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Chaves: «Patrimonial collections and archives safeguard the ‘cultural legacy’ of the new generations of specialists: design archives are (or should be) the ‘libraries’ of designers»

Norberto Chaves, essayist, professor, and consultant specialized in project culture, gave us his point of view about the significance of design and its legacy within social, cultural, and productive contexts.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1942 and settled in Barcelona since 1977, Norberto Chaves is undisputedly a key representative of design thought and management in Ibero-America. His formative background –he studied Philosophy and Architecture in the University of Buenos Aires (UBA)– was crucial for his professional development, since it was defined, from its inception, by a fusion of theory and technique. Once settled in Barcelona, he began developing an intense teaching career, institutional management activities, and work to promote Spanish design, while scholarly collaborating with different Latin-American universities. Alongside his partners Oriol Pibernat, Carles Pibernat, and Raúl Belluccia, he advised institutions, companies and big Spanish and Argentine corporations on issues such as identity, communication, and branding for more than four decades.

His thoughts are displayed in some twenty books and countless articles. Multifaceted, as he is, he has also published essays about homosexuality and post-modern culture, as well as poems and aphorisms. As part of the interview series conducted by –I–D–A Foundation for the “Expert Opinion” section of its Old&Newsletter, Chaves, who acts also as Concept consultant for the foundation, shared his thoughts about the preservation and activation of the memory of design in today's world.

–What is your experience in the field of design?
–I began working in Buenos Aires, in the Alberto Armas Harley studio, as an interior and equipment designer for big hotels, banks, companies, and residences. Alberto was my first teacher. In Barcelona, the market, dominated by graphic designers, shifted my career towards the field of image and communication. Gradually, I specialized in diagnosing and programming complex projects related to corporative identity and branding. That allowed me to work as program director alongside important designers who taught me true “live” lessons: Yves Zimmermann, América Sánchez, Rubén Fontana, and a complete second generation of excellent designers from Barcelona, Madrid, and Buenos Aires.

–What characteristics must a piece possess in order to be considered fine design?
–The only requirement that can be universally demanded to any kind of design, from all fields, is that it fully complies with the program by adding values.

–¿Is there such a thing as an “Argentine design” identity? ¿is there a single essence of “Argentine design”?
–I cannot think of anything specific that could be labeled as “the Argentine” characteristic in Argentinian design production. A style or a formal language? A methodology? A particular thematic? Design is a productive activity of international outreach. It is practiced everywhere in virtually the same way. That is the reason why so many Argentinian designers have been able to integrate into very different countries without modifying their work habits and achieve huge professional success. Maybe, in some areas of design we can find pieces that incorporate local cultural features, but it is impossible to replicate the same characteristics in such a broad and heterogeneous thematic field. Most of the design produced in Argentina could have been created just the same in any other country of the world. That is a merit. Not everything must necessarily be local; that requirement only when it is explicitly demanded by its program.

–¿Is design valued by society in Argentina?
–Design does not need to be “socially” valued; it just needs to be valued by their main patrons: the companies and institutions that demand it. Society, as a whole, has to learn to value the quality of products (may God help it). Based on my experience in Argentina, I conclude that there is an important design market nationwide led by directors that are as updated as their colleagues in any European country. Of course, these experts co-exist alongside newbies or, worse, directors that think they know about design but hire the worst professionals. Graphic design is, perhaps, the specialty that has suffered the most from the cultural decadence of its management representatives, a trend that is taking place worldwide.

–¿What is the significance of design archives and patrimonial collections?
–To safeguard the “cultural legacy” of new generations of professionals related to the field. Design archives are (or should be) the “libraries” of designers. All aspiring designers must be aware, since their first day of instruction, that he or she will become part of a professional group that has a long history, one that started even before the new generations were born. This legacy, of course, was consolidated by the big masters of the field, from whom fundamental lessons must be learnt.

–¿Why is it necessary to preserve the memory of design?
–Because amnesia exterminates culture in all fields, including ethics and politics. Memory is essential simply because those who exert Power think the opposite.

–¿What are the conditions that enable institutions to preserve memory?
–To be consolidated as an undisputed authority on the subject. This means that the institution must be renowned and backed as such by social actors, public and private alike. To achieve that, its members must be “true authorities on the subject”, not only good designers but expert analysts with objective and supported selection criteria, free from subjectivity or personal bias. From the get go, “divas”, prestige seekers, public officials, and professional politicians must be excluded from this group of consultants with “legal capacity”.

–¿Why is it that in Argentina, contrary to what happens in the rest of the world, there are almost no museum-like spaces that give design a place?
–I don’t think that “the rest of the world” assigns a proper space for design in their museums. Neither I think that design should, necessarily, be present in museums. It belongs in archives and in temporary, monographic exhibitions. The global tendency to put everything in museums, including design, is a classic symptom of the post-modern “culture of simulation”. On the other hand, which boundaries would limit that “thesaurus”? What would be included in its territory of objects? Even if we were to exclude pieces of faulty or irrelevant design, the landscape of design gets lost on the horizon. Until this day, I have not stumbled across one single criterion to select material that minimally convinces me. “Luckily”, the current collapse of Argentine industry has significantly reduced the universe of products that are designed in the country. At least in the field of industrial design, such products could indeed end up in a hypothetical (and very much needed) “Museum of Argentine Industrial Archaeology”.

–¿What are the future challenges that will be faced by the design community?
–I have no idea and I seriously doubt anyone knows, since the future is basically something that does not exist yet. However, if an enlightened being could predict it, the best thing would be to keep it a secret. This interrogation reminds me of the last question posed to Charles Eames in his famous survey:

 –¿What is the future of design?
 –(No answer).