Secret Riso Club on designing for social justice and community
The New York-based studio not only has a unique practice creating posters that serve the likes of the music community and social justice, but they also have a practice where “humanity and art are valued over consumerism.”
- Yaya Azariah Clarke
- 16 October 2023
In the last few years, there has been an undoubted rise in studios and designers working with communities in mind. At the heart of this shift is the graphic design and risograph studio Secret Riso Club. Creating posters, album artwork and other projects brimming with radiant and eye-catching compositions, the studio always has community elevation in mind. Based in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and ran by its founder Gonzalo Guerrero and Tara Ridgedell, its work incorporates social justice, art, design and community building. With the ultimate desire to embrace both of their non-traditional art backgrounds, the two founders create the work they wish to see in the world while providing an accessible space for others to join them along the way. “We truly believe we are not able or meant to function as individuals, so we cherish this time spent in community and bring it into our work,” they tell us.
Gonzalo was born in Santiago, and describes his neighbourhood as “a place where art and design wasn’t a thing”. Seldom exposed to the ideals and professions that make up the industry, his love for the act of making was birthed in an art and craft class in school. He later studied industrial design at university, where he became immersed in traditional modules such as graphics, interior design and design thinking. “I was still drawn to the less traditional courses like photography and theory and I believe that’s where my love for anthropology and social issues started,” he tells us.
Alongside running operations throughout the Bushwick-based studio, Tara also heads the in-house screen printing studio. Her work encompasses workshop planning and delivery, as well as wider community events – all of which she attributes to her background in teaching. “As teachers we had to do it all; manage emotions, write a curriculum, do administrative tasks, make presentations and most of all, keep cool under pressure,” she tells us. Recently working with a school in the local area, doing poster making workshops and zine classes, Tara comes full circle. “All we want is to provide alternative examples of success and a practice that can run in accordance to their own ethics, producing something with meaning.”
“In highly gentrified areas (like Bushwick) people don’t feel like the new businesses area is for them,” Tara tells us. In the studio’s recent project Signs and Artefacts, Gonazalo documents storefronts and businesses found throughout New York. Assembled in a range of books that focus on staple shops throughout the boroughs – Ridgewood in Queens, Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, Bushwick, Brooklyn and Lower East Side, Manhattan – it gives us a real perspective of the city outside of tourist attractions, that have little to no proximity to the experience of long-time residents. He originally took photos of these signs when he first arrived in New York, on bike rides around the city. “Once you start noticing the signs, you’ll see them everywhere. They are iconographic representations of the areas, and true markers of its cultural identity,” he tells us. The books covers each use a different typeface, but are unified by their simplistic approach, deep primary colours and pastel backgrounds, which represent the artefacts that have survived through the city’s periods. “They are often ghostly artefacts of design which connect us to an older New York that will soon be buried by gentrification,” Gonzala adds.
Planning to take the project to many cities throughout the world – from Berlin to Mexico City and Seoul – the studio aims to connect to communities of designers far and wide. But what the team holds onto no matter the breadth and scope of its work is the studio’s values when it comes to who they work with and how they make their money – whether it’s continuing to producing artwork and publications that are accessible, or providing learning experiences without financial barriers. “We believe that our wellbeing and success is in direct alignment with those we work with and service, and that work is just one part of a balanced and fruitful life.”
About the Author
Yaya (they/them) is a staff writer at It's Nice That, with a particular interest in Black visual culture. They have previously written for publications such as WePresent, and worked as researcher and facilitator for Barbican and Dulwich Picture Gallery.