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Situated at the far edge of the South American continent, bound on the east by the icy Andes and on the west by the Pacific Ocean, Chile is geographically remote. And for many years it was culturally apart, too: the Pinochet government kept the country politically isolated into the early 1990s. Under this isolation, the Chilean design sector has struggled. While architecture found itself a rich local seam, primarily designing second homes for the rich, designers found it difficult to succeed: limited local demand and a lack of manufacturing capacity stunted the industry and few Chilean furniture or interior designers have emerged.
But that is beginning to change. Incomes in Chile are rising, and now approaching an average of $20,000 per person per year. According to the International Organisation of Migration, 2.3 per cent of the total population in 2013 was of foreign origin. Although this may seem low, the country has seen a rapid increase in migrants over the past decade. Santiago, the capital, feels like a cross between Madrid and Melbourne, with a smattering of bohemian and creative neighbourhoods, a thriving café and bar culture and a skyscraper-lined business district, known locally by the nickname Sanhattan, attracting increasing wealthy consumers.
Christian Erdmann is chief executive of Santiago-based design retailer Cómodo, which now has three stores in the city. “Chile is growing fast,” he says. “We have stable governance and a growing economy and as the large middle class gets wealthier, people are beginning to seek out and buy Chilean design.”
The Chilean government too has spotted the potential of the industry, earmarking it as a sector of strategic importance and charging its export arm, ProChile, with the role of promoting design overseas.
“We are looking to incorporate more than just primary industries in our export programme,” says Carlos Honorato, director of ProChile. “At the moment almost 50 per cent of our exports come from copper alone. To reach our development goals, we realise that we need to focus on value-added products and on industries that are more talent- and people-focused.”
Honorato points to South Korea as an example of an economy that has successfully shifted the balance from commodities to high-tech industries. “We need to shift the balance and we see design and the creative industries as a sector to help us do that.”
As a result, a post-Pinochet generation of Chilean designers is starting to emerge, finding a growing market at home and beginning to make their mark at international trade fairs and in stores and galleries across Europe and the US.
GT2P (gt2p.com) is one of the rising stars of Chilean design. Positioned firmly at the design-art end of the spectrum, GT2P was founded in 2009 and the group’s work is available in galleries around the world, including Rossana Orlandi in Milan and London’s 19 Greek Street. It has also been asked to exhibit at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design and will create an installation at the Victoria and Albert Museum for the 2014 London Design Festival in September.
Typical of GT2P’s work are its bronze Royal Mahuida vases (priced from £5,000 for a limited edition collection of six pieces). Mahuida means “forest” in the Chile’s native Mapuche language, and the shapes of the vases were inspired by the spiral growing pattern of the native araucaria tree. The vases are digitally printed before being die-cast in metal in moulds created from the 3D printed models.
“We call it digital handicraft,” says Eduardo Arancibia, chief executive of GT2P. “We design digitally and then create the pieces using local materials and traditional craft skills, which also ensures that the work stays connected to our Chilean heritage.”
Most Chilean designers strongly reference national heritage in their work. Furniture and product design group Bravo allows its Chilean roots to shine through in its use of local materials, particularly copper and wood. La Familia (from £150) is characteristic of the group’s work: a family of nine differently shaped storage canisters featuring glossy copper lids and finely turned native Lenga wood bases.
“In a way, isolation was good for us because it helped us develop a local style. We were forced to work within the techniques and traditions that existed here. We grew into a habit of working with the minimum and taking advantage of the materials that are available,” says artist and designer Sandra Pope. The group consists of her in partnership with brothers Matias and Rodrigo Bravo.
Architect Matias Ruiz set up his architectural practice Ruiz Solar in 2005. Six years later he also started designing furniture. His range today includes the M100 chair, a geometrical rope chair with a copper-clad base (from £1,000), and the L120 lamp, which is made out of Lenga wood (from £690). Ruiz too believes that the country’s past isolation has been the force behind his own creativity.
“We are a long way away from the rest of the world and this distant perspective gives us an unusual point of view, a different take,” he says.
But some younger designers take a different view: for this group, Chile’s isolation is no longer a factor. G2TP, for example, says it has embraced a global mindset. “We see ourselves as part of the international, gallery-led sphere of design,” says Arancibia. “We go to all the big international fairs and almost all of our customers are international.”
Having both studied and worked abroad, 25-year-old ceramicist Ignacia Murtagh also has an international outlook on the design sector. Murtagh spent time on an exchange programme in Denmark and on a single-semester programme at the Royal College of Art in London. Also in the UK, she secured an internship at the porcelain manufacturer Royal Crown Derby, and is now working with a US brand to develop a new furniture collection.
Murtagh’s first ceramics collection, Lof (which means “family” or “clan” in the Mapuche language), was a contemporary interpretation of ancient traditional pieces by the Mapuche people (from £750 for the eight-piece collection). The only difference is that she used simple white porcelain rather than the heavier clay that would have been used originally.
“There is no tradition of working with porcelain in Chile. Pottery here tends to be earthenware and more grounded,” she says. “The first time I saw this beautiful pure white material was in Copenhagen and it immediately made sense to me.”
“Chile clearly has an impact on my work,” adds Murtagh. “The strong, natural landscape is inspiring and the native traditions are beautiful too. I want to extract those cultural influences and incorporate them into my design but my influences are taken from all the places where I’ve worked and studied.”
Matias Bravo agrees. “We are a global generation,” he says. “We share ideas online and we listen to the same music and see the same art as designers in Beijing, the US and Europe. Our influences are becoming more and more similar; it’s an unconscious globalisation.”
It will be interesting to see how this unconscious globalisation affects Chile’s distinct design language, and to see whether designers will continue to create pieces with a strong local vernacular, or if their work becomes more anodyne.
Bravo believes the benefits of creative globalisation outweigh the losses. “It makes our work particular to Chile but also recognisable to a wider audience: our pieces are simultaneously both familiar and strange,” he says.