is that furniture doesn’t really attract a lot of people. I always say this: How often do you buy a sofa? So the neighborhood was working well, but it wasn’t a populated place. It was economically working and we were making good profits. So I began to think, Well, what’s the best way to make it more attractive to people?
SB: So add a restaurant or…
CR: Well, when I look back, I’ve always probably just been lucky because I stumbled on things that have worked. But the real catalyst for South Beach wasn’t that model I was saying I didn’t want to do, putting a supermarket and a drug chain and getting a bunch of other stores to open around it. What we did was, we began to work with the fashion industry and so it became one of the premier places in the world for fashion catalogues, or catalogues at the time. That was [when] the internet didn’t exist. So it was a big industry. After a couple years you’d walk around South Beach and [on] every block you’d see beautiful models doing photo shoots. It was being professionally done.
Then, working with Chris [Blackwell] and adding music, and films started to be done in Miami. So it wasn’t the normal business model that people gravitate to, like you said, restaurants. South Beach became a hot place because these creative industries started to work there and when you have beautiful people, other people want to be around beautiful people and it feeds itself—it became like a fun-in-the-sun place South Beach. Then in the Design District, what happened was I had been going to Salone [del Mobile furniture fair]. It’s an industry trade show in Milan. But I was fascinated by it. I was going there to get the great European brands to open stores in the United States because they understood not going to the decorator center. They wanted to be on the street. And I was going there every year.
But what blew me away about Salone was, all of Milano that week was celebrating design. I’d never seen anything like it. Today it’s more common, but for a whole city to galvanize around culture and be doing parties and exhibitions—you didn’t even need to go to the furniture fair. You’d have the best week of your life just hanging out at Salone.
SB: I stayed in the city [center] this year. I didn’t go to the fair.
CR: So you’re a witness! So in about 1998 or ’99, the then director of Art Basel and his assistant who became the director and his close friend, Sam Keller, approached me because they had an idea of bringing Art Basel to Miami. And I, as an art collector, knew what Art Basel was. But I also was really intrigued with Salone. So my agenda was, let’s do an art version of Salone—not a trade show, but let’s get all of Miami to celebrate art that week. I was helpful, as was another close friend and some other people, in helping secure the rights for Art Basel to come. We worked really hard on doing that.
SB: It’s funny too, because it’s like, Basel’s the opposite of Miami Beach. Basel, Switzerland.
CR: So much so, and if you went to Art Basel in Switzerland, which I had been doing, it was the best art fair in the world, but it was very quiet. You’d go to the fair, buy some art, you’d go to the [Foundation] Beyeler museum, and you’d go home. It wasn’t a cult, it was no Salone or cultural happening. But my idea was, let’s take the greatest art fair in the world, combine it with the sex appeal of Miami, and make it a cultural happening. So we made a deal with Art Basel that we would do in the Design District, cultural events and exhibitions, and they would exclusively market that so that all the people that were coming to Art Basel would also know about the Design District and come.
SB: So that was the birth of the Design Miami fair, in a way?
CR: It was a precursor. For the first few years when Art Basel was in Miami, [there were] all kinds of events and exhibitions. But what was even more important was, everybody started competing with it. So all over Miami people were opening collections, people were going to parties, and the Design District was probably the most central place. The Guggenheim Museum came, the Pompidou Museum came and did things with us. Jeffrey Deitch would do these big shows. It was really an exciting thing. I, like a nut, was taking all the profits from the furniture rentals that we were doing, the showroom rentals, and I was investing all of it into that one week in Miami, like a crazy amount of money. But the Design District was becoming more and more popular.
Every fashion brand was calling me and wanting to do things that week. It really put the Design District on the map. So now I’m sitting here and it’s like, I’ve been doing this for a few years, and I’m thinking, I’ve got to figure out a way to monetize it, or at least get it to break even. Sam Keller asked if I would consider doing a design show, because design dealers wanted to do something in the fair and the art dealers didn’t want furniture to be there, and he didn’t want it to go somewhere else. He knew that something was going to happen. Sam’s a brilliant guy. So I said yes. A person who was my girlfriend at the time, a wonderful woman, Ambra Medda, and I founded Design Miami in 2005 in the Design District. It exploded because no one had ever created an event in the art spirit where you could collect contemporary limited-edition design and historical design.
It really did impact the world, and it impacted me. And I can say that because it wasn’t my idea. If it was my idea, I couldn’t brag about it so much. It was Sam’s idea, and Ambra did a great job launching it. Instead of spending all that money marketing the Design District and paying for all these things, it became like a little business, Design Miami. But it really was a big deal. I mean, we were giving the award Designer of the Year, and Zaha Hadid was the first recipient.
SB: Who then went on to design the [“Elastika”] installation in the Moore Building.
CR: That year. It was part of her thing. Next year was Marc Newson, and he did that beautiful fence in front of Dash. It became a big thing. It got so big, it didn’t fit in the Design District, and we had to move it out eventually. But it really was a catalyst. And that began to connect me with a lot of fashion brands. So I began to think, We’ve got to get fashion. Because we had art, design—some restaurants had opened by then, and [I thought,] You add fashion, and this neighborhood will be incredible. That will really become a unique place.
It was hard because [it was] the same thing I had confronted with furniture with DCOTA—there was the exact same problem with fashion. This great mall Bal Harbour had a radius clause and wouldn’t allow anyone to open in a second location. It was like, I was getting the edgy brands that didn’t care about that. Christian Louboutin opened a store. It was like, I think, its sixth or seventh store in the world at the time, maybe it was eighth or ninth. Marni and Margiela, Tomas Maier. It was these brands that weren’t going to go to Madison Avenue anyway. That gave us a little bit of credibility, especially Christian Louboutin, because he exploded. He became the center of the universe in fashion. He really became a good friend and was a great supporter.
But because Design Miami was there, I had met a man named Michael Burke. Michael at the time was the CEO of Fendi. And Fendi was a sponsor of Design Miami. So every year Michael was coming to this amazing event in the Design District and really helping make it a great event. Because Fendi, still, is an important ingredient in Design Miami and the whole culture of the show. One day I said to Michael, I said, “Michael, why doesn’t LVMH open stores here?” And he said, “It’s a great idea.” [Laughs] So Michael introduced me to the group, the affiliate of LVMH, L Catterton, which became my partners. They ended up buying and investing with us in the Design District. As part of it, all of LVMH committed that they would come. Then we got the support of brands like Hermès and Cartier, and they all closed in the competitive property because of the radius clause and agreed to come with us and build these big, beautiful flagships.
SB: Right. Yeah. So how did you go about designing this district?
CR: We brought Andrés Duany and Liz Plater-Zyberk—DPZ—back, and did a new master plan, which was really also heavily influenced by the leadership at L Catterton, I think they did a brilliant job. Of course, this fit in with my methodology because I, as a believer in New Urbanism, thought, you do great urban design and then you add the structures, and the structures conform to the general code, but then people can get really creative. And what better for fashion than to let these brands just go crazy and do whatever they want and build these flagship buildings. It’s kind of like Tokyo to me. I mean, Tokyo is the one place where you see unbelievable architecture and design in these fashion stores.
SB: It’s so funny you say that because I was in Tokyo two years ago, and I went into one of those Japanese 7-Elevens, and I was like, they should have one of these in the Design District.
CR: [Laughs] Thank you. We need some tenants.
SB: Call 7-Eleven. “You know the Japanese one? We want one.”
CR: [Laughs] But you look at it, what Prada did with their building. I mean, you look at all the architecture there in Tokyo, and it’s really extraordinary. It’s so modern and it’s definitely the big influence, I think, for me in the Design District. That was my thing: Do a great plan, and then get these freestanding buildings where we would do some of our own buildings with lots of brands in them and then the brands could do their own buildings and turn it into this urban environment that is really expressive and changes the game for retail. It’s not like anything else.
SB: There’s an urban fabric to what you’re doing. Because each building’s a little different.
CR: It’s a neighborhood.
CR: It’s not a mall.
