The Design District isn't the only Miami neighborhood undergoing a renaissance, but its transformation might be the most jarring. Developed alongside the historic Buena Vista neighborhood in the 1920s, the Design District was named for the low-rise warehouses fabricating textiles, garments, and furniture pieces in the area. But as Miami's garment industry began to wane, so did the Design District's prominence. Falling into disrepair in the 1980s and '90s, the neighborhood became known as a drug dungeon and an eyesore for property owners in the neighboring Buena Vista neighborhood.
But in the late '90s, local developer Craig Robins took an interest in the decaying district. Riding on the heels of his success across the bridge in Miami Beach, where Robins had transformed crime-ridden neighborhoods by attracting artists and galleries and, ultimately, luxury retailers and hoteliers, he thought to apply the same model in the once-fashionable Design District. He began purchasing properties there and offering art spaces rent-free in exchange for occupation.
By the early 2000s, the Design District was on the map: a crop of restaurants and watering holes had sprouted, Poplife had instituted a weekly party at Picadilly Gardens, and Robins had attracted major interior design houses such as Kartell and Luminaire. By the end of the decade, he would announce a plan to revitalize the Design District as a center for arts and entertainment, complete with celebrity-chef-helmed restaurants, a new museum, and green spaces for residents.
Today the Design District is a full-fledged luxury district, with the heavy-hitters of high-end fashion calling the neighborhood home. Robins is still realizing his dreams for the area, and the next phase of his development plan is nearly complete.
There's little to do in this this haven for art lovers, fashion connoisseurs, and design addicts that doesn't revolve around beauty. Here are some of our favorite ways to contemplate the Design District's allure.
1. Eat at Buena Vista Deli
Many of the Design District's dining establishments come with a hefty price tag. Buena Vista Deli is a quiet respite. Affably cozy and decorated with red upholstered diner chairs, family portraits, and French posters, Buena Vista Deli is an unpretentious spot to spend an afternoon. Fare includes traditional café salads and sandwiches such as saucisson sec and beurre, a crusty baguette smeared with butter and enveloping slabs of traditional French
2. Explore ICA Miami
Though its arrival was fraught with scandal, it's indisputable that the Institute of Contemporary Art is the Design District's most prized acquisition. Settling into the Moore Building after the museum's board defected from the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami, ICA Miami has quickly become a much-discussed center of innovation in the arts. Preferring to push programming that celebrates experimentation, ICA Miami is just getting started. The museum is awaiting the construction of a 37,000-square-foot complex, also in the Design District.
3. Dine Alfresco at Mandolin Aegean Bistro
Most of Mandolin's devotees don't come just for the food. A garden oasis planted in the center of urban sprawl, Mandolin's patio is the next best thing to a summer in Santorini. Delicate market lights, shade trees, and white linen canopies make for one of the most romantic Miami settings, complementing an array of authentic Greek and Turkish dishes. Owners Anastasia Koutsioukis and Ahmet Erkaya have planted an organic garden at the restaurant, which adds flavor to simple dishes of grilled lamb and fish with lemony potatoes or classic moussaka.
4. Hang at Locust Projects
Locust Projects has launched the career of many Miami artists and welcomed some of the nation's most exciting young talent. Founded in 1998 by then-Miami-based artists Elizabeth Withstandley, Westen Charles, and Cooper, Locust Projects has stuck to its mission to provide an experimental space for artists, free from the pressure of gallery sales or limitations on project or space. Locust is currently presenting three exhibitions, by Brooklyn-based artist Katie Bell, presenting an abstract sculptural installation titled Backsplash II; Philadelphia-based artist Alexis Gideon's The Comet and the Glacier, a video opera encased in an immersive galactic dreamscape; and Miami's own Huffer Collective — a collaboration of Miami artists AholSniffsGlue, the President, and Swampdog — in an installation titled Save Your Selves, which features objects collected from the trio's undeniably distinct Miami upbringing.
5. Get lost among the design and fashion shops
You might not be able to afford so much as a keychain from Gucci, but that shouldn't stop you from spending a day taking in the Design District's many offerings for some sartorial and design inspiration. Browse Jonathan Adler or Holly Hunt for some home decor ideas, or peruse Kartell and Luminaire for iconic pieces. Lining the streets are some of the world's most iconic fashion brands, from Miu Miu and Marni to Dolce & Gabbana and Louis Vuitton. A walk around the Design District takes the term "window shopping" to new heights.
6. Gorge on public art
Part of the Design District's mission is to be a place where visitors can experience a wealth of public art. The streets are peppered with works by renowned sculptors and architects, such as Buckminster Fuller's Fly's Eye Dome, a spherical Lucite structure referencing the kaleidoscopic view of the insect's vision. You can also spot works by the late Zaha Hadid, Marc Newson, and Konstantin Grcic.
7. Experiment at Swampspace
Founded by Miami native Oliver Sanchez, Swampspace is frequently touted as the best contemporary art gallery you've never heard of. The seat of Miami's most experimentally driven work, Swampspace is revered for being both novice and sophisticated, trashy and refined. Formidably grassroots, Swampspace's programming concentrates on giving a platform to local artists, with new exhibitions or events presented every couple of months.
8. Feast on celebrity chefs' cuisine
A hot spot for some of Miami's most recognized culinary names, the Design District offers no shortage of fine dining. One of the city's oldest established neighborhood pioneers, Michael Schwartz has continued to expand his empire in the district. Opening Michael's Genuine Food & Drink in 2007, the farm-to-table restaurant quickly became a hit with well-heeled foodies and culinary purists alike. Later, Schwartz opened neighborhood pizzeria Harry's, beloved for its crusty pies with upscale toppings such as rock shrimp and Meyer lemon. Schwartz's latest restaurant in the area, Cypress Tavern, is the grill-and-cocktail-bar combo the neighborhood so desperately deserved. Other Miami chefs have made their mark too – among them Michelle Bernstein with Crumb on Parchment and Dena Marino with MC Kitchen. And the district will soon welcome other heavy-hitters, including Jean-Georges Vongerichten with ABC Kitchen and Joël Robuchon's L’Atelier.
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9. Check out Primary Projects' swanky new digs
The Primary Flight public art project launched street art in the Design District and Wynwood. In the decade since it began, Primary Projects has staged some seriously buzz-worthy art — remember Miru Kim's Art Basel stint in the pigsty? — before relocating its operations to downtown Miami. But the gallery returned to the Design District last SeptemberTypoe, taking over a luxe-looking space at the corner of North Miami Ave and NE 39th Street. Its exhibits in the new space have blended a savvy tastefulness with the uniquely Miami point of view of gallerists Books Bischof, Cristina Gonzalez, and Typoe. And as Typoe predicted at the opening of the art space's return to the Design District: "I don’t even know what we’ll do [next], but we’re probably going to do something weird.”
Follow Nicole on Twitter @niki_frsh.