“It still has a lot to do”: The history of Uruguayan design and its slow and steady influence on the world
Rosana Malaneschii – professor, writer, sociologist and volunteer at La Patria – enlightens us to the story behind Uruguayan design and its dissemination across the world (or lack thereof).
Imagining an unknown reader forces you to decide what and how you will say something. With an impressionist painting, for instance, the artist uses brief brushstrokes to show the composition, light and subject matter. When thinking about Uruguayan graphic design, perhaps it’s best to think of it as a story – the journey from craft to profession.
Until about the 1970s, designers were not called designers. Then, when the 1980s hit, the profession took off academically and it was sustained by the market. 1985 was the last year of dictatorship in Uruguay and the return of a democratic government; the dictatorial period was lethargic. Without freedom, education worsened significantly and the country lacked progress. In 1988, almost immediately after the democratic recovery, the Industrial Design Center opened in an old prison building (former Miguelete prison) with the Italian Technical Cooperation. There were workshops for carpentry, metals, ceramics, textiles, models, serigraphic and offset printing, photography, jewellery and computers. Later, in 1995, the ORT Uruguay University founded the Bachelor of Graphic Design, and its university status was recognised in 1996. This was a first of the two origins: The Design Center was state-owned and the ORT Uruguay University was private.
Since then, the industry has diversified. This has resulted in the creation of different careers in the private sphere as well as design: industrial, animation and video games, fashion, art and new technologies. This meant that design, at a private level, is now all about finding new possibilities. Together with the ORT Uruguay University, the Catholic University of Uruguay also presents some options related to visual communication and sound engineering.
Meanwhile, in September last year, we saw the creation of the Faculty of Arts of the University of the Republic approved in the public sphere. It brought the arts (dance, visual and music) and, among other degrees, graphic design and visual communication design, developed together with the faculty of architecture, design and urbanism. In the public space, then, graphic design would be thought of as an artistic option. However, with Universidad del Trabajo del Uruguay (UTU) offering a course in Graphic Design Technician, this shows how it’s more oriented towards the mastery of techniques; it aims to perfect this type of knowledge. Taking this into account, it is important to realise that the effort in segmentation accompanies a market that is diversifying. And, the focus of graphic design is tripling. One of the outputs is art or, at least, artistic, while the second would imply the technique of communication. Both rely on creativity. The third would be the technical option, which also exists in intermediate degrees at the ORT University, for example.
“Design in Uruguay has existed from the beginning.”Rosana Malaneschii
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La Patria: 8ª Feria Internacional del Libro, 8th International Book Fair, N20, Horacio Añón, 1985 (Copyright © Horacio Añón, 1985)
Uruguay has long been a land of arrival for people from different parts of the world. Until a few years ago, the organisation of Montevideo (its capital) was multi-class. This implied the coexistence of different ideas, different cultures and unequal economic classes. Alongside these factors was the absence of a community and original populations that could dispute the advent of the new. Therefore, there was no strong cultural brand identity, which was consequently reflected in the design. If, for instance, you look at the identity of the state, you can see how the colours are the unifying element and that they respond to the national flag: yellow (the colour of the sun), white and blue. The Uruguay natural logo (2001), created by the I+D Design studio, made up of CEOs Gonzalo Silva and Nicolás Branca, is another faithful example. It’s an eloquent design but lacks strong identity roots. In Uruguay, there’s no original culture that brings together and offers ways of creation. Nor, as we are seeing, is there much linked to the past. The strong symbolic appeal is marked in the flag.
To think of a definition for Uruguayan graphic design means to think of it as a vacuum of antecedents and as a possessor of world heritage. To be void of antecedents refers to the difficulty of being able to visualise its history, of being able to count on a tradition, or have a corpus for its study and use. Across the world, graphic design is a fundamentally urban phenomenon. The observer is able to distinguish many details walking through the streets, observing old and new posters or murals from a historical period, and the small details that accompany the journey. Although there are some publications, it is much more difficult to think of the history of Uruguayan design as a hierarchical subject. Del plomo al píxel (2020) by Rodolfo Fuentes is working to change that, whose proposal is to offer a historical panorama of graphic design in Uruguay.
