Forget the popular images of Buenos Aires; the romance of tango and Astor Piazzolla, Evita—the Broadway version—and beef. In reality Buenos Aires is much more fascinating and complex. The architecture is deliberately European with handsome century-old buildings facing the many broad avenues, elegant public spaces and lush gardens and parks—yet the energy is decidedly Latin American. Many porteños, as Buenos Aires residents are called, still take long lunches and dinner begins at about 10 P.M. Yes, there is a rush of traffic and drivers are as aggressive and heedless as in most big cities, but pedestrians still stroll, obedient dogs are walked in packs of up to a dozen, and cafés everywhere offer a place for leisurely conversation and coffee. The vibe in this vast capital of 13 million can be many things: cosmopolitan, charmingly old world or a raffish “don't go there.”
A relatively young country, Argentina is about the same age as the United States, settled by multiple waves of immigration from the founding Spanish and Italian settlers followed by German, Polish, English and various native South American ethnic groups. Historically Argentina has experienced dramatic and devastating events including corrupt governments, recent economic collapse and monumental inflation.
Working in such a perpetually unstable environment has been challenging for designers, but they have managed to find ways to deal with limited budgets and tight deadlines, creating new opportunities with enthusiasm. In 2005 UNESCO declared Buenos Aires the City of Design. Universidad de Buenos Aires is the largest university in Argentina, with more than 300,000 students–the largest university enrollment in Latin America—and tuition is free of charge to all, including foreigners.
I traveled to Buenos Aires last September to meet a representative group of five graphic designers and to experience the city for myself. The following comments from them are the result of our meetings in their studios, neighborhood restaurants or cafés. It was a particularly revealing and enjoyable way to visit them in their native habitat.
Probably the most visible designer in Argentina is Ronald Shakespear. He opened the consultancy Diseño Shakespear 50 years ago when design as a profession did not yet exist in Argentina. The firm’s work includes wayfinding systems for the Buenos Aires subway, the Temaiken Zoo, hospitals and sports centers and literally thousands of identity programs. Shakespear now divides his time between his professional practice and lecturing throughout the world. The business is co-managed by his sons Lorenzo (partner for the last 25 years) and Juan (partner for the past 15).
“Shakespear Design has a staff of twenty young designers,” explains Lorenzo. “That’s always been the policy of the house. Our small size is our strength. The family dynamics echo the dynamics of the firm. In fact, they are the same. This is in the Shakespear DNA. Each member has a role in the operation of the office and their abilities adapt to the evolution of the firm. Their diverse temperaments enrich and multiply access to new sources of work.
“An Argentine designer is a person of extreme resourcefulness, born adaptive to anything, fast learning, fearless and rather cheeky,” Lorenzo continues. “Nobody here takes anything for granted. The ability to make things happen is embedded at a genetic level in this part of the world. Argentine design provides solutions for Argentina’s problems. A designer’s professional life here is a supernatural tour de force and, in spite of everything, we manage to produce first-rate design.
“Future challenges in Argentina and the South American region involve more integration, dialogue, social commitment, altruism and heritage (what you leave—not what you receive). Latin America has much to do, but it must happen consciously. The design business is the design business, and that’s fine. But it must evolve through a little social magic. If design does not help people live better lives, there’s no point to it. A conscious designer treasures the design process socially and professionally. It shows in the work.”
Marcelo Sapoznik, a branding design specialist since the 1980s, has collaborated on international projects with Pentagram and his U.S. clients have included S.C. Johnson’s Glade and Glo-Coat brands. Sapoznik believes that graphic designers in Latin America do have regional styles; “Brazil is different from Argentina and from Chile. The unique influences are the pre-Catholic cultures, the pre-Columbian, Mayas and Aztecas. Argentina’s designers are closer to European designers because the past influences came from France, Spain and Italy. But most designers are also looking for other sources of inspiration beyond their own culture.”
In addition to his practice in Buenos Aires, he teaches at the University of Palermo. When asked, as an educator, why he thinks Buenos Aires has more design students than any other city in the world, Sapoznik responded: “Today there is a trend among young people to study fashion, film, graphic and industrial design. This means that there are more designers than design work.” Practically speaking he sees the need for more interfaces between business students and creatives to prepare them for future working partnerships. “Branding requires not simply designing a logo, but being involved in the entire process from research and development to marketing.”
