Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
Miami tries to figure that out.
MIAMI – Danny LaFuente offers a bottle of water that is also an art piece. "égalité," the label says in script perfectly mimicking the mineral-water brand of Evian. If you weren’t paying attention, you could down the whole thing as a parched visitor – it is 80 degrees in Miami this week – without ever catching the sly artist’s statement.
Inside the coworking space LaFuente and Wifredo Fernandez recently opened in Miami, a mural of the same mock-Evian label takes up one massive wall near the windows onto Northwest 26th Street (the installation comes with pallets of the actual, drinkable water bottles). With time, that art will rotate out of the 10,000 square-foot office space, as will the two-story neon sign out front broadcasting that “Jesus Saves.” Art is inseparable from the whole space, called The LAB Miami, which occupies a former warehouse in the middle of the city’s upstart Wynwood arts district.
LaFuente and Fernandez wanted art on the walls, artists among the LAB’s entrepreneurs. Even the office furniture is a kind of sculptural art, crafted by a local designer. The idea is that artists from Miami’s deep-rooted cultural scene might rub elbows here with tech entrepreneurs, who are significantly outnumbered in this town. The LAB has been trying to achieve just the right mix of designers and developers, hackers and painters, architects and graphic artists.
"We don’t want groupthink in our space," LaFuente explains.
The connection between design and technology is obvious all around LaFuente, as it is inside start-up incubators and quirky co-working spaces in many cities. The two fields fundamentally draw on creativity. Tech entrepreneurs often gravitate toward artistically lively cities. And within those artistically lively cities, they’re seldom found hunched over stock office furniture in their parents’ kind of workplaces.
But Miami’s story of design and technology is also unique. This was an "aesthetically oriented" town before it became anything else. And now the nascent tech scene, the focus of an AtlanticLIVE conference today in the city, is really hoping to pick up where the artists left off.
"I think all of us who are rooting for this community and supporting the ecosystem have seen the success of Art Basel, of the art and design community down here," says Juan Pablo Cappello, a local tech entrepreneur and investor. "And that makes us believe that what we’re doing is actually possible."
Maybe these tech entrepreneurs can further change the city’s image, entice its homegrown talent to stay here and force an international audience to take note.
"We don’t have to close our eyes and envision something. We basically have to drive around Wynwood and say, 'Here it is, it’s happened, it’s happening,'" Cappello says. All throughout the neighborhood, former textile warehouses have been converted to dance studios and artists’ lofts and exhibition spaces all unified by the thick coating of street art. "And why can’t this happen for technology? Why can’t this happen for entrepreneurship?"
Three decades ago, Miami was synonymous with neither of these things, with an international art scene nor an aspiring tech center.
"When we arrived in the ‘70s, it was a bit of a backwater," says Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the dean of the University of Miami School of Architecture. She arrived in town by way of Princeton and Yale. "If you went to school in the Northeast," she continues, "it was not unlike going to Texas, or some other place that had another life that was not connected with the advanced movements in the arts and architecture."
Neisen Kasdin, who later became mayor of Miami Beach, puts it this way: Miami was a resort city, and a tired one at that. But Miami Beach in particular had one thing going for it in the 1970s: its unmatched trove of tropical-tinged Art Deco architecture. Plater-Zyberk and Kasdin both date the city's cultural life back to the rediscovery of South Beach and its architecture, and it’s a story they trace forward today to the rise of Art Basel.
"The South Beach revitalization re-branded the entire image of Miami," Kasdin says, "and led to everything that’s followed."
The city already had an existing scene of interior designers, a product of Miami’s heritage as site of so many second homes. With time, the cultural movement that began among designers and architects expanded to include visual and performance artists, and several deep-pocketed art collectors. Then came the big institutions in the heart of Miami Beach: the New World Symphony Center, the Miami City Ballet and the Art Center/South Florida.
The city’s Latin American influence played a central role in this artistic emergency as well. "These were people who were coming from an environment where the architect and the designer were not just expensive consultants whose costs you want to limit – which is the American developer’s perspective," Plater-Zyberk says. "They were seen as an important value-adding component of any kind of building."
The city’s cultural life became a part of what made Miami interesting, what made it a multi-dimensional city. And without it, Kasdin argues, Miami would have little staying power today as an international epicenter of much other than tourism. The arts made many other things possible for the region, and a tech ecosystem, Kasdin says, could be another logical consequence.
Wynwood only a few years ago looked like a collection of characterless warehouses. "Now it’s an edgy place," Cappello says. "It’s a vibrant artistic community where people come in from out of town and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, how does this community exist in Miami?'"
Some of the same local assets that helped foster the cultural scene in Miami could equally well serve the new tech community. Miami is home to tremendous capital (as nearly everyone in entrepreneurial circles is bound to mention, there’s more financial capital per capita here than any other American city). And Miami has long been open to innovation in a way that some older, Northern cities have not been.
"There’s never been – socially or politically speaking – the sort of status quo that prevents things from happening," Plater-Zyberk says.
Adds Demian Bellumio, another veteran entrepreneur: "There are very few last names that pretend that they own the city." For half a century – during which time Miami’s population has doubled – nearly everyone here has been some kind of immigrant. And this atmosphere is conducive to launching out-there ideas, whether in art or architecture or web apps.
As the tech scene grows, it’s also likely that the companies and products that will come out of Miami will be informed by particularly savvy design. This could be Miami’s tech signature, alongside its Latin influence. Boston startups produce biotech. Southern California startups work in telecom. Miami could be a center of aesthetically smart brands as thoughtful in their design as their utility. Miami, better than any city, will know how to wrap its ideas in the right packaging.
“In a world where there’s a new start-up every 10 minutes, things like catching the eye immediately are very important,” LaFuente says. "That’s the advantage Miami has."
To Plater-Zyberk, the connection is logical. "My picture of Steve Jobs is that he was a designer," she says. "And we think of him as an IT person. But he saw design as not merely cosmetic. The cosmetic aspect of it was important, but that’s because that cosmetic aspect reflected how well everything else was put together – the stuff you can’t see."
Now who better to appreciate this than tech entrepreneurs sitting at sculptural office desks in a coworking space that’s also an art gallery?
All photos by Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg.