She’s not the bionic woman. It only seems that way. She traverses continents, convinces an international roster of clients to move in new directions and takes care of business and family. Vanessa Eckstein, the willowy, thirty-something, Argentinean-born principal of blok design, seems to be doing it all beautifully—and if not quite effortlessly, at least in a way that 99 percent of professional women would find inspirational, if not intimidating.
“I’m a juggler,” she says. “You can’t really do it all, but it’s worth trying.”
She’s recently moved her offices to the trendy Condesa district of Mexico City. There, in a building designed by top Mexican architect Alberto Kalach—concrete, I-beams, frosted glass, terraces with views of treetops and tile roofs—she runs a firm that serves clients in Mexico, Canada and the U.S., and that develops its own products and projects. This, after successfully heading the firm in Toronto for five years. Before that, she worked on brand identities at Maddocks in Los Angeles and was a senior designer at Drenttel Doyle in New York City, where she moved after completing her MFA at Art Center College of Design in 1994.
On a chilly October morning, in between conducting business in two languages, talking with staff, clients and printers, she graciously serves cappuccino in the conference room, all the time making sure her assistants, Patricia Kleeberg, from Germany, and Mariana Contegni, from Argentina, are finishing the projects that need to be completed before she leaves the next morning for Bangkok with her toddler son Luka and infant daughter Uma. There, the family will meet her Mexican-born husband, director Fernando Arrioja, who has spent three weeks in Malaysia filming a Coke commercial. “We’re taking a vacation. I’m not sure how many countries we will visit,” she says. “Pretty much we jump on trains. Traveling is one of my creative energizers. We believe in seeing the world. Of course, in places where there are unique hotels with local atmosphere.”
Eckstein was born in Buenos Aires—where architecture, graphic design, personal passions and entrepreneurism all seem to converge. Especially in her family. Her mother is a ceramicist. And her father, a chemist, has spent twenty years transforming a crumbling old building called El Zanjon into a national monument with spaces that can be rented for events. Naturally, his daughter’s firm designed the marketing collateral, with elements based on vintage postcards and the building’s hand-painted tiles. Encouraged to pursue higher education—not always a choice for Latin American women—Vanessa entered the Universidad de Buenos Aires in 1988. “Graphic design was a new career then,” she explains. “The faculty were self-taught and had come from architecture. After the end of the military dictatorship [1976–1983], the country was hungry for design. Everybody rushed to open studios. I hadn’t even graduated and had a bank as a client, but I still wanted to learn. I started looking at schools in the U.S. and got this amazing brochure from Art Center.” Her brother was working on a PH.D at UCLA, and that helped clinch the decision. Under the influence of Art Center faculty including Lou Danzinger, Ramon Muñoz, Vance Studley and James Miho, she created a specialization in intercultural design and completed a MFA thesis titled “In Between Borders.”
On the first day of school during the campus tour, she met her husband, a film major. “Art Center couples,” she laughs. “Lots of people get together as students. Many split up.” These two have stayed together. “Fernando and I have always supported each other, and moved to the city where the other got the best job.” After graduation it was two-and-a-half years in New York, where Eckstein was involved with major Drenttel Doyle projects for Martha Stewart, Champion Paper and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. Then back to L.A. so Arrioja could find work directing commercials. Then came what she describes as “an amazing opportunity” in Toronto. “I’m an entrepreneur at heart,” she says. “I knew absolutely no one there, but the design community was warm and welcoming.” After freelancing at various offices she began cultivating her own clients, beginning with Industry Films—naming the company and collaborating with architects on integrating the identity with the company’s space. It was the first of many film company projects.
