An economic recession stopped Argentina from competing on the global design scene, but now it is storming back. Andy Polaine looks at the designers putting the country back on the map.
Ask an art director in New York or London to name someone they'd like to work with from Latin America and their answer might easily veer towards the Brazilian scene. However, a revival in Argentina's creative industries is seeing the country come out from the shadow of its northern neighbour. As it re-emerges from economic difficulties - Buenos Aires was one of the most expensive cities in the world - start-up studios and creative collectives are flourishing, and grabbing attention across the globe.
These upstarts are trampling over the traditional boundaries between creative disciplines, mixing illustration and street art with product design and performance, topping it off with a good dose of motion graphics and music. Their work is energetic and vibrant, with a surreal sense of humour. The vibe is fresh and unselfconscious - something art directors and clients will be taking notice of.
Argentina's old-school design tradition was laid down from the 1960s onwards by the likes of Ronald Shakespear, Ruben Fontana and Gonzalez Ruiz. More recently the 1990s saw a boom in design and fashion thanks to the progressive graphic design course at the University of Buenos Aires. But a struggling economy from 1991 to 2000 stifled the sector and Argentina priced itself out of the international market, until economic collapse in 2001 brought the exchange rate down. This, together with the internet, made it practical again for clients overseas to use Argentinian design.
"Faced with an uncertain future, all our design fields had to undergo major changes," explains Alejandro Paul, co-founder of type foundry Sudtipos. "Some graphic designers found a way to continue through the internet, by being exposed to the rest of the world and letting their skills mature on a global level. And some of the results are quite impressive."
"Now the national design market is being restructured with a new, more promising economy," he adds. "But the years we missed due to the economic disaster were very important ones in technology. They were the media years. So now we have a gaping hole between the branding and packaging designers from the late-1990s and the new media designers of today."
Much of this new work is illustration-heavy, and mixes collage and photography with innovative product design, street style and performance. Federico Gonzalez, a designer/ artist creating 'street interventions' for international clients such as Puma, says that most projects are developed through collaboration between specialists rather than being handled by a single studio.
The creative collective is also a popular working model, represented by groups like 2veinte, DOMA and Fase. DOMA preceded this new wave, having worked together for over ten years. They are fortunate enough to work mainly as artists, only putting their skills to commercial use when they are given full rein. 2veinte's style exemplifies the cutting edge of the new generation, with bold colour usage and a penchant for the surreal. It is a style that is appealing to an ever-growing list of international clients.
"Argentinian design is for export right now," say 2veinte (preferring to be quoted as a collective). "A great percentage of the clients and agencies are from outside the country - mainly Europe and the US."
MTV and its clones have clearly had a huge influence on the cultivation of these smaller studios, acting as a canvas for experimental motion design work. Fernando Sarmiento, executive producer at Buenos Aires-based motion graphics company PepperMelon, also points the finger at Miami-based duo Friends With You, whose work for the Latin-American channel Locomotion had a big impact in Argentina.
Sarmiento predicts a bright future for the studios after MTV's decision to move its Latin-American offices to Buenos Aires. "Thanks to the internet, festivals and the speed of communication, people are not afraid any more to hire talent across the ocean," he says.
Sudtipos' Paul is a little more suspicious of this interconnected, global design utopia, seeing it as both a blessing and a curse. "There have always been new waves of young creatives - they come with every generation. These days the most noticeable ones are those who get into interactive design, motion graphics and industrial pop design. This perhaps is the result of the internet and the limitless communication with the rest of the world now," he says.
Inevitably, there is a downside to this freedom. The country's once unique design style may become globalised. "I find that Argentinian designers now tend to look to the outside for ideas, rather than find the real difference inside our own culture," says Paul. "But that's the way of the 21st century."
The new generation has its own meeting place. The TRImarchi Diseño Gráfico (TMDG) festival was set up by two young designers, Pablo González Díaz and Sebastian Valdivia (also known as Acampante, the musician and VJ). Now into its sixth year, TMDG has grown quickly from its small beginnings. The 2007 festival was held in a sports stadium and had more than 5,000 attendees.
The younger 'new wave' of designers are often quite dismissive of the old-school studios, seeing them as typically conservative and boring. Yet there's certainly a place in design for this more thoughtful, considered work - not every project can or should be a fiesta of graffiti and crazy, boundless illustration. The danger here is that the new wave could end up privileging style over content, in which design becomes mere decoration instead of creative problem-solving.
TMDG has brought the creative community full circle with presentations from young guns as well as old hands, which promises to bridge this generation gap. They have also attracted plenty of big international names, such as Stefan Sagmeister and Büro Destruct, who will no doubt spread the word that Argentinian design is enjoying an exciting renaissance. The new wave will inevitably become the establishment and their challenge will be to evolve beyond the exuberant cultural mash-ups of the present and develop a truly unique Argentinian style.
Ones to watch
Colourful, edgy and often darkly surreal, 2veinte also has a cleaner side for its channel-identity motion work.
Designer turned musician and co-founder of the TMDG festival, Sebastian Valdivia invites you to join him on his adventures through sound and image.
Creating surreal worlds across film, animation and illustration led the DOMA collective to develop a comprehensive range of toys. Its Acid Sweeties are popular with the kids in the know.
A 23-year-old designer and illustrator who went freelance after starting his career at Punga. His work exemplifies the cultural/ visual mash-up that is modern Argentinian design.
Is it a music collective, a magazine or a design studio? Fase works with a blend of live action, animation and illustration.
Gonzalez uses street style and graffiti influences for his unique projects - everything from shoes to cars are his canvas.
Pedemonte's quirky Hong Kong-influenced style crosses over from print and animation work to the mandatory vinyl toys.
PepperMelon is one of Argentina's top motion graphics companies producing polished work with a distinctly neon-pop flavour.
Influenced by the popularity of cute illustrated characters doing surreal things, Punga works with motion graphics, design and art.
As one might expect from a type foundry, Sudtipos is a play on words meaning 'Southern Type' as well as 'Southern Guys'. Home to some of the most delicious typefaces on either side of the equator.