Since their start decades ago as architectural laboratories, concept houses have been venues for exploring new ways of living, building and designing — think of modular construction, open floor plans and “green” building — or simply for dreaming.
In tandem with such Utopian-tinged experiments, a more commercial permutation of the concept house has evolved — as a showcase for furnishings, housewares, fixtures and the design professionals who put them together.
Thanks to Art Basel, Miami Beach, we’re getting a glimpse at formidable, if distinct, examples of each.
The first is the installation, 80 years after its conception, of a simple yet refined prefab cabana by the groundbreaking French Modernist furniture designer and architect Charlotte Perriand.
In the unlikely setting of a seagrape grove behind the Raleigh Hotel in South Beach, Perriand’s elegant, practical design — it won a magazine prize in 1934 but was not built in her lifetime — has been exquisitely realized by French fashion house Louis Vuitton for Art Basel’s companion fair, Design Miami.
Inside the Design Miami tent adjacent to the Miami Beach Convention Center is a second, rustic prefab house, this one by French design legend Jean Prouvé, with whom Perriand collaborated on furniture designs. In use for 50 years, the Prouvé house was purchased, dismantled and then reassembled after minimal renovation by a French design gallery.
Both prefab houses are for sale to collectors, who increasingly covet such architectural artifacts of mid-20th century design.
Across the Beach on Sunset Island II, Elle Decor magazine has unveiled its Modern Life Concept House — a spare, contemporary waterfront spec manse that has been brought to pulsing life by eight interior designers and garden designer Fernando Wong. Five of the designers, including Wong, are based in Miami, and a sixth splits his time between Miami Beach and New York City.
Though not as consequential as the Perriand or Prouvé designs, the Elle Decor house does make the point that in the hands of skilled designers, the interiors of the houses on steroids popping up along the Beach waterfront can strike a lighthearted but still elegant balance between sterile minimalism and gaudy excess. (Miami designer Sam Robin makes the focal point of the black-and-white living room a near life-size black horse with a black lampshade protruding from its head.)
Proceeds from the $35 admission fee, plus a $15,000 donation from the magazine, go to the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Perriand’s “La maison au bord de l’eau” — “the house at the edge of the water” — is a couple’s cocoon that manages to be both airy and cozy. At 1,076 square feet, the six-room structure is smaller than a double-wide and sleeps two comfortably, but could accommodate up to six vacationers, said French historian and author Jacques Barsac, who is married to Perriand’s daughter, Pernette Perriand-Barsac.
The couple worked closely with Vuitton, which used the designer’s pared-down aesthetic as inspiration for its upcoming women’s collection, to flesh out and build Perriand’s blueprint. Meant to be easily dismantled and moved, it was among the first prefab houses intended for mass production. Designed to capture rainwater for domestic use and tread lightly on the ground, the house was also an early stab at eco-friendly design.
Even late in life, Perriand, who died in 1999, still dreamed of seeing the house realized, her daughter said.
“We talked a lot about this house because, for her, it was a little jewel that she always wanted to build,” said Perriand-Barsac, who worked alongside her mother in their Paris studio and was present at the public unveiling Tuesday. “She wasn’t able to build it because it was just before the war, and after the war nobody was able to find work — not even Le Corbusier.”
Perriand, who paved the way for women in the design professions, worked for the legendary architect before striking out on her own, and today is credited with introducing Le Corbusier to the use of chromed steel tubing for furniture. The chaise longue they designed together is considered a classic.
The built house, elevated on squat supports, has okoume hardwood walls on a steel frame and is topped by a blue corrugated roof. Its square-horseshoe shape encloses an open atrium that does double duty as living space and rainwater collector. A canvas canopy that can be rolled away has a hole that allows rainwater to collect in a tub below.
A roomy galley kitchen opens onto the dining area. Double-paned windows — the only deviation from the original plans — reduce the impact of exterior temperatures on the house, which has neither heating nor air conditioning. A closet-like toilet room, with natural light from a chrome porthole mounted high on the wall, may be its most charming feature.
The furnishings — metal-framed beds with bolsters, armchairs with padded leather backs and seats, room dividers that double as storage, swing-arm lighting with an exposed bulb — are all part of Perriand’s design collection. Newly fabricated from walnut, oak and steel, the furnishings were conceived from 1929 through 1942, Perriand-Barsac said.
“We embodied the spirit of someone actually living in the house and purchasing different pieces of furniture over time,” she said.
After Design Miami closes, the house will be disassembled and sold by Sotheby’s. And while the project is a one-off, Perriand-Barsac sees potential.
“Maybe a village with houses like this would be wonderful,” she said. “I would like that very much.”
The installation comes as Perriand, an iconic figure who is not as well known as her male collaborators, receives belated recognition this week in Miami, where the window of the year-old Vuitton store in the Design District is a tribute to the designer.
In the Design Miami tent just a few steps from the reconstructed Prouvé house, Galerie Downtown of Paris has reassembled the interior of a Paris apartment that Perriand designed for friends in 1959, down to her trademark built-in bookcases, wood furniture and “free form” dining table.
The Elle Decor house, coincidentally, has the same horseshoe contour as the Perriand house, though blown up to large scale on two stories. Designed by Miami architect Kobi Karp, the light-filled house has shaded verandas and floor-to-ceiling glass throughout.
The designers were asked to create rooms for an imaginary South American couple, parents to a couple of kids, who love art and contemporary design and enjoy entertaining. Each designer was assigned a room or rooms and a line of furnishings to work with, though they were free to supplement with other pieces.
The results range from Miami designer Wade Hallock’s dreamy, tropical neo-baroque dining room to a sleek and comfortable kitchen by New Yorker Daniela Busca, yet somehow manage to cohere.
Among the most surprising: Ethan Allen in-house designer Iris Wilson’s waterfront second-story bedroom. Against a light gray backdrop and a yellow back wall, it shows off the brand’s new contemporary bent, with pops of beach-house yellow to brighten the room.
Designer Samuel Amoia, who splits his time between New York and South Florida, sought to put an understated, “clean and colorful’’ tropical stamp on several rooms. In an upstairs bedroom, he deployed palm-frond textiles to frame a broad view of the real thing outside.
“Given the architecture of the house, I wanted to use typical Florida design, colors and elements but in a modern, offbeat concept,’’ Amoia said.
In the foyer, he filled yellow and red cabinets by USM Modular Furniture with used books covered in matching colors. And in a light touch, he filled tubs in two of the eight bathrooms with inflatable beach balls and flamingos.
“It’s Art Basel, so I thought I might as well make it a little like Pop Art,’’ Amoia said.