Unearthing the work of Iris Alba, the “missing link” in Latin America’s book design history

An upcoming monograph from Flecha Books sheds light on the extraordinary life of a little-known designer and art director, whose work defined the region’s modern publishing landscape.


If you find yourself in a second-hand bookshop in a Spanish-speaking city like Buenos Aires, Madrid or Mexico City, it’s likely you’ll encounter the work of Iris Alba. The book covers Iris designed over her impressive, nearly 20-year career are ubiquitous and instantly recognisable for their avant-garde illustrations, playfully contrasting type and rich use of colour. So, why is there so little known about the designer and art director? This question sits at the centre of a new monograph from Flecha Books, a publisher on a mission to showcase the work of overlooked or neglected Latin American designers.

Flecha Books founders Leandro Castelao and Francisco Roca first learnt of Iris’ work through a tip-off, after which they quickly organised a meeting with her son. In a coffee shop in Buenos Aires, he shared with the pair her vast portfolio and life’s work, from her initial sketches to original artworks and, perhaps her biggest achievement, her output while running the graphic department of one of Latin America’s leading publishers, Sudamericana. For the company, Iris produced book covers, logos, illustrations and more, defining its visual look for nearly two decades during the 1960s and 70s. From this conversation onwards, Leandro and Francisco knew they had to dig deeper.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1935, Iris married in 1957 and moved to New York. Upon arrival she didn’t waste any time immersing herself in the city’s design scene, landing a job at J. Walter Thompson agency and enrolling herself in proto-pop artist Stuart Davis’ class at the Art Students League of New York. However, after three years she experienced a serious bout of homesickness and returned to Buenos Aires. It was here that she took up a post at Sudamericana, where it didn’t take long for her to prove herself; she very quickly became art director and forged an in-house graphic department.


Copyright © Iris Alba

“Her design work renovated Sudamericana’s image and enabled it to resonate with a younger audience during the 60s.”

Leandro Castelao

Though Iris only spent three years in New York, it had a significant impact on her style and work for Sudamericana. While there, she discovered the work of former Bauhaus masters like Paul Klee and Johannes Itten, and the paintings of Lucy Lippard and Fernand Léger. The influence of the early Pop Art movement is also clear in her use of colour, which was uniquely bold for the time, incorporating hints of the burgeoning psychedelia movement too. “She definitely defined a Latin American approach to pop, psychedelia and postmodernism,” Leandro says. “Her design work renovated Sudamericana’s image and enabled it to resonate with a younger audience during the 60s.”

Inspired by such groundbreaking artistic movements, Iris adopted a similarly novel approach. She pioneered the striking use of a white background with colourful illustrations – an approach rarely seen in this period, due to how hard it was to print – and she was one of the first figures in Argentina to incorporate photography into book covers. But what makes Iris’ designs even more impressive is the conditions within which they were made: working in a time before computers, much of the work had to be done by hand.

This is why moves like using photos and pastiche were so ingenious; they allowed her and her team to work at a much quicker pace while not compromising the quality of the work, as proven by the covers for William Styron’s Esta casa está en llamas and Rosa Dror Alacid’s Cartas a Enrique, which both used photographic and paste-up processes. These methods in turn freed up time for Iris to experiment, Leandro and Francisco say, with boundary-pushing designs like the 90-degree rotating type on the cover of Virgina Woolf’s Orlando.


Copyright © Iris Alba

With such a rich legacy, it’s hard to understand how such a pioneering figure fell into obscurity, but Leandro and Francisco have developed a few theories over their four years of research into Iris’ life. Two aspects speak to the state of the design industry as a whole. One is her place as a woman in a very male-domainated industry, which likely led to her garnering much less respect than was deserved. And secondly, her location in Argentina likely played a role in her being overlooked, with mainstream design history’s perspective being limited, focussing predominantly on Eurocentric and North American culture.

On a more personal level, the abrupt end of Iris’ career came in 1976, a period when the country was entering its last and most brutal military coup, resulting in widespread social and political unrest. The end of Iris’ 17 years at Sudamericana came after her partner, the poet Miguel Ángel Bustos, was kidnapped by the military. “In spite of a few temporary gigs and personal projects, Iris was not to design on such a large scale again and would devote her last years, unnoticed and unpretentious, to teaching,” says Francisco.

After spending so many years delving into her work, Leandro is now of the belief that Iris has been the “missing link” when trying to gain a comprehensive understanding of Latin American book design’s modern history. The monograph is a beautiful attempt to rewrite this narrative, placing Iris and her wonderful work at its centre.


Copyright © Flecha Books


Copyright © Flecha Books


Copyright © Flecha Books

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

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