SB: Yeah. So more recently, some cultural institutions came about. You co-founded the Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami, which is right there in the District. And there’s the de la Cruz Collection right there, [and] the Rubell Family Collection nearby. What’s next? You have these design stores, then luxury stores, restaurants, these cultural institutions. Is it a hotel? Is it more office space or…
CR: First of all, it wasn’t like the fashion came and then the culture came. The culture came and then the fashion came. Rosa de la Cruz and I started with a building called the Moore Space, in 2002, so it became a place for art before it became a place for fashion. Then Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz built the de la Cruz Collection building eight years after we had been collaborating. It was such a blessing to have them validate the Design District and make a permanent building for their collection there. When the ICA came about, we worked with Irma and Norman Braman, who are just amazing, amazing collectors and real philanthropists.
Norm and I were having lunch and he said, “Craig, if you and your partners will give the land, I’ll build the building.” And I said, “Great.” [Laughs] I mean, it was such an amazing thing because I don’t think there are too many stories like that, where you have an important cultural institution that gets built, literally, by two people who are friends just having lunch. And one of them comes up with a brilliant idea. I mean, we made a contribution, but the Bramans really deserved credit—and the board of the ICA has been great.
There’s lots of other cool cultural places that have always been… The Design District always had lots of art studios, and we always were more part of the cultural community. Both grew and expanded together. So there was more fashion and then more culture. Now, we’ve got about a million square feet of buildings there. We’ve got another couple million square feet of development rights, and we’re focused on adding some retail but more vertical uses. So there’ll be hotels and office buildings and residential buildings. We don’t want to do it in a traditional way. It’s the Design District, so we want to figure out how to make it very cool and to make each component on-brand with the Design District. [It’s] an exciting time because, with technology and all these new businesses that are coming out that are blurring the lines between residential and hotel and office, I think there’s some really exciting opportunities, and we’re going to announce a few projects probably in the next few months.
SB: Interesting. Yeah. I’m curious too, [about] your view of it in the larger scope of Miami itself. I mean, you mentioned Bal Harbour and Lincoln Road. There’s also Brickell City Centre, and your wife, [Jackie Soffer] actually, oversees Aventura Mall. I’m curious, how do you view those other things? Are they still competitors?
CR: They’re partially competitors, but I love Bal Harbour Shops. It’s a beautiful, iconic place. I hope the Whitmans don’t do some big expansion and ruin it because it’s got such charm and beauty and legacy. My wife is absolutely brilliant, and the expansion she’s done at Aventura is mind-blowing. The Carsten Höller slide and the Haas Brothers fountains, the new Apple Store. By collaborating, Aventura now has luxury also. And that’s probably the best formula. Aventura is a big mall, with twenty-eight million people a year visiting it. The Design District is much smaller, more exclusive, but those brands can easily be at both. It’s a forty-five-minute drive, forty-minute drive between the two. I think it’s very complementary.
I love what Swire has done at Brickell City Centre. Brickell Avenue is a place where there’s just so many people there [that] if you’re not there and you don’t have to [be], you don’t want to go there. And if you are there, you don’t want to have to deal with getting out. Brickell City Centre, I think, is the soul of what’s happening on Brickell.
There is room for all of it. Of course, sometimes we are competing to get a tenant or we’re taking business away from each other, but I think it’s really big enough for all of them. The big complement to the Design District is Aventura Mall, because there’s crossover but they’re very different customers. We found brands that were in Bal Harbour exclusively and came to the Design District and Aventura [and] literally tripled their sales. I mean, that shows you how much pent-up potential there was and how complementary…. if you’re in Design District and Bal Harbour, maybe you’ll get one and a half times your sales, maybe two times. If you’re in Design District and Aventura, you’ll get three times your sales.
SB: I was wondering how that might work, or what the conversations with your wife are like. [Laughs]
CR: Well, what I tell everyone is that she just sees what I do, copies me, and then tries to steal all our tenants and she laughs.
SB: I read that she calls you S.C., which [stands for] “Supreme Commander.” What’s that about?
CR: Jackie is a very, very strong personality, and it’s a joke that I make. I say, in a partnership with Jackie, you need to control fifty-one percent to break even. So I make the joke that she calls me “Supreme Commander”—because everybody knows she would never address anyone as “Supreme Commander.” And the funny thing is, now all our friends call me S.C. whenever she’s around. Just to tease her.
SB: The other name for you—that she doesn’t call you certainly, but [that] Architectural Digest described you as—is the “sorcerer of South Beach,” which I thought was interesting.
