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Interview by Spencer Bailey   |   Portrait by Gideon Barnett

Rodman Primack, the newly tapped director of the Design Miami fair, could be called the Wes Anderson of design—albeit a slightly less quirky version of the filmmaker. Primack’s distinctive personal style, like Anderson’s, is layered, intricate, full of spirit. (When Primack recently sat down with Surface over lunch at New York’s Bryant Park Grill, he was wearing a Moncler vest, a tweed jacket, and a cashmere sweater; his wrist was covered in an assortment of tied-on bracelets.) Primack’s approach to his work is all about narrative and peeling away various layers. Which helps explain why Primack’s career has been eclectic: In 1998, he began as a junior designer for Peter Marino; after two years, he left to become a specialist in Latin American art for Christie’s, continued as a director of Gagosian Gallery, and then, from 2004 to 2010, was the chairman of London’s Phillips de Pury auction house (now Phillips). Along the way, Primack also founded the art and design practice RP Miller, in 2004, and the art auction platform Blacklots, in 2010, the latter of which he sold to Paddle 8 and the former of which he still manages.

How do you plan to bring your wide-ranging experiences in art and design to Design Miami?

I’m able to look at the fair from so many different perspectives—from a decorator perspective, from a collector perspective, from an auction-house market perspective—all of which contribute to the actual thinking about the success of the fair. Everyone keeps asking me, “How are you going to grow the fair?” I can say that I don’t think it’s about physically growing the fair. It doesn’t have to become substantially bigger to be a better, more important, or more integral fair. The idea is to continually refine it.

So it’s about quality over quantity?

The quality’s already great, but we’re definitely missing some things. I’d like to see more Art Deco furniture. I’d like to say we have the entire 20th century covered, with maybe some interesting input from late 19th century. I’d like a bigger chunk of the 21st century.

Did you see last year’s “Interwoven Globe” exhibit at the Met? It was the best show I’ve seen in years. It was so incredible because it was really, in the end, about the development of taste. You really got to understand how taste is developed and that in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries these boats that were traversing trade routes around the planet were similar to our digital traces today. I want the fair to reflect that thinking. That’s what it means for me to have a bigger fair.

What did you learn about the design market at Phillips?

Phillips had a really strong role in creating the market for collectible design. Before Phillips started doing collectible sales, the market consisted of decorative arts and antiques. Design pieces were valued, but they weren’t really seen in the way that we look at contemporary art. Phillips really aggressively, with a lot of heart and desire, created this market in which we could put things that were made a year ago on the same level as something that was 60 years old. We can now have a Prouvé chair next to a Zaha Hadid table and say these things are equal. I think there’s still a long way to go in terms of scholarship, curatorship, museumship. This market is still young and growing. There are only a handful of museums really interested in collecting and curating around it. 

I think the lesson design should learn from the contemporary-art market is that a lot of something doesn’t make it a better market. I don’t think we should be following that path. What we should really be doing is really figuring out ways to support young and mid-career talents who can make objects that are really worthwhile and wonderful. 

You were mentioning taste earlier. What’s your personal taste? What do you like to surround yourself with?

I have so many tastes. What I don’t like is the fake, the not real. I love the most spare. I love John Pawson–type spaces even though they’re not the way I live. In my apartment, there are tons of books and ceramics and paintings. Everything’s stacked and cluttered. I can really appreciate when something is done well and when there’s inherent quality, elegance, or personality in it. I love when someone’s house really feels like them. All three of my homes are colorful and layered. They have everything from Perriand and Prouvé to Roy McMakin and Memphis.

Do you have a favorite Design Miami moment from the past decade?

When it was still in the Design District, it was kind of scrappy. In 2007, Artek created a pavilion by Shigeru Ban, and Design Miami did a cooking program. They invited the artist Mike Meiré, who created this incredible commune called The Farm Project. I remember being in it and thinking, This is so interesting! It was like this weird carnival of ideas and concepts. How they got people turned on by design was amazing.

So you want to recreate the carnival, so to speak.

I think we’ve grown up. The carnival’s different now. The marketplace and the audience are suddenly different. There’s a level of seriousness now. But I also miss, a little bit, that kind of scrappiness.

What do you see as Miami’s role in the fair?

Miami is inherently in the fair. It’s in the fair’s DNA. One of the interesting things about Miami is that it’s a city in constant growth and change. My family’s from L.A., and I’m an old Californian. L.A.’s all these separate towns, and everyone’s waiting for this moment when it can really feel urban and become a city. Miami’s sort of similar. But in Miami, I think you can see growth and change in much more real terms. I started working there when I began working part time for Christie’s.

Which was?

2000. I’ve seen Miami now for 14 years. It’s a profoundly different city than it was when I came here. 

The other thing that’s so interesting about Miami is that it isn’t even an important American city. Miami is this important regional capital. It really is the capital of Latin America. This Brazilian lady once said to me, “I love Miami. Some day I want to go to America.” She was totally right. Miami exists in this other realm that’s not America. I used to be like, “Oh, it’s like the armpit of America and it’s the armpit of Latin America. It’s the worst of the two cultures.” In the last 10 years, it’s actually kind of become the best of those two cultures.

 

For more of the interview with Rodman Primack, order your copy of the June/July issue here.