Artist Emmett Moore Carves Out a Faux-Coral Fantasy in the Design District

April 23rd, 2021
Emmett Moore, The Grotto, installation view
Emmett Moore, The Grotto, installation view

By Carolina Del Busto

Tall steel walls protect the miniature fortress that is Emmett Moore’s home and studio. The Miami-born and -reared artist designed his new home near the Miami River, which was constructed from the ground up and is affectionately nicknamed the Boat House. As the hot sun begins to set, its fleeting rays beam on the red entrance door and reflect off the steel fence.

It’s a whimsical — yet fully functional — home design that feels unlike anything else in Miami.

A fortunate few were able to experience the Boat House during last year’s Miami Art Week, when the artist opened his home as part of his exhibition with gallerist Nina Johnson. Scattered through the two-story building are pieces created both by Moore himself and artists he admires.

The 33-year-old’s studio space is located on the ground level.

A wooden table runs the length of the wall on one side. All sorts of materials, including dozens of keys rearranged in a unique pattern, an open blue toolbox, and some glue, lie on top. On one end, leaning against the wall, is an old letter board. Missing letters render it virtually unreadable, but Moore remembers fondly the message that once listed cocktails offered at his wedding reception.

Moore, who studied furniture design at the Rhode Island School of Design, has always been interested in the crossroads between functionality, art, and design.

“I went into furniture design to learn how to better make things,” he says. “To learn how to weld, work with wood, and make things that would last. Everything I do is somehow related to functionality.”

It’s evident Moore enjoys making pieces for himself as much as he does for others. He proudly displayed his work all over his home and studio. A chair, a bookshelf, a mirror, a table, even a rug. Each piece blends in with the aesthetics of the space while also elevating whatever room they occupy.

“When it comes to furniture, a lot of times I make it for myself first and use it,” he explains. “That way I’m able to test the material, functionality, sturdiness, and the ergonomics of the piece.”

At the main entrance of the Boat House is an imposing, eye-catching bookshelf that appears to be made out of coral rock. The piece is one of the earlier designs that later evolved into a larger exhibition, currently on display in the Design District.

“The Grotto,” inspired by Moore’s fascination with coral and quarries, is an inviting exhibition that draws you in from the moment you catch a glimpse of the rock-like sculptures. It all started from a simple question the artist asked himself.

“How do I work with coral rock without working with coral rock?”

His goal was to create a sustainable material that would also be lighter and sturdier than the marine limestone. Moore concocted a blend of expanded polystyrene, epoxy, polyurethane, and shells to achieve the faux-coral look.

“I’ve always liked these places where young people go to hang out [in secret], like rock quarries or caves or back alleys or abandoned buildings,” Moore says. “Since I developed this method of making my own coral rock, I thought it would be cool to reference those kinds of places while also making functional objects out of faux coral.”

Those functional objects include tables, bookshelves, or benches — though with some hidden details. Embedded in the pieces are items like a pair of sunglasses, car keys, and even a cell phone.

“My grotto is a blend of this rock quarry/Mediterranean grotto/Miami fantasy landscape,” says Moore.

“The Grotto” is open for visitors at a gallery space in the Design District at 182 NE 39th St. through Wednesday, April 28, after which it will be relocated to a more intimate and permanent space across the street at 181 NE 39th St.

Moore, who is represented by Nina Johnson Gallery, has done installations at the Bass Museum, the De la Cruz Collection, various galleries in New York, and even has one of his pieces as part of the Pérez Art Museum Miami’s permanent collection.

“After doing this for nearly ten years, I really feel like I know what it is I’m trying to accomplish with my work, and I know about the balance I want to achieve,” the artist says. “I feel like I’m about to make some of the best work of my career.”

He twirls a piece of string in between his fingers as he speaks. The gold lion signet ring on his hand catches one of the day’s last rays of sunshine.

“I really want to push and explore the area that’s riding a line between art and design,” he says. “You really have to push hard to ride that line and not go too far in either direction.”

When Moore was a teenager — not unlike those who sought out hidden places and rock quarries to hang out with friends — he had one response to the adults who wondered what he would do for work one day: “If I could make art forever, I’d be happy.”

“That’s still how I feel now,” he says. “If I could keep doing what I’m doing, but more and bigger, then I’d be happy.”

“The Grotto.” Through Wednesday, April 28, at 182 NE 39th St., Miami. Thursday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday noon to 6 p.m.


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  • Emmett Moore, The Grotto, installation view
    Emmett Moore, The Grotto, installation view
  • Emmett Moore, The Grotto, installation view
    Emmett Moore, The Grotto, installation view