BUENOS AIRES--If you want to see a contrast between Argentina's faded glory and its hoped-for future, take a trip to the 1000 block of Avenida Regimiento de Patricios in the working class Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Boca.
Facing one another across the avenue are two hulking factory buildings that used to turn out Argentina's iconic alpargatas, the espadrilles that the country's gaucho cowboys still pair with pegged bombacha pants, blowsy white shirts and a kerchief (FYI: they are manly enough to pull off this look without being giggled at).
One of the factories is, to put it kindly, a boarded-up wreck, the kind of place where you might pull up in a taxi and, as I did, find yourself faced off with a woman standing on one foot and rotating her mouth through various expressions as if searching for her last tooth, like a sort of deranged flamingo. On the other side of the street sit the factory's cleaned-up twin, its huge doors opened to an 80,000 sq. ft. exhibit of the cutting edge of Argentine interior design, a show that costs $13 a head.
This is Casa FOA.
For the last 27 years, Casa FOA has been taking over dilapidated architectural landmarks from Argentina's early 20th century golden age--of which there are a depressing number around Buenos Aires--and turning them into design showcases. The idea is quite simple: a developer or other entity that plans to renovate a landmark will offer the space to Casa FOA pre-renovation, in order to build excitement, and Casa FOA will fix up the basics and put on its show. The locations have run the gamut from a fish market to a train depot, a monastery, a fruit port and the state's Ellis Island-like hotel for new immigrants.
The Casa FOA project was launched in 1985 by Mercedes Malbrán de Campos in order to raise funds for the Fundación Oftalmológica Argentina (FOA), a non-profit founded by her father Jorge Malbrán that funds ophthalmology research and offers eye care to the poor. Some 70,000 visitors visit Casa FOA annually, and last year it raised about 2 million pesos ($480,000) for the foundation.
Almost every city of note has a design show, of course, but Casa FOA is unique both in its roving, preservationist nature and its South American location. While Buenos Aires is far from wealthy design hubs in the U.S., Asia and Europe, it has long been a design hothouse. The city is home to architectural masterworks like the towering 1930s Rationalist-style Kavanagh building on posh Plaza San Martin; Le Corbusier protégé Jorge Ferrari Hardoy designed the ubiquitous BKF butterfly chair here; and UNESCO named Buenos Aires its first City of Design in 2005.
Today, Casa FOA features Argentine designers who keep Argentine design internationally relevant, like Pablo Reinoso, Jorge Gamarra and Fernando Moy. But it also shows how local design has been informed by the country's constant economic crashes. The ingenious use of cheap, at-hand materials is a theme at this year's show: striking mobiles of wire-hung charcoal hang over the Casa FOA cafe; a grid of alpargatas becomes a mural; old belts are wrapped around a frame to make a chair; flowers are planted in natty waterproof bags; and surprisingly comfortable benches are engineered from wood blocks and shoelaces.
To delve into what defines Argentine design, and what trends are big this year, SmartPlanet sat down with Inés Campos Malbrán, Casa FOA's director and the daughter of its founder, under the charcoal mobiles in the Casa FOA cafeteria.
Q: What defines Argentine design?
A: The Argentine designer is hyper-creative because we’re a mix of cultures, because of our idiosyncratic immigration. Part European but at the same time practical. I would say most of all the Argentine designer is creative in his use of materials. It’s a challenge. I believe as Argentines have always lived with the ups and downs of the crisis, our ingenuity has sharpened. One has to adapt because if you don’t, you can’t hold on. If you’re an architect, you can’t sustain your work if you don’t. With the resources you have in the moment you are in, you have to move forward.
Q: What are the trends you've seen?
A: In recent years, a lot of desginers were using polished cement. This year, you see it here and there. But something more noticeable this year is wood; the cement has been displaced by wood. Wood that continues from the floor up to the wainscoting. I also see saturated colors, on walls, chairs, fabric. Oranges, violets. At another time it was all white, then it was all neutral--grey, grey. Another trend this year is the wefts in fabric, wicker, the routed wood.
Q. What does today's interior design say about us?
A: If you look at the show, you’ll note large couches. A lot of libraries and big couches and bathrooms like spas and green things in the smallest places. It all has a logic. We live in a rush. You get home and you throw yourself on the couch. You don’t want grandmother’s couch. You want comfort. You want the television or a book or to listen to music, thus the tremendous libraries. And the bathroom is where you want to relax, with nice wainscoting and mirrors. Also, your space is small; you don’t have the enormous spaces that houses used to have, no garden, no nothing. But you’d like to have the joy of some plants, so maybe you put in a vertical garden.
This year's Casa FOA runs until October 14. The factory will be turned into lofts in 2014.
Photos courtesy of Casa FOA and Ian Mount.