At the London Design Festival, keep an eye out for Uruguay

London – After Suriname, Uruguay is the second smallest country in South America – half of its nearly four million inhabitants live in the capital, Montevideo. Dwarfed by Brazil to the north and Argentina to the south, most of the headlines about the tiny nation have to do with how unexpected it is: it is the region’s democratic and liberal haven, with a high income equality earned through a commodities-based economy and a low perception of corruption – former president José Mujica famously refused to live in the presidential palace in order to reduce costs, and he would drive around in a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle.

But despite its size and its apparent radio silence, Uruguay might just be the next big thing to emerge from the Latin American design scene.

Case in point: at this year’s London Design Festival, two exhibitions will connect the country’s little known architectural past to its promising manufacturing future. Uruguay-born designer and curator Matteo Fogale is behind Hilos Invisibles, at the Aram Gallery, and A Natural Collective at designjunction. The first project has seven Montevideo studios reinterpret the archival work of the country’s most celebrated – and yet internationally unknown – modernist architect, Julio Vilamajó. The second presents a collection of furniture using natural resources, ranging from minerals to textiles, that offer a deep contrast to the export commodities the nation is known for.

We spoke with Fogale about how Vilamajó’s obscurity might be about to end, the challenges Uruguay’s design community has to overcome and what could happen once the charrúa blood takes over and the small nation gets to shed its too humble demeanour.

Fogale at the Casa Museo Vilamajó in Montevideo. In the cover image, the designers behind Hilos Invisibles.

Do the studios and designers featured in the two exhibitions share a similar career thread in terms of their academic-to-professional path? Is there a typical road for a Uruguayan designer?
MATTEO FOGALE: There are four universities in Montevideo where you can study industrial design. One of the first design schools opened in 1988, in collaboration with the Italian government, became a university only in 2010. So we are talking about a design scene that is barely a few decades old.

Most of the designers taking part of the exhibition studied together, and are used to collaborating in their country and outside its borders. I can assume that coming out of a design school in a city where there are not that many established design studios prompts you to start your own business. Most of them try their luck in neighbouring Brazil, where many design fairs and competitions take place and where a strong internal market seems to be promising. This allows them to get themselves noticed, and it is also a great way to present new products.

The British Council thought it would be interesting to shine the spotlight on a new nation, one that not many people have heard about

The past decade has seen a growing interest for Latin American-based names such as Bo Bardi and Barragán. But the British Council opened a fellowship for Julio Vilamajó, which is where these exhibitions started, as you were a fellow. Do you think there might be a growing interest overseas for his residential work? And why do you think he isn’t that well known outside of Uruguay?
South America has certainly seen a growing interest in design: countries like Mexico manage to stand out and, of course, Brazil has always been a strong contender, with a firm past in design. Uruguay finds it hard to have such a strong impact worldwide, perhaps because of its size and small population. By nature, Uruguay has a humble character, and this requires a stronger effort. Our national identity is a mix of South American cultures with a strong European influence. Perhaps because of this, the British Council thought it would be interesting to shine the spotlight on a new nation, one that not many people have heard about.

It was actually the Facultad de Arquitectura, Diseño y Urbanismo and the Museo Casa Vilamajó that first approached the British Council, having seen what they were doing in Brazil [with Lina Bo Bardi] and Colombia [with Rogelio Salmona]. These residences are a great opportunity to get to know different creative cultural backgrounds. I believe it was the sudden death of Vilamajó, at just 54 years old – whilst he was taking part on his first international project, as a member of the Board of Design Consultants for the construction of the UN headquarters – that prevented him from becoming an international figure.

Inside the Casa Museo Vilamajó in Montevideo

Having had the chance to visit his Los Claveles house, which details stayed with you?
At first I was amazed and then distressed by the condition of the house. I loved the fact that it was intact and pretty much in its original state. The light coming in from the amazing stained-glass windows was contrasted by the shadows of the wooden blinds we didn’t even dare to open. I could see the eclectic style everyone talks about, the big central wooden staircase and the carved details on the ceiling and walls made it feel very baroque, very different from his modernist home or the nearly brutalist Facultad de Ingeniería.