CR: A lot of people made South Beach happen, and I was really blessed to be a spoke in that wheel.
SB: Yeah. I want to close on some personal stuff, like taste, collecting… You mentioned triathlons; I know you’re a really avid reader. Where do you go to unplug, when you’re not in the midst of this urban… What do you do? What gets you to slow down and take your mind off?
CR: To me, the great luxury in life is to be able to experience nature and the wilderness. My favorite is to really be on the river, to be on great rivers. This summer, we had the incredible fortune to be able to spend eleven days on the Grand Canyon and do two hundred miles on the Grand Canyon. That, to me, is the ultimate. I mean, I know people like fancy hotels or resorts or yachts or things, and I respect that, but to me that’s not real luxury. Luxury is being able to disconnect and experience nature. That’s what I love.
SB: Yeah. I read you’ve been whitewater rafting in Montana with the Haas Brothers.
CR: Yes. That was an amazing time, and we actually need to figure out a reunion. A good friend George Lindemann and I are both river people, and George invited me and the Haas Brothers on a trip a couple of years ago—they are such good guys. I’m huge fans of Simon and Niki [Haas]. I mean, what Jackie did with them in Aventura Mall, that sculpture, the fountain sculpture is just, it’s so beautiful. I’m jealous.
SB: [Laughs] Collecting clearly is another place where you take your mind into another realm. What’s generally been your approach to collecting? I mean, you have so many different important works, whether it’s Baldessari, or—more than a thousand works, actually. David Hammons, Goya prints, Louise Bourgeois, Vito Acconci, Joseph Beuys.
CR: I like to look at art. I enjoy looking at art, and that’s really what it’s all about. It’s something I can’t really help doing. Mainly as a collector, I try to collect the new, young contemporary art, but I’ve always grounded my collection in the historical influences. For a while I was collecting all of these young California artists, and then I realized, well, they’re all influenced [by]—most of them have studied with–John Baldessari, and I met John. I mean, John is really one of the most important contributors to the history of art. So I started collecting John’s work. And I had the opportunity to buy a great masterpiece by Marcel Duchamp. That’s the way I collect. I’m mainly collecting the young artists, but then I’ll go back in history.
SB: It’s like going into a wormhole of hyperlinks.
CR: That’s what, to me, art is about, that continuation, the way that the young artists—who are they influenced by? And who are the people who influenced them influenced by? You look at that period of Picasso. I mean, Picasso to me is, in part—he and Goya—how I learned about art. The way he, at the beginning of the twentieth century, was going to Paris from Barcelona and [was] inspired by the impressionists and how he then evolved into the Blue [Period] and Rose Period. And then with Braque, largely, to me influenced by Cézanne, created cubism and how he always tapped back into the history of art or what was going on at the time and made his comment on it, and was really able to absorb everything around him.
So it’s with that kind of thinking, learning about Goya and how Goya, at the end of his life, I mean, his most important works were his black paintings. He was just making them for himself. They were for his house. He was painting them on his walls. He wasn’t doing it to sell them or as a commission. Well, family—he’d been excommunicated. And Picasso, how much he invented and how much he was able to appropriate from other artists and then incorporate—in an equal or better way—into his own art. It’s all fun. That’s like, I guess you asked me, I don’t know how much “disconnecting” I do, but it’s those experiences, whether it’s looking at nature or looking at art or reading or spending time with people—that’s really what I enjoy doing in life.
SB: Has collecting art shaped the way you think as a developer?
CR: Yes, because I’m interested in that creative process, and I think that our projects are all about working with talented, creative people. I don’t consider myself an artist. I’m more like a producer. That’s why what I learned from Chris Blackwell was so important, because Chris isn’t a musician, but he produced a lot of creativity. Largely because of him, and as a community-builder because of Tony, and as a business person because of my dad, and all the things that they taught me, I infused that creative process and worked with creative people in our business. I think that’s what makes a place like the Design District special.
CR: You ask, why the Bouroullec brothers or why Zaha Hadid or why Buckminster Fuller? Well, where else can you go see the three of them?
SB: It’s your record label. [Laughs] Well, thanks Craig. This is great. It’s great having you here today.
CR: It was fun. Thank you.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on Sept. 6, 2019. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.