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Fontana: «Collections and archives assembled abroad ratify the importance of documenting the profession’s evolution as a main cultural factor of developing societies»

In a conversation with –I–D–A Foundation, the renowned Argentinian graphic designer and printer Rubén Fontana reviewed different design icons and evaluated the role played by the State, institutions, and private actors in the protection of cultural patrimony.

Fontana is an Argentinian graphic designer born in Buenos Aires in 1942, a promoter of typography and editorial design formation within the region. He was a member of the Graphic Design Department at the Torcuato di Tella Institute (ITDT) and he performed as a researcher and teacher at the Research Center for Mass Communication, Art, and Technology (CICMAT). In 1987 he created tipoGráfica, an emblematic design publication with impressive international reach published until 2006. For the past 45 years he has headed Fontanadiseño studio, a company devoted to design and to the implementation of integral programs focused on institutional and corporate identity.

– ¿How did design emerge in Argentina?
– It probably originated as a reflection of the European developments produced during the first decades of the XXth C., under the spotlight of the Bauhaus school. In Argentina, formal design education arrived rather late; design was consolidated in the 50’s and 60’s but based on the discipline's practice. Main protagonists were formed either in publicity agencies or in Architecture and Plastic Arts schools. At that time, specific programs were established in the National University of Cuyo (UNCuyo) and the National University of La Plata (UNLP). Twenty years later, when the UBA incorporated design as a program, the discipline was completely recognized in academics and finally established within society.

– ¿Which are, in your opinion, the icons of Argentine design?
– To me, the icons are the Concrete-Invention Art group and the publication Nueva Visión, the department of Graphic Design of the Torcuato Di Tella Institute; Agens Publicity; the publication tipoGráfica; a vast array of actors who, individually and following their calling, embraced their craft during beginning stages; the Design programs of the School of Architecture, Design, and Urbanism at the UBA; and other universities, schools, and companies that promoted its integration.

– ¿How transcendent, do you think, is the conformation of design collections and archives?
In this country, precedents are too recent and fairly unknown to provide an assessment of its transcendence, but archives and collections assembled abroad ratify the of documenting the profession's evolution as a main cultural factor of developing societies.

– ¿What conditions must be possessed by institutions in order to properly preserve the memory of design?
– The first condition is to be a trustworthy institution, with administrative transparency, willing to open its patrimony to all interested sectors of society –such as students, researchers, and journalists–, and able to provide services that prove to be useful for society in general. As any other institution aiming to contribute public good, it must ensure an open and useful operation since its inception.

– ¿Does our community need a museum of design?
– A society needs a museum of design just as much as it needs a library, a painting gallery, and other types archives enable the acknowledgement, classification, organization, and display of accumulated knowledge.

– ¿What is the role played by the State and private parties in the protection and appraisal of design?
– Institutions, in general, should protect and contribute to the development of design just because it is an element connected to a specific historical context. There are institutions devoted to education, equally, there should be other institutions that protect all the baggage that has pushed us to our current state and foster its practical application. In order to achieve this, a national project that plans for the integral development of different areas must exist, since it would be very hard to consolidate all the values linked to design in disconnection to a context that actively demands them.

– ¿Why do you think private actors and international institutions show a great interest for Argentine design from a historical perspective?
– In Argentine design, there are objects and solutions of unquestionable value that, obviously, arouse specific cultural interests in other parts of the world, however – even taking into account that particular nature– there are some interests that relate to the accumulation of values and the world of collecting that consider design as a commercial and exotic object: in that case, the objective could be to achieve a lucrative gathering rather than keeping a culturally relevant record. Without research projects and useful academic proposals, a collection only has speculative value, the one assigned by the market and cumulative practices.

– ¿What are the institutional dynamics needed to achieve the research work, preservation, appraisal, and display of local design?
– Ideally, a relationship that connects all actors who participate from the field's constant evolution, such as academic institutions, researchers, historians, curators, design specialized critics, university students, and professionals, should be established.

– ¿What is the role played by mass media in the process of creating awareness about the legacy of design?
– I can't assure if the mass media currently possesses enough conceptual clarity about the subject matter to make a contribution. Neither am I certain that the present conditions prevailing in our society enable to communicate the potential of design. An institution devoted to the protection of cultural patrimony must explain, with extreme transparency, its medium and long term objectives to the media, so that they, as well as the entire society, can understand the unbreakable link that connects Design–Nation–Development. In that way, the credibility and identity of all proposals will be recognized.