June 25, 2022

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The Storyteller of Design Miami

MIAMI — This week’s iteration of Design Miami, the fair scheduled to open on Wednesday and run alongside Art Basel Miami Beach, will be noteworthy for more than just the customary mix of items that blend art with function. It will also be the first edition whose content has been overseen by Design Miami’s new curatorial director, Wava Carpenter, who was appointed in April.

Ms. Carpenter, 47, however, is anything but new to the fair: She was its first employee 15 years ago and has been involved with it on and off, in various capacities, ever since.

“She’s always had her fingers in what we were doing,” said Craig Robins, a co-founder of Design Miami. “This is now just where it’s being formalized; it’s on a larger scale, and she’s got more responsibility.”

Starting in 2006, Ms. Carpenter worked full time for five years at the fair, which has its roots in a one-off event, Design 05. For several years, she worked for two design-focused websites but continued, initially, to work for Design Miami part time. In 2019 she returned as a consultant. Her responsibilities have included, among other things, organizing talks, writing catalog text, curating exhibitions and working on designer collaborations. She was also involved in DM/BX, a retail website, which Design Miami introduced in September.

“Storytelling, in some way, is a through line of it all — why something is interesting, why it’s worth knowing,” Ms. Carpenter said over tea at a sunny outdoor cafe near her office in Miami’s Design District, about a 15-minute drive from South Beach. “That’s true in writing articles. That’s true in curating exhibitions. It’s even true in merchandising a web shop.”

As curatorial director, Ms. Carpenter supervises the content of Design Miami’s fairs in Florida and Basel, Switzerland. (The most recent Swiss edition, in September, was curated by her predecessor, Aric Chen, although she was involved in other aspects of the event.) Podium, an offshoot of Design Miami that was introduced in Miami last year and held in Shanghai this month, is also part of her sphere. (A version in Doha, Qatar, is planned for next spring.) She’ll keep working with DM/BX, too.

For the last few years, Design Miami’s fairs, including Podium, have had a theme. The theme for December, which was conceived by Ms. Carpenter, is “Human Kind.” The intention, she said, is “to talk about leveling hierarchies” including, she added, “all the creatures of the earth, and among humans as well.”

The interpretations of that theme are diverse. Southern Guild, a gallery in Cape Town, will be exhibiting ceramics that examine the culture of South Africa’s Indigenous Xhosa culture, for example. Chicago’s Volume Gallery will feature pieces by the Los Angeles-based artist Tanya Aguiñiga; the work is a commentary on threats against Black and Indigenous people and other minorities.

Her commitment to inclusion is nothing new. “Wava has always been a major advocate and champion of unrepresented studio artists and young, up-and-coming emerging talent,” said Ashlee Harrison, director of the Americas for Carpenters Workshop Gallery (no relation to Ms. Carpenter).

Ms. Carpenter recently co-curated an exhibition at the New York location of Carpenters Workshop Gallery through Anava Projects, an organization she co-founded in 2019 to help socially conscious artists expand their reach. (She remains active in Anava, even at her new position.). Titled “The New Guard: Stories from the New World,” it opened last month. It includes pieces by artists like Anubha Sood and Susannah Weaver.

“I really like to work with young designers and help them get opportunities,” Ms. Carpenter said. “I just get a kick out of trying to make those connections so that they have a leg up.”

Ms. Carpenter was born in Indianapolis and raised in Astor, Fla., about 300 miles from the Miami Beach tent that will house Design Miami. It was, as she put it, “kind of middle-of-nowhere Florida.” She became interested in art as a child, inspired in part by her maternal grandfather, a commercial artist who worked on projects such as painting murals in homes and churches and designing lighting fixtures.

After earning an undergraduate degree in humanities and philosophy in 2003 from Florida State University in Tallahassee, Ms. Carpenter moved to Miami and was hired by an art restorer, which led to helping update hotels like the Sagamore Hotel South Beach. “I started working with interior designers and I was like, ‘I love this!’” she said. That passion inspired her move to New York City, to pursue a master’s degree in the history of decorative arts and design from Parsons School of Design in its partnership with the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, which she earned in 2006. Later that year, she moved back to Florida to work at Design Miami.

Ms. Carpenter lives with her partner, René Morales, chief curator at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, and their 10-year-old daughter in the Roads neighborhood of Miami, about five miles south of the Design District.

Although Design Miami has expanded since its inception, one thing has not changed: the lack of a universal term to describe the creations it exhibits, which are sometimes called collectible design, or, alternatively, functional design.

“It’s definitely work that doesn’t fit into definitions,” Ms. Carpenter said, “but I like to support that work that doesn’t fit very well.”

It is a category that, she added, “doesn’t live strictly in the art world.”

“I’m happily calling it design.”