You could find the very recurrent garden as well, always a strong point of consideration for Vilamajó. It felt like I was stepping out into Morocco or Spain. I think the most impactful thing was its size: from the outside it appears to be just only of what it actually is. It felt as if we kept going up the stairs forever, always discovering new rooms.

And with Villa Serrana, made up of an entire village in Lavalleja, what surprised you about his large-scale vision?
Villa Serrana was one of his latest projects, and some say he was probably shifting into a completely new style. I was amazed by his consideration of designing something to fit its environment. I was surprised to see how an architect that became renowned for the use of prefabricated concrete so swiftly shifted into the territory of using traditional crafts and locally sourced materials and workforce.

The vision of creating not just a building but an entire utopian village immersed in the greenery of the Sierras was incredible. The moment I crossed the large wooden gate, welcoming you to Villa Serrana, I was beyond myself. The two buildings, Meson de las Cañas and Ventorrillo de la Buena Vista, were completely abandoned and about to crumble, and had only recently been purchased by two entrepreneurs who did an amazing job restoring them. At first sight, it might seem it’s just another thatched roof house – something often used in Uruguay. But plenty of details, such as how he uses the straws vertically on the walls with a perfectly aligned pattern – something really hard to recreate, according to the new owner – and those forward-facing windows show the work and consideration of a talented architect.

Objects inspired by Julio Vilamajó's original sketches

How did you make the selection from his drawings for Hilos Invisibles?
I was told by the British Council that they were actually the archives [donated by] his carpenter, Senjanivich y Aparicio. Several folders contained detailed production drawings and templates for furniture pieces and some architectural details. There were several furniture pieces that I found interesting, and I loved seeing the actual pieces from those drawings, such as built-in cupboards, in one of the building I visited and still being used by the current owners.

For a long time, I thought of what I could do with all of this incredible material, and then I had the idea of matching seven drawings to seven design studios to work on a furniture collection. I didn’t want it to be a clear piece of furniture, as this could influence too much the typology and design of the final piece, so instead I looked for interesting shapes, forms and details on those drawings. Some of them, I’m not quite sure what they originally were: they seem to be a column or a support for a wall-mounting lamp. I then looked at the work of each studio and tried to think which drawing could fit their style.

The small-scale manufacturing and craftsmanship they have in Montevideo is perfect for self-production and bespoke fabrication

How did you pick the studios to work with on this project?
I first met all seven studios when they were showing their work at designjunction during the London Design Festival in 2017. Uruguay XXI, a Montevideo-based agency set up to promote the national industry, creativity and culture worldwide, introduced me to them. The agency has been helping them showcase their work in London for the last couple of years; we owe them the visibility the country is getting today.

Carolina Palombo Piríz's Tutura is inspired by the 1945 Ventorrillo de la Buena Vista, a hostel and restaurant

Studio Diario's Plinto came from the detail of a possible column in one of Vilamajó's sketches

Menini-Nicola's El Secreto, a lozenge-shaped mirror, is a nod to Vilamajó's use of reflective surfaces

Muar's Americana is one of the nine resulting works that will be on display at Aram Gallery

What part of the connections made surprised you the most?
I was surprised when I heard all seven studios were producing everything in Uruguay. I thought that, having such a big manufacturing neighbor like Brazil, most of them would have looked to get their products made there. But that was not the case, and in part that was exactly what made me decide I wanted this collection to be entirely made in Uruguay. When I had the chance to visit all the suppliers, craftsmen and women, I perfectly understood why they were not looking to Brazil: the small-scale manufacturing and craftsmanship they have in Montevideo is perfect for self-production and bespoke fabrication.