Multidisciplinary collaboration is a role that Eckstein sees as integral to blok’s own identity. “Blok is more than design. It is a space for collaboration,” she emphasizes. “The name blok was taken from a political magazine from the Russian Revolution, but it could be from Scandinavia, Russia, Argentina. Bring your own interpretation. I lived through the military dictatorship and believe in activism. For me, design is a means of communicating, serving, being part of society.” After a few years in the Toronto design community, Eckstein became a vice president of the Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario (RGD). “In Latin America we don’t have professional organizations,” she muses. “You have to do it on your own. I admire people with clarity, vision.” She and Arrioja spent five years in Toronto, frequently criss-crossing the U.S. by car “to get to know America.” She recalls, “We would take two weeks to get from L.A. to New York, traveling on small roads and stopping to see what interested us.”
All these influences have left marks on her work, which is richly detailed and elegant. Taupes, soft golds, olives and pale blues underscore the color palette. Print pieces are characterized by delicate textures and refined typography. It is an aesthetic more associated with Canada than Mexico, where subtlety has not been a hallmark of marketing and advertising. But perhaps thanks to blok, things will be changing.
Right now, the firm’s diverse Mexican clients include Tequila Jose Cuervo, for which they’re designing packaging; Nike, which commissioned retail store designs and collectible World Cup soccer star cards; and Taller de Empresa, a start-up incubator and financing source. Blok has also retained its Canadian clients, including Roots, a major consumer apparel brand headquartered in Toronto, and Change, a Vancouver-based sustainability branding company. Says Marc Stoiber, Change’s founder: “I knew from day one that the way to make our company successful was to find the best talent. I called Vanessa when we got our first big project, for a company that turned garbage into fertilizer. She took our concept—dubbed R-Earth—and turned what could have been hippie compost into a fashion icon. She transformed another green project, for wooden cutlery, into high design. Vanessa and her team are easy to work with and generous,” he says. Guadalajara-based art curator Patrick Charpenel, who worked with the firm on an art exhibition and book, calls her “una diseñadora sensible que se compenetra a fondo con los contenidos de cada proyecto [a sensitive designer who plunges deeply into the content of each project].”
How does she do it all? “I try to be very, very organized,” she says. It helps that professional-class Mexican households have live-in maids and nannies, but Eckstein is hands-on, both as business owner and mom. Every day at noon, she zooms off in her black SUV to pick-up Luka from Montessori school and feed Uma before returning to the office for a full afternoon’s work. On the day of my visit, that included completing an agenda for Nueva Escuela Technológica, a trade school for low-income students, which Patricia Kleeberg, who came to Mexico in 2005 from Frankfurt, is designing. With this project, Kleeberg might be taking blok in a bolder direction: lots of bright yellow and large type. “I’m more a strong color person,” she says. And Mariana Contegni was finishing a book on at-risk marine species for ING, 192 oversized pages of underwater photography. Navigating expertly through the traffic, sights and sounds of Mexico City—a city that’s getting bigger, shinier and more affluent while retaining its color and charm—Eckstein says, “This is a city of many wonders and never-ending museums. It’s so inspirational.”
Blok is an all-girl office, and will continue to be. The newest staff member, Ana Villanueva, a native of Mexico, has just joined the firm. These women not only have developed a working style that has formerly-conservative businessmen following their direction, they are creating their own products and content. “This is what we love to do most, and we come to work with smiles on our faces,” says Eckstein. With Guillermos Gonzalez Guajardo, they’ve founded Lampyro, which is commissioning top artists to illustrate children’s books. Another new venture is called Free Word. “We’re teaming up with three companies—Crush, Emigre Film and LaBrecque & Co.—to do storytelling about the power of the word for social change,” Eckstein explains. Blok recently launched Intento 1, a line of curvaceous tableware sold in design stores throughout North America. Intento 2, a range of floor coverings, is in the works.
Taking all this in, I want to become a cheering section for all blok’s endeavors. Bill Drenttel, former AIGA president, remains one of her fans. “One of the rewards of running a successful studio is seeing talented young people go off on their own,” he says. “In Vanessa’s case, this has involved watching her create an international practice with finely honed work.”
That young women are running successful design businesses hasn’t been newsworthy for years. But changing the course of marketing communications in Mexico, land of machismo, is. Eckstein and her team are a shining example of just how far international women in design have come. And there’s no telling how far they will go. ca