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La Patria: Exposición Páez Vilaró, Art, Carlos Páez Vilaró, 1956 (Copyright © Carlos Páez Vilaró, 1956)
An interesting example which has provided a platform for designers or, at least, to some of their products, is that of Uruguayan digital typography. Over time, it has managed to market itself abroad through the Sociedad Tipográfica de Montevideo (2009), which has allowed it to consolidate a certain “tradition”. This detail is not minor, since most typographers are people of working age and only some are linked to the educational field. A very important detail is that Edward Johnston, considered one of the fathers of modern calligraphy, was born in Uruguay, and it’s where he lived the first few years of his life. From the point of view of background and tradition, although it was not formed in Uruguay, it is possible to view it as a sort of myth that pushes towards that theme. Perhaps he would be the greatest example of a Uruguayan designer.
“It’s a profession that is currently characterised by the search for connection with the world.”Rosana Malaneschii
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La Patria: Los Montaraces, Enrique Amorim, Arca, Carlos Palleiro, Circa 1970 (Copyright © Carlos Palleiro, Circa 1970)
Then there’s La Patria, which has existed for a few years now, created and managed by graphic designerAmijai Benderski. An ambitious company (in a good way), it seeks to strengthen memory, gather examples of Uruguayan graphic design and offer them up for viewing through the internet: it is an archive of Uruguayan graphic design. The objective is to collect different types of materials, and to classify and establish the fundamentals of what has been done over time. Obviously, the first task of history for the historian is to source the materials. In the case of La Patria, this has been achieved through private donations and searches in state agencies. The link with the latter is important, because from each search or encounter, many possible questions have arisen. The answers could give an idea of how Uruguayan society considers design, and of the value it’s given.
Another remarkable virtual venture is Mirá Mamá, a graphic design blog founded by graphic designer Carolina Curbelo, who’s also launched the initiative logoteca.uy – a page that offers vectorised Uruguayan logos for any possible job. In some ways, it’s an archive of Uruguayan design where user collaboration is also allowed – it’s a collective task that’s not just made by one person.
“Uruguayan graphic design, considered from the second half of the 80s, still has everything – or almost everything. But it still has a lot to do. Schooling takes time.”Rosana Malaneschii
In terms of poster design, there’s a collective company called Uruguay cartel that springs to mind. By organising important exhibitions, its quest is to deal with the Uruguayan poster and how the world celebrates its design. One of its members is Eduardo Davit, who won several international medals for his participation in competitions. In that vein, there’s an exhibition opening in June at the Cooper Hewitt, and Uruguayan design will be represented through a symbol for world peace created by Amijai Benderski, and one of my own posters on the same topic. This is a small sample of the diffusion of Uruguayan design throughout the world. As Antonio Machado, the poet, used to say: the path is made by walking.
Another important mention belongs to editorial design. Juan Manuel Díaz, an illustrator and graphic designer, founded a channel devoted to illustration and, through it, proposes stories without words – only visuals. This type of text is promoted by the Ministry of Education and Culture through contests, where winners participate in the Bologna children’s and youth book fair. There, ties are strengthened and possibilities of dissemination arise. This last example is important, because it shows that there is a task supported by the State. Coupled with the previous examples, these are all of the brushstrokes mentioned at the beginning – those of an impressionist painting that allows us to appreciate some issues of design in Uruguay.
What’s crystal clear, though, is that design in Uruguay has existed from the beginning, from the very first printing presses, the roots of the trade and how it’s been modified. It went from being a romantic vocation, a technical job and an art, to specialising as a profession – one that’s based on creativity with a specific functionality: communication. It’s also a career with an intensive use of new technologies. And, as Uruguayan poster design shows, it’s a profession that is currently characterised by the search for connection with the world. Uruguayan graphic design, considered from the second half of the 80s, still has everything – or almost everything. But it still has a lot to do. Schooling takes time.