And working there I found something that would be very hard, if not impossible, to find in big cities like London: the talented craftsmanship and the willingness to help, to try new techniques and to overcome different challenges, as well as the very personal and friendly relationship between the designer and the trusted maker, was great. As soon as we had an idea of what we needed to produce, all of the designers pointed to one person: Alejandro Rodríguez from Amtica, a third-generation carpenter, furniture maker and designer whose father used to collect rare veneers and woods. The enthusiasm we found in Alejandro was incredible, and without hesitation he decided to produce all of the pieces for us using some incredibly rare wood from his family collection. All in exchange for being part of something great! We had the same support from many other companies like Laviere Vitacca with their stones and Bia with glass. I just loved that companies of that size would be so interested in supporting our initiative.

Cocina by Estudio Tosca and Horing by Izzi Design, part of A Natural Collective

But you mentioned that the semiprecious stones used by Estudio Tosca in their A Natural Collective proposal are not widely used by the local industry. Why not?
I asked myself the same question several times when I was there. The country produces top quality semiprecious stones, such as agate, amethyst and quartz. And yet, aside from marketing the raw material or producing artisan souvenirs, no one has really explored the use of this material in contemporary design before. Perhaps because Uruguay is too often influenced by outside trends, they seem to ignore or take for granted their local resources, as they are seen as traditional and perhaps a bit boring. They are considered tourist souvenirs, and these kinds of stones are not very much appreciated in the international contemporary scene, as they are associated with lucky charms or jewellery. That’s why I’m really interested to see how the work of Tosca evolves.

It’s the opposite of other South American countries: Uruguayan craftsmanship can actually feel closer to what’s made in the Nordic countries

When I think of Uruguayan craftsmanship, I think of the many porongos and bombillas people carry around Montevideo and the thatched roofs on the way to Punta Ballena. But which materials, elements and techniques actually define contemporary craftsmanship?
I think it is the opposite of other South American countries: Uruguayan craftsmanship can actually feel closer to what’s made in the Nordic countries. We’ve been strongly influenced by Europe and have a tradition of manufacturing goods in natural materials such as leather and wool, and tend to avoid the use of very bold colours.

If you look at the work that Manos del Uruguay is doing with wool, it’s amazing: they manufacture for high-end European brands and export their wool worldwide; it is a top-quality raw material. There are also lots of interesting craftspeople working with ceramic and of course wood and metal, always using quiet or natural tones and subtle colour combinations. I think the best way to describe the craftsmanship is, in fact, ‘Uruguay Natural.’

Manufacturing for Hilos Invisibles, including the work of female-oriented non-profit Manos del Uruguay

Uruguay is not a place where you go for cheap stuff, but it is a place where you can find good stuff

What are the biggest hurdles the country’s design sector is facing?
Speaking as someone who doesn’t work in Uruguay, one of the issues is the costs. It’s not a cheap country, really, and manufacturing here isn’t that competitive. The quality is good but the prices are high, so Uruguay needs to overcome this obstacle. It is not a place where you go for cheap stuff, but it is a place where you can find good stuff.

Also, I think designers need to keep finding their own identity and pushing forward for something different; to stop looking at their big neighbouring countries, or even Europe, and keep building a strong national identity.

In terms of soft power alone, Uruguay tends to be overshadowed by those big neighbours. And yet, look at Chile: due to economic stability as a cause and government support for the creative industries as a consequence, we’ve seen it slowly rise as a collectible design producer. Do you think Uruguay is undergoing a similar process? Is it about to show that it is el mejor país, mejor que Francia y mejor que París?
(Laughs) Let’s hope so! The country is making a huge effort, and with the support of agencies like Uruguay XXI and the Cámara de Diseño de Uruguay, as well as places such as Sinergia Design, there’s a strong backing. They really have to be ready to keep investing in it, to support this bunch of energetic designers who are pushing hard for change. I can definitely see the potential of Uruguay becoming a hub for high-end South American design.

Hilos Invisibles is on display at the Aram Gallery from September 17 to October 27; A Natural Collective will run from September 20-23 at designjunction.

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