SND-BA: A sneak peek at Argentina

By Mauricio Gutierrez
Deputy Design Director/Features, Detroit Free Press

If you’re thinking that SND Buenos Aires could be a good conference to attend in 2009, put in your vacation request ASAP! Buenos Aires is piping hot. Has anyone counted how many stories on the city have run in The New York Times lately? A lot.

And for a good reason. I went there a few weeks ago and can give you a sneak peek at what you may see while you’re there enjoying the Workshop.

First, clear your calendar for at least a week: you’ll need the time. After flying ten or more hours, you’ll want time to relax and stroll around the city’s many neighborhoods.

At first, the city’s charms underwhelmed me. It’s a big city with big city problems: pollution, traffic, dog poop. But look past all that and you’ll find a great place, one inspiring and show-casing design.

The amount of visual stimulation is surprising. From fantastic architecture to well designed stores, from colorful facades to ornate signs, there’s so much to take in. Among the amazing things I saw were hand-painted signs. Not your average signs, these were full of color, great typographical sense, and fanciful designs. They’re a unique artistic expression called “fileteado porteno,” an art form that started as a way to identify carts at the market. It was then transferred to other vehicles. Now you see it everywhere, from menus to McDonald’s. I love its naive simplicity and bought a sign painted by an artisan in San Telmo, an up-and-coming neighborhood with an art fair and flea market on Sundays. Though you can find many street vendors and artists selling signs in the fileteado style, each shows various skill levels. By far, the best sign painter was Marcelo Arias. His trace and color sense were fantastic. I also bought a book on the subject, “Fileteado Porteno,” by Alfredo Genovese to learn more about its history and current use. When you’re in Buenos Aires pick up a copy of the book, it’s an indispensable reference book for any designer.

Just walking around the city, I saw some of the best use of color, particularly around the neighborhood of La Boca — (for soccer fans) home to the Boca Juniors stadium where Maradona played — with its multicolored homes and shops. And don’t forget the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s White House but in a nice pink hue. How great is that? An explosion of colors.

One day I visited the Hotel Faena in the new neighborhood of Puerto Madero, a place of warehouses renovated into expensive condos, hotels, and restaurants. Faena is the fanciest of these. This Phillip Starck-designed hotel epitomizes the use of color. Its dark entrance, a long hallway in reds and blacks flanked by windows covered in red velvet, contrasts with the bright outdoors. This hotel is all about drama. While there I ate at Bistro, a restaurant decorated in pristine white. I sat on an overstuffed armchair upholstered in white leather near walls covered with white curtains on which were mounted the “stuffed” heads of white unicorns wearing ruby necklaces for a touch of colorful whimsy. The place is like a stage with the guests as actors in a fantastically choreographed meal. One waiter after another, different faces every time, all in white, carried foods that were colorful and delicious. It was one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time.

I stayed in the San Telmo neighborhood at the small (16 rooms only) and minimalist Ribera Sur Hotel and loved it. Their service was impeccable, and their location great, just two blocks from a main square, the center of San Telmo, and a short cab ride from the Casa Rosada. Traveling around the city by cab is inexpensive, safe, and the best way to see the city. My hotel was just one of the many with a design sensibility that abounds in the city. The neighborhood with the highest concentration of well-designed stores and restaurants is Palermo, around the Soriano (Cortazar) Square. Here, one can find restaurants for every taste, from Scandinavian to sushi, and stores filled with local designers’ goods. Visit Papeleria Palermo, the best stationary store I’ve seen in a long time, where I found notebooks with Eva Peron’s face on their covers and many hand-made papers — all made on the premises. Plus art books and wrapping papers with whimsical designs that you could frame and hang on your wall.

Now about food — if you’re a strict vegetarian, you’ll have some difficulty in the land of the pampas, where large hunks of grilled beef are the staple. I generally don’t eat beef, but I tried it and was hooked. The beef is not marinated or seasoned. They only add some salt and call it a day. It was great. With that, a simple salad, and an Argentine Malbac wine (red, of course) you have a great meal for two for under $20. A bargain. And when you make reservations for the city’s many great restaurants, make it about 2 to 4 hours later than you would in the States. Argentines follow Iberian time — dinner starts around 10 p.m. I made the mistake of reserving a table at Bistro for 8:30 p.m. I was their only customer; thankfully by 10 p.m. the place got busy. And, of course, bars and clubs stay open (i.e. get busy) very late in the evening or very early in the morning, depending on how you look at it. The city has a great variety of bars, clubs, and cafes. Every day you can visit a different one and it’ll be packed with tourists and locals.

It’s certainly a city with a great cafe culture. Sip a cafe con leche (espresso with warm milk) and nibble an alfejor (chocolate or meringue covered cookies with a center of dulce de leche — caramel) while reading the newspaper or watching the crowds.

I also wanted to report on the site of the SND Workshop, so I visited the conference center where it will take place, The Borges Cultural Center, which is inside an old department store (circa 1889) turned into a mall. The center is on the top (fourth) floor and contains several auditoriums and conference rooms. The building itself is impressive with vaulted glass ceilings, giant frescoes, and, oh yeah, over a hundred upscale stores where you can spend your money between sessions (be sure to get your tax-free refund forms from the venders) and even have your purchases delivered to your hotel. I recommend buying leather goods. You’ll find great prices and the softest leather. I probably bought a cow’s worth of leather.

Like any newspaper nerd, I also visited Clarin, the newspaper host of the SND Workshop. My thanks to Pablo Loscri, their Graphics Director, who showed me their newsroom. Though it’s not the most inspiring one I’ve ever seen — rather dark with bland corporate furniture — it was great to see where a renowned newspaper is crafted and meet some of their designers and graphic artists. Very cool. I also looked at a few of their graphics entries for this year’s SND competition, which are very strong. I look forward to seeing how they fare.

The people of Buenos Aires were very courteous, always trying to help. Not many speak English, but they try. If you know a little Spanish, it will help. And I never felt unsafe in the city.

You may wonder why I didn’t mentioned tango. Well, I didn’t go to any touristy (expensive) tango shows. I ran from those places. I wanted something authentic, where locals danced and tourists were seldom found. But I ran out of time and energy, so that’s another reason for me to go back. That and the chance to see again a city infused with great design. I’m already counting the days.

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