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Lebendiker: «At some point, design became a cult object detached from the needs of specific social actors, groups, and communities»

Adrián Lebendiker, founder and former director of the Metropolitan Center for Design (CMD), analizes from his cross-disciplinary perspective the implications of innovations within the fields of project development and entrepreneurship.

Head of Advertising Art and a Bachelor in Social Sciences and Humanities, Adrián Lebendiker has been devoted for decades to management and consultancy. As general director of Cultural Industries, focused in the formation of cross-disciplinary teams and public policy programs, he has promoted and supported the development of projects aimed at merging traditional design fields with updated practices, urban reassessment and community outreach. Following those guidelines, he established Incuba, a pioneer institution devoted to foster creative enterprises in Argentina. He is also co-founder of the food design agency deMorfa, first one of its kind in the Southern Cone.

He is a professor in the MA in Design program at the University of Palermo as well as academic coordinator of the School of Creative Enterprises in that same institution. He has advised several public and private entities and he currently directs Gloc, a consulting firm of design strategies for institutions, NGO’s, and for small, medium and big-sized enterprises.
Besides conceiving IF magazine, he co-authored the book collection “Design and Innovation for small and medium-sized businesses and Entrepreneurs”, published by Clarín. In November’s issue of the Old&Newsletter, he responds to the questions posed in its Expert Opinion section and shares interesting concepts about the meaning and the building process of object culture and about the swaying trajectory of the discipline.

–What is your experience in the field of design?
–I studied advertising art direction and performed as a graphic designer; I also hold a Bachelor’s in Social Science. Since the year 2000, I have participated in the foundation of the Metropolitan Center for Design (CMD), in Buenos Aires city, being its general director up until the end of 2007. Afterwards, I worked as a consultant for public organisms, businesses, entrepreneurs, and NGO’s in projects aimed at merging design and innovation to create a unique image for each organization. I am particularly eager to get involved in multi-disciplinary projects in which design can contribute to local development, foster the creation of innovative ecosystems, improve the competitiveness of small and medium-sized enterprises, and promote relevant, sustainable changes within society.

–What features define pieces that possess a fine design?
–It must successfully address whichever issue it was meant to solve or profit from detected areas of opportunity. It must comply with these requirements by adequately merging aesthetic, functional, and semantic features. It also has to be made with the products we have at hand in Argentina. Finally, its production process has to be sustainable from an economic, social, and environmental point of view.

–Is there a unique “Argentine design” identity? Is there a single “Argentine design”?
–The question refers to a very old debate. There are innate identities, created identities, and certain innate identities that are deliberately used to build epic identity narratives. Project culture is an offspring of macro-narratives while, at the same time, demanding the creation of hegemonic identities: a universal design, a fine design, an idea of design.
However, in our object culture, multiple identities and diverse micro-narratives interact. Which is more iconic, the BKF or the mate gourd? It will, of course, depend on who answers. Certainly, for the Guaraní people, the mate gourd was a common use artifact. For a Japanese, it is an exotic product emblematic of Argentina. The BKF, on the other hand, is a universal design associated more with its authors than with the country of origin but, despite this, it is also recognized by the community of designers as an icon of native design.
“Identity”, according to its modern definition, is what glues diverse elements and binds them to the same, overarching narrative: nations, genders, disciplines…, all of which are currently in crisis.
In my opinion, it is pointless to search for “the identity of Argentine design”. There are products, activities, traditions, and places that genuinely belong to us. All of them tell our stories and, in the end, it is the combination of all those elements represent us and our actions.

–Is design socially valued in Argentina?
–In my opinion, design does not have or shouldn’t have an intrinsic value, as is the case with art. Design must be valued pragmatically. Does design produce the most useful, beautiful, and sustainable objects? Does design boost the competitiveness of companies that profit from its professional practice? Does design solve certain problems experienced in vulnerable communities? Does design reduce urban inequalities or improve city transportation? Does design contribute to make technology more friendly? If design does any of these things, then it has a social value. If it doesn’t, us, designers, should wonder how could we leave our mark on some of the aforementioned challenges.
Having said this, I think there is an increasing tendency to appreciate design in the business circle, among entrepreneurs, and within the public sector and ONG’s, particularly in terms of valuing the solutions design can provide for problems related to production, communication, space, or general experiences, as well as its capacity to address complex problems from different perspectives.

–What is the significance of archives and design patrimonial collections?
–For a long time now, within the framework of museums and cultural institutions, design has become a field that represents a considerable part of the modern cultural production. A reflection of that is the creation of specific spaces within modern art museums worldwide meant to display the most outstanding design artwork of the last two centuries. There are even museums entirely devoted to showcase design production. Inspiring endeavors of the sort have been carried out in our country, however, so far they have been more focused in the exhibition and promotion of specific collections and less interested in developing a rigorous, museum oriented, classification system and preservation protocols.

–Why is it necessary to preserve the memory of design?
–In the first place, for some of the reasons discussed beforehand: design is part of our productive history, it influences how we conceive our cities and institutions, and it determines how we communicate as a collectivity. That is why design is a fundamental part of our culture. It is present in industrial products as well as in handicrafts; it is linked to the brands of long-standing national enterprises and of iconic products; it is embedded in renown, grandiose architecture expressions and also in the blueprints of social housing projects; it defines both industrial and signature fashion; it is related to iconic electronic devices, to software interphases, and videogames: all that, and so much more, reveal what we were and what we aspired to become as a society. That is why we must preserve and promote this legacy, in order to have sources of our own that have the potential to inspire our future projects.

–What institutional conditions are required to accomplish it?
–It must have a team of experts trained in museography and knowledgeable in national design history; enough space to safeguard on a permanent basis the wide range of original pieces that belong to the heritage of Argentine design; and a leadership team that is committed to disclose the narratives that constitute local design landscapes, thus involving the entire community in this feat.

–Why is it that in Argentina, in contrast with the rest of the world, there are almost no museum spaces devoted to design?
–That is a problem in all of Latin America, a region that has privileged museums devoted to pre-columbian and handmade production.
On the other hand, the appearance of museums dedicated to design is relatively recent worldwide due to the fact that the community of designers did not want to exhibit design pieces as artwork or outside their function-related contexts.
At the same time, museums have changed, from being mere institutions that safeguarded cultural heritage to hybrid spaces where patrimonial preservation merged with audience participation, products offered in retail stores, and the turnover of attractive content.
In Argentina, as it happened in the rest of the world, design began to infiltrate contemporary art museums through exhibitions and the products they sold in their stores.
Other initiatives of the sort originated within academic circles, however, before creation of IDA there were no museum projects aimed at preserving in a systematic way the history of local design. Of course, such an endeavor deserves total support.

–What are the future challenges that will be faced by the design community?
–What we identify as the “Argentine design community” is a group of educational institutions, a few professional associations, a considerable amount of experts and students, some journals and electronic media, a collection of organisms and public policies addressing the subject matter, entrepreneurs, icons, and a series of sponsored activities such as contests, fairs, festivals, etc.
I have always thought that the agenda of the design community must not be separated from our country’s main demands.
Design originated from the need to improve the quality, manufacture, and beauty of mass