BUENOS AIRES — The designer Ricardo Blanco’s offices in the aged neighborhood of San Telmo, the city’s founding center, are a delightful mess. Air filtering in from the busy street outside reveal a crowd of chair concepts, some gathered around tables, some high up on the walls, many tongue-in-cheek jabs at seating conventions. “The chairs are one of my obsessions,” admits Blanco, 71, one of the grand names of Argentine industrial design. Among other projects, he designed the furniture for Argentina’s national library, itself designed by local architect/artist Clorindo Testa (above).
A co-founder and longtime director of the industrial design program at the University of Buenos Aires, Blanco is also the author and curator of Diseño Industrial Argentino, a recently published book and accompanying design exhibit that follows the flowering and boom of Argentine design from World War II to the end of the 20th century. Argentina has one of the world’s richest design cultures — Buenos Aires was named UNESCO’s first “City of Design” in 2005 — and Blanco’s book gives it a deserved cataloguing.
Argentina is a curious outlier in South America. It has a heavily European culture and population, and walking through Buenos Aires, one is struck by the near complete absence of historical vernacular. There are almost no Spanish colonial buildings, or even modern versions thereof. Instead, the city is full of architectural references to Bauhaus, Art Deco and French Classical. Argentine industrial design shows a similar obsession with European styles, albeit one that has been modified to address local reality. Regular economic crashes and material shortages have forced Argentine designers to be especially resourceful and inventive.
The book’s featured designers include well-known names like Testa and the most iconic of all Argentine designs, the BKF “butterfly chair,” as well as lesser-known gems like Hugo Kogan, who invented the popular Magiclick spark lighter, and Eduardo Joselevich and Fanny Fingermann, who in 1964 created Fototrama, a billboard signage system based on plastic pixels that predated current LED screens by decades. “They invented the pixel before the pixel existed,” says Blanco.
In all, the book profiles 99 designers and the BKF chair.
A documentary about Fototrama, one of several produced to go with the book.
Blanco traces Argentina’s industrial design tradition back to the days of Bauhaus, but says it truly began to flower in 1951 when Tomás Maldonado, an Argentina painter and founding member of the Concreto-Invención group, began publishing the art and design quarterly Nueva Vision. “That educated us in the new ways of doing design and architecture,” Blanco says.
The first cutting-edge designs to come out of Argentina were the furniture that architects designed for their modernist buildings. Those architects then put together furniture businesses, Blanco says, and hired outside designers. Then in the 1960s, during Argentina’s industrialization, those designers went to work in industry. By the 1970s, local factories were making TVs, radios, fridges, and electric calculators from Argentine designs.
Pushing along these developments, design schools were opened in the national universities in Mendoza and La Plata in the 1960s. “Along with Brazil, we were the first country in Latin America with industrial and graphic design schools,” Blanco says.
Because of its cultural heritage, Argentina has always looked for cues from European design, not from the United States. Indeed, Blanco says American design was looked down upon.
“It was a philosophical issue. European design is more moralistic. One speaks of good design. One is good or bad. It has a moral vision,” he says. “American design is more linked to business. It was more commercial. And that wasn’t seen well.
Argentine design is not simply a copy of European work, of course. Still, despite Argentina’s role as an industrial design powerhouse and the unique qualities of its products, Blanco claims that there one cannot define an Argentine style. He says,
You can’t talk about a style. You can have a U.S. style or a European style, but those are world powers. Next to that Argentina is nothing. So I don’t think of a style but an Argentine way of making design. First there is respect for the function the object had to accomplish. Second, one makes it with the materials at hand. There’s no worry about inventing materials. And third, there’s always a strong dose of contemporary aesthetics. Aesthetics are always very present for us. Those are the three legs.
If we take the BKF chair. It’s designed for a new kind of architecture, something much freer. It’s made with construction bars and leather, things we have in excess here. And it’s designed for more open functionality. You can sit on it how you please. For me, that synthesizes Argentine design.
Today, a new generation of Argentine designers is continuing their country’s rich tradition. Leading names include Alejandro Sarmiento, Federico Churba, and Martín Wolfson, and an Argentine, Axel Meyer is a top designer for Nokia.
Those who remain inside Argentina have developed ingenious ways to deal with the effects of the country’s constant economic ups and downs, which stalled industrialization for decades and meant that modern machines and materials often didn’t make it into the country. There is a strong level of small scale self-production in Argentine design, Blanco notes, and Argentine designers have turned to locally plentiful materials to make small, quotidian objects that have some irony in their style.
Patricio Lix Klett, for example, uses thick industrial plastic thread to create colorful wicker-like lamps, chairs and tables. And design group VacaValiente makes humorous leather desk objects in a nod to Argentina’s abundance of cattle. VacaValiente was one of a group of Argentine designers included in the Destination: Buenos Aires exhibit in the MoMA store.
The exhibit related to Diseño Nacional Argentino is currently on display in the Argentine city of Córdoba.
Photo of Biblioteca Nacional courtesy of Gustavo Márquez/Flickr. Photo of BKF chair courtesy of Ricardo Blanco. Photo of Blanco by Ian Mount.