Entrepreneurial Gustavo Stetcher and his partner Hernan Berdichevsky takes this concept from theory to practice with their firm nobrand and their line of products. Originally the idea of creating a series of icons of Argentine life—from Evita and Che Guevara to tango and the Mate Ritual Cup—was an internal project. They began by simply producing a line of quality silk-screened T-shirts and eventually selling them in their concept store in the newly trendy Palermo district. Nobrand now invites other designers to create products for the collection. So far the line has created a real buzz and it has begun to be picked up by museum shops in the U.S. and Europe.
Other projects that have developed as a result of this self-initiated branding experience include the publication of two books of the icons, a retail store in Soho New York and a proposed identity project in Berlin. Their winning design for the Argentinean Bicentennial Competition creates the new official symbol to complete a unique Argentinean brand identity.
“After the economic crisis in 2001, we changed a lot,” explains Stetcher. “We learned to solve complex problems with simple ideas.” Describing the difference between Argentina’s designers and their counterparts in the U.S., he says, “The quality is the same as New York, the main difference is that our fees are one-third less. Argentina is more exotic, more independent, open-minded and adventurous.”
Lucas D’Amore was born and educated in Buenos Aires and is one of the best representatives of the city’s young designers. His small design studio, MásSustancia (More Substance), expresses his philosophy of intelligent design: “Designers must have a system to meet the challenge of each new design project. This process becomes a tool to organize the task and structure our thinking. It requires special sensitivity, vision and an ability to observe and interpret needs. This is both rational and intuitive. The basis of every design project is defined by an ‘intelligent cause'.... Most successful projects are a result of multidisciplinary and collaborative teams—including the clients.” When asked if this is a progressive point of view for Buenos Aires, D’Amore explains, “I believe most designers here agree. We try to include clients and other pro-fession-als on the work team, but it’s not easy to do it. Working on low-budget projects, we are limited in creating multidisciplinary and collaborative teams. Clients are a crucial source of information and we believe they must have a key role in every design pro-ject. Different perspectives encourage innovative ideas.”
Asked if there is an Argentinean style, he says, “I can’t say that there is a unique style of design here. Argentina is a big country with different regional influences. People from the north and south speak the same language as those in Buenos Aires, but our culture and customs are different. Each part of the country has distinct graphic resources that make up its identity.” For example, porteños identify with tango because this passionate, sexy dance was born here in the 1880s and continues to be a distinct source of pride. “In the last twenty years, it has become difficult to find local styles even universal ones. We are a mixture of cultures which is why our design has a special ‘spirit.’ Borders don’t restrict a culture from being spread around the globe.”
Carlos Avalos is one of the few designers in Buenos Aires who studied in the U.S., at Art Center College of Design. His mother is American and he lived in the U.S. until he was six years old. “Designers in Argentina inherited the ideals of the Bauhaus, especially the dictate, ‘Form follows function.’ This has certain philosophical implications,” Avalos explains. “For us, graphic design has a social function; for Americans it has more to do with a commercial activity. Unlike Brazil, that has a freer sort of California style, Argentinean designers like to think a lot about theory. We are not so spontaneous. We thrive on talking and discussing politics, philosophy, everything—even graphic design.
“My partner, Guillermo Andrade, and I changed our way of doing business and we now focus on strategic thinking and meaningful design. We chose the name La Cocina (The Kitchen) because we believe everyone—designers and clients–should be as involved as possible.” Avalos continues, “Leading design firms either dive into the business of strategy and branding or into the art of creating unique visuals. Designers should be prepared to discuss business issues and deal with coordinating different areas of expertise. The challenge is to acquire the necessary capabilities for this kind of leadership.”
Considering the difficulties of doing business in Argentina’s unstable and problematic economy, it has been inspiring to find the energy, optimism and confidence among the designers. The important lesson for American design firms is to learn from their example of working with a leaner budget without sacrificing creativity.
Life in Buenos Aires can be maddening; technologies are imperfect and always changing, the pace is swift, but still there are social graces: time for coffee or a glass of wine, perhaps the shared Mate tea. To quote Lorenzo Shakespear, “Latin America is a marvelous place and people are its most precious treasure. Regardless of the complexities, Latin America is unbreakable.” I agree. ca