In the Mix
Curator Claire Breukel speaks with Quinaz Studio about its new exhibition in the Miami Design District and its vision for sustainable luxury
When you meet James Quinaz you meet a natural designer. Creative dexterity is inherent to his approach, and materials sourced from nature are the foundation of his production. The early success of his eponymous studio—established less than a year ago in Miami with co-founder and longtime friend David Harrison—seems destined.
In January, the duo launched a stalactite-inspired furniture line, Mira de Aire, composed of multiple hand-cut geometric forms joined with biodegradable glue. This project led to an invitation from the Miami Design District’s cultural program to host BAY STORE, a progressive exhibition where the studio creates designs on site using objects collected while kayaking in the Miami River and Biscayne Bay. On view from June 24th to July 25th in the wood-clad Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter-designed building, Bay Store transforms waste into luxury furniture.
James Quinaz is not new to transforming store fronts. After studying at Portland’s Pacific Northwest College of Art, Los Angeles’ SciArc, andl Miami’s Design and Architecture Senior High (a few blocks from the BAY STORE exhibition), Quinaz spent seven years working on the Saks Fifth Avenue flagship store windows in New York before founding Object Fabrication in Brooklyn, where he worked with artists including Tavares Strachan and Marina Abramovic.
Curator Claire Breukel speaks to James Quinaz and David Harrison about BAY STORE and their vision for moving sustainable production past its rhetoric.
CB: James, you are Portuguese American, and David, you are Cuban American. Is there a genre of or place for design that inspires you most?
JQ: Stylistically, I think Bauhaus had the biggest influence on me—that unification of art and craft. In fact, I call myself a builder, not just an artist or designer. Because I think as much about the making process as I do about the final outcome. How the raw materials are intervened on (be it by human hands, by machines, whatever) should be apparent to the viewer at a glance.
Where I deviate from the school is in its affinity for mass production, that ease of replication. In line with endurance artists like Marina Abramovic, I like my work to be labor intensive and time consuming. Stamina is required.
For example, our first collection Mira de Aire is inspired by stalactites, which are incredible natural structures that take lifetimes to form. In that spirit, I reduced the shape of stalactites to simple geometric forms that we produce over and over again in rhythmic and meditative cutting sessions that can last multiple days. When you see the finished piece, you get a sense—whether consciously or unconsciously—of that effort. The process it was subjected to is a character in the story of its design.
DH: For BAY STORE, the endurance component is obvious: James collected materials by hand from Biscayne Bay and the Miami River for weeks. But the material limitations play an interesting role too. The bay was our store in a sense. If there wasn’t so much man-made junk in the water, there would be no show. We love when the city of Miami— where we are both from—plays an active role in our art. BAY STORE is a great, if tragic, example of that.
CB: In an interview, Brazilian designer Oskar Metsavahat shared his view with me that “Sustainability is the ultimate form of luxury.” Meaning that sustainable materials are as, if not more, beautiful than synthetic materials. How does your practice relate to or differ from this assertion?
JQ: There are definitely a few really good examples of luxury brands that have embraced sustainability, and I applaud them. Philippe Starck is one of those pioneers of ecological design, and I think what he does so well—like with his Broom chair—is ironically the opposite of what we are trying to do with BAY STORE. Instead of completely disguising the recycled nature of the material, I want it to be clear that it has been used before. At first glance, you may simply recognize the work as an item of contemporary furniture. But on further inspection, it will dawn on you that all the materials were, at least at some point, junk. The finished pieces are luxurious because of their distinctiveness and the effort that went into their creation, but they are also scuffed and stained and battered by nature in a visible way.
I want the viewers of BAY STORE to reckon with the notion that we can’t recycle our way out of this one. Whether the plastic in the Bay comes from recycled plastic chairs or new plastic chairs, it makes no difference to the dead fish. There’s simply too much of it.
CB: Where do the lines between sculpture and product making, art and retail cross over for you?
JQ: Coming from a retail background at Saks Fifth Ave., I’m fascinated by the places where art and retail intersect. Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta’s Possessed, which debuted at the Whitney a few years ago, is a spot-on example of an exhibit that makes retail art. All the clothes in that exhibit, which were on display in an institution of American art, were actually for sale—price tags, fitting rooms, and all. Everything in BAY STORE is for sale too, so we have that. But there is an added component, which is the environmental one.
At the heart of this pollution problem is consumer culture, so there’s this wink at the viewer. If you fall in love with one of our pieces and you want to buy it, well that very feeling is a part of the reason all this plastic is in the bay in the first place. So there’s this cyclical logic: All the items in the store are made from previously discarded items that were purchased in a store. And as long as we keep purchasing things at this scale, we will have trash in the bay that can be used to make furniture that you can buy in our store. Wow, that was a mouthful.
DH: Though if you do buy something at BAY STORE, 20% of the proceeds benefit two organizations: ARTSail, which funds art projects that raise awareness about the issues facing Biscayne Bay, and Blue Scholars Initiative, which teaches young South Floridians things like how to test water quality. Getting the community—and specifically the youth—to understand the environmental problems we have on our hands is key to solving them. So we’re donating as much as we can to organizations that do that work.
CB: Miami has undergone many transformations, including a growth of its creative community, a shift to national audience-ship during the Covid-19 pandemic, and more. Being from Miami and then returning this year after studying and working nationally, what has changed most in Miami?
JQ: There seems to be more money here now than ever before, and that rise is only accelerating. The growth of our creative community and the transformation of the Miami Design District, for example, is incredible. What does concern me is the tendency toward temporary playgrounds, short-term exercises in money-making that don’t consider the people and environments that were already here. I hope we can get everyone—the OG locals, the new locals, and the visitors—on board with protecting our environment. Because when you’re fortunate enough to have so damn much, you have so much to lose.
DH: I’ll say that what hasn’t changed is how magnificently diverse this city is. Like the rest of the country, we still have a lot of work to do—a lot. But you’d be hard-pressed to find many other big cities in America where minorities are the majority and also dominate the cultural landscape. It’s what I love most about this place.
CB: You launched Quinaz Studio this year with a new range of furniture and now the exhibition BAY STORE. What is the vision for your studio for the coming years?
JQ: We’re gonna keep engaging with the community as much as we can. The design community is a tight knit one, and we love being a part of it. We want to be conscious, though, of operating solely within that group. Like many artists and designers, the goal is to use our work to share perspective and to advance dialogues. We want to seek fraternity with other organizations and the local public while we do that. If every project we take on can benefit our community in some way, they will.
CB: What did you learn about our bay while kayaking?
JQ: The beauty is just stunning. I’ve been visiting and kayaking the bay since I was a kid. But by combing it for material like this, I got to explore in such an intimate way. And wow is it heavenly. I urge you to get to know it. Anyone who does won’t want to let it slip away. ◆
Quinaz Studio’s BAY STORE is on view at 3914 NE 1st Avenue in the Miami Design District until July 25, 2021.