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Seven Questions for Cathy Leff

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As the UnBeige snowbirds migrate south into the Miami cacophony of art and design this week, we’ll be looking to local museum The Wolfsonian – Florida International University to be our home away from home. This oasis of design in the heart of South Beach has become a formidable institution and research center on the international stage, mostly due to the tireless leadership of one Cathy Leff, who has served as the museum’s director since 1998. Leff stepped away from her 18-hour workdays dusting off the collection in anticipation of Art Basel and wrapping chocolate bars on behalf of Stefan Sagmeister to answer our questions:

1. What’s the first thing(s) you read in the morning?
Email, then New York Times–for the national/ global view–and Miami Herald for the local picture.

2. Last book you read?
What Orwell Didn’t Know: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics.

3. Best/most memorable design/designer-related encounter?
Hosting Zaha Hadid as a guest speaker for The Wolfsonian-Florida International University and accompanying her with then-NY Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp to see the space where she would deliver her lecture. I had tried very hard to locate a venue that would excite Zaha as opposed to the typical anonymous auditorium. I was so excited when the Fontainebleau Hotel agreed to let us use the Bam-Bam Room, one of the only rooms–well, cabaret theater–that was still in its original Morris Lapidus-designed condition (though a bit run down). When Zaha saw the red and blue lights and this over-the top cabaret theater, I think Zaha freaked out, saying she could not give a lecture in that space, but Herbert came to the rescue and calmed her down when he reminded her that she invented bling and this was the perfect venue in which to deliver a lecture.

4. How would you describe Miami’s design scene?
HOT and getting hotter–from high to low–and there’s certainly a growing audience that both appreciates and consumes design. I think there has been a lot going on in Miami for many years–it’s all been cumulative–from the work of Judith Arango and the Kassamalis, to the schools of architecture–to what we, The Wolfsonian, aim to do: promote the study and appreciate of how design affects human behavior.

5. Why is this Art Basel Miami/Design Miami thing such a big deal?
Because it brings together during a few-day period a critical mass–approximately 100,000–of international designers, institutions (museums), design manufacturers, press, luxury brand promoters, cultural consumers, dealers, and artists. And that encounter is quite spectacular.

6. This holiday season, I’m giving…
…my friends and family a break from the silly gifts, and I will make a donation in their honor to the Sundari Foundation, which provides shelter to homeless women in Miami, some of whom have infants.

7. This holiday season, I’m hoping to get…
…a holiday. I am heading off with friends for two weeks in Japan (Tokyo and Kyoto) and southeast China, ending it all with five days in Beijing.

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