Uruguay rarely makes headlines. The small South American country of just 3.4 million people is mostly known for fútbol, renewable energy and legalizing marijuana. But in recent years a quiet design revolution has swept across the country. Despite the fact that it has only been possible to study industrial design in Uruguay for a little over a decade, local designers are now taking home international awards and expanding beyond neighboring Brazil, its main market and into the rest of the world.
Yet industrial design is almost an oxymoron in Uruguay. The country has very little heavy industry, which makes mass production difficult, but the limitations have inspired a minimalistic, timeless design aesthetic that draws on both South American and European—particularly Nordic—influences (almost 90 percent of Uruguayans are of European descent). It’s almost like the slow food movement for furniture—products conceived by an industrial design mindset but made by hand working closely with local craftsmen such as carpenters, potters and wool manufacturers with a focus on high-quality materials.
ArchiExpo went to Montevideo to meet some of Uruguay’s leading designers, and it soon became clear that there’s a strong sense of community among the local designers. They travel together (Uruguay has a joint stand at London’s Design Junction in September), share manufacturers and information and understand that in order to make a splash worldwide they need to work together.
Despite being founded in 2008, Menini Nicola is already the “grand old man” of Uruguayan furniture design. In its first year, the two founders, Agustín Menini and Carlo Nicola, took home two awards at Salaõ de Design in Brazil, Latin America’s largest furniture exhibition, and since have been design pioneers in Uruguay.Their aesthetic is expressed in Rack San José, a minimalistic, classy console with rounded edges and doors that open smoothly when pressed. A new version of the console uses louro preto, a chocolaty brown South American hardwood with a contrasting light grain in the center.
“It’s really high-quality wood and the center grain is unique to each piece,” says Agustín Menini.
Though the company doesn’t deny its Nordic influences, Menini Nicola is now taking a bold, new direction. Sorvete is an informal couch made for socializing, and the wood plays second string to the bright pink velvet. The fitting name, meaning ice cream in Portuguese, is a nod to their biggest market Brazil.“We have to accept where we’re from and stop trying to make IKEA-like furniture. Our aesthetics may be related to Scandinavia because it’s rough and simple, but it’s not Scandinavia. It’s simple because Uruguay is simple, and everything goes slowly here,” says Agustín Menini.
He wants to break the cycle of cheap imported furniture from China and in a small country where everyone seems to know each other that is achieved through building strong relationships with local manufacturers and craftsmen.
“These days we’re more focused on organic design. We like to work with the things we have around—you can develop a really nice chair but if there’s no story behind it, it’s just another chair,” he says.
Despite graduating in 2008 with a degree in industrial design, Claudio Sibille didn’t get his big break until 2012, when he won a gold medal at the A’ Design Award for Ludovico Office, a compact drawer conceived for small spaces with a hidden chair that is extracted from the piece itself.
“That’s still one of my favorite designs, though I no longer design with small spaces in mind,” he says.
“I was just playing around and deleted the chair out of the rectangle and it came to me, that there are lots of useless spaces within a cabinet.”
Like several other Uruguayan designers, Claudio Sibille has licensed several of his designs to Oppa and Tok & Stok, Brazil’s two largest furniture retailers that seem to be smitten with Uruguayan style.
“In Uruguay, we design with what we have, so you’ll hardly ever see plastic. What we do have in abundance is wood,” he says.
“Most people would characterize my aesthetic as Scandinavian. What I like about Scandinavian design is that it never gets old—you can see a Finn Juhl chair in 100 years and it’s still contemporary,” Claudio Sibille says.
So it’s no surprise that that aesthetic is visible in Claudio Sibille’s favorite design: the entirely wooden, reclining lounge chair, Sky Easy Chair.
“I tried to make the most complex piece of furniture with the simplest techniques possible. It’s a challenge to not have the tools that one might have in Brazil or Europe or the U.S. and it compels you to design something commercial with lots of technological limitations.”
The talented young duo behind Estudio Diario, Ana Sosa and Guillermo Salhón, focus on small objects and home accessories, though they also venture into bigger pieces of furniture like one of their favorites, the Junta bench. Though they started selling their products as recent as 2014, Estudio Diario have already made a name for themselves with multiple awards at Salaõ Design and A’ Design Award.
“We were encouraged by the success of other Uruguayan design studios and started making a small collection with the help of local craftsmen and small factories,” says Guillermo Salhón.
The idea for their most popular product, Tarro, came from meeting a local potter who uses a lathe—a tool traditionally used for turning wood or metal—to turn ceramics. The containers are made from a type of clay that has a unique peachy color.
“We love ceramic, but most ceramics here have a more artistic look. The Tarro has a simple and intuitive shape so you can put it anywhere and it fits different styles and uses,” says Guillermo Salhón.
Estudio Diario aims to create objects that are timeless and built to last. Simple shapes and colors are crucial, and they try to maintain the natural color of the material.
“It’s very honest—you see the product and you know what the material is,” says Guillermo Salhón.
In keeping with that belief, they don’t crank out a ton of new products every season but stick to a thoughtfully curated small collection.
“We try not to be influenced by trends, but by making the material the most important thing about the product. If you buy a pair of jeans and the material is poor, you have to throw them out. The same goes with furniture. We want people to be in love with our products,” says Ana Sosa.
The husband-and-wife team behind Amueblate comes from a unique combination of backgrounds that make them stand out in the Uruguay design scene: Andrea Kac has a degree in product design and previously worked as a shoe designer, while Herman Schenck is an engineer.
“We focus on small spaces, since we live in one ourselves, and we include technology in our designs. We live in a technological world and technology evolves a lot faster than furniture so we try to make the connected life easier with our designs,” says Andrea Kac.
It has also helped them earn international recognition through competitions in New York, Milan, Saõ Paulo, Madrid and Budapest for designs such as the cleverly named One Night Stand. The colorful nightstand showcases their retro aesthetics and technology-friendly approach as it has a hidden charging station built into it.
“Everyone charges their cell phone every night, so why not incorporate that into it the furniture,” says Herman Schenck.
Functionality is another important aspect visible in their best-selling product, Dock. The desk has a compartment to hide a laptop charger and rivets to tame our growing array of wires, but the stroke of genius is the plastic piece that comes off to make a portable laptop table that can be used while sitting on the couch.
“It really increases the functionality of the furniture at a very low cost,” says Herman Schenck.
“The way we use furniture is changing. Millennials don’t want classic furniture that only has one function, so there are different ways to use each of our products.”