Nestled between two grand Mediterranean mansions in one of Miami Beach’s tonier neighborhoods is a low-slung midcentury structure, mostly hidden behind a manicured tropical landscape. The only visible distinguishing feature is a white brisesoleil wall—a privacy partition composed of concrete block with circular openings to allow air and light to pass through. “Morris called them cheese holes,” the house’s owner, Alberto Eiber, says with a grin. The “Morris” Eiber is referring to is Morris Lapidus, the designer most responsible for Miami’s exuberant architecture in the 1950s and ’60s, who was known for his Rococomeets–Le Corbusier style. The reputation of Lapidus, the architect of the legendary Fontainebleau and Eden Roc hotels, along with several thousand other structures from New York City to the Caribbean, wavered among his peers during his career, but he has since been beatified as one of modern architecture’s patron saints, albeit one with a flamboyant streak.
Many of Lapidus’s stylistic touches are incorporated in the house, from the “cheese hole” wall to the thin “beanpole” piloti columns and the sweeping circular front steps—though he toned them all down slightly for this buttoned-up neighborhood.
A flaring U in plan, the house has wings that discreetly face toward the street, while floor-to-ceiling folding glass doors at the rear open to Biscayne Bay. Spectacular sunsets are daily occurrences, which can be best viewed from the generously sized living room, which is filled with museum-quality contemporary design treasures. “We tend to buy things when they are not at the height of fashion,” Eiber says. “The Morris Lapidus house fits into that thinking.”
Originally built for Lapidus’s dentist, the house is one of only two residences he designed—and one of just a few of his structures that are still fairly intact. But the house wasn’t always in pristine condition. Eiber, a retired radiologist, and his wife, Kim Kovel, found it in a Sunday real estate listing in 1991, when modern structures were undesirable. “People were only buying Mediterranean then. Modern houses were considered teardowns,” Kovel says. “The realtor suggested that we put up a fake façade to disguise the fact that it was a modern house.” But with the advice of Lapidus, who died in 2001, the Eibers slowly restored the property to its current jewel-like condition.
Nowadays an invitation to the house is de rigueur for design connoisseurs, especially during Art Basel and Design Miami in early December. Over the past three decades Eiber and Kovel have assembled a collection of contemporary design that has surpassed in importance the structure that houses it, with unique pieces by Ettore Sottsass, Archizoom, and especially Gaetano Pesce. “I love radical Italian design—that’s my thing,” Eiber says. Soon after moving into the house, he found a sofa by the famed Italian designer Michele De Lucchi for cheap. “It was like stealing back then, when no one wanted Memphis,” he says.
Addicted to the collecting “hunt,” Eiber started looking for more overlooked and under-priced design. He had a willing partner in Kovel, herself not a slouch in the antiques-hunting department: Her parents arguably made collecting into a national obsession by starting the Kovels’ antiques and collectibles price guides in the 1950s in Cleveland, where both Eiber and Kovel grew up. They met when Eiber was a resident at the local hospital and Kovel came in with a stomach bug. Soon after getting married, they moved to Miami, where Eiber had built a thriving radiology practice. Kovel now runs the family business in Miami, having expanded the guides from print to a robust online platform.
“I didn’t get collecting at first,” Eiber says. Kovel adds: “He thought everybody bought new, and that was that. He learned about collecting from our family, but then he took it to a different level.” Together they work as a seasoned team, with Eiber as the enthusiastic scout and Kovel as the voice of reason. “Al and Kim share a keen eye for exceptional examples of design,” says Caroline Baumann, the former director of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, where Eiber is a trustee. “In each case they strive to understand the history associated with the design object, learning how it was conceived and produced and why.” It is this passion for knowledge and ownership that has pushed the Eibers to go beyond the “greatest hits” of contemporary collecting and into more adventurous territories.
It was a chance visit in the early 1990s to a Gaetano Pesce–designed residence in New York that made Eiber into a staunch believer of truly radical design. As part of a tour, the apartment Pesce had designed for his then-girlfriend was the last stop on the itinerary. “I walked in, and my mouth dropped,” Eiber recalls. Pesce did her entire apartment, every piece of furniture. “He had this cabinet at the front door, about ten feet long, and it’s just a work of art.” A few days later Eiber called Pesce to see if he would consider producing something for their Miami house, suggesting a set of shelves for the living room. A conversation ensued, mainly about budgetary constraints, since the Eibers wanted to give Pesce carte blanche. “The next thing I know, Gaetano is calling, and he said, ‘I got an idea. The cabinet is Styrofoam with poured resin. If you’re willing to accept an experiment, I’ll do the cabinet.’ ” The Eibers were ecstatic when the piece arrived a few months later; a week after it was installed, however, the Styrofoam started to react chemically with the resin, creating noxious gas bubbles on the shelves’ surfaces. With young children living with the piece, “we called Gaetano in a panic, telling him what was happening,” Eiber says. “But he wasn’t so concerned.” The esteemed designer simply suggested that they prick the bubbles to let the gas out. “And that’s how we started our friendship,” Eiber says.
After two major Pesce shows last year, there has been an increase in demand for his work. “Several of Pesce’s most significant designs were realized for particularly openminded clients, and these shelves are no exception,” says independent design curator Glenn Adamson. “He unleashed his imagination on them, in full Technicolor, but it was Kim and Al who had the courage to let that happen.”
“It’s been a lovehate relationship for 25 years now,” Eiber says of his friendship with Pesce. “Luckily, I don’t live with him.” Jokes aside, the Eibers have been some of Pesce’s most important champions. They have bought large pieces for their own collection and smaller Pesce vases and trays as gifts for friends and family. While the shelves don’t leave the house, the couple often loans Pesce pieces to museum exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad.
Pesce isn’t the only design luminary that the Eibers spotted early. Several of their most cherished designs are by the Dutch designer Joris Laarman, whose work they discovered through the gallery Friedman Benda when he was barely out of school. “It’s the combination of technology, material, and beauty that’s amazing,” Eiber says of Laarman’s work. The designer is known for his use of cutting-edge computer algorithms and three-dimensional printing to produce pieces. The Eibers own one of his most important designs, the Bone Chair from 2008—a similar chair recently sold at auction for more than $900,000. But it’s a more personal connection that drew Eiber to the design. “I am a radiologist,” he explains. “I like bones.”
The Eibers’ instinctive and unerring eyes brought them another signature masterpiece, a light sculpture that now anchors one end of the living room. Eiber spotted the work installed in the VIP lounge of Design Miami in 2009—a display-only sample from the German lighting company Zumtobel—and he thought it would look good in his house. He relentlessly pursued the Zumtobel rep to sell him the sample, even though Eiber didn’t recognize the name of the designer. The rep eventually relented, and after a full day of reinstallation at their house with three German electricians, Kovel went to a bookstore to see if she could find anything about the creator of their new acquisition. The designer’s name? Olafur Eliasson. Rolf Fehlbaum, the chairman emeritus of Vitra, made a beeline to the light when he visited the house, Eiber says. “He had just commissioned one of these Starbrick lights from Eliasson and thought he had the only one.”
The couple’s ongoing relationships with designers, and the stories generated from those friendships, are what drive them to continue their collecting. The designers, as well as gallerists and dealers whom the Eibers have worked with, stop by frequently to say hello whenever they’re in town, partly to make sure their pieces are still prominently on display. “We don’t have storage,” Kovel says proudly. “We live with everything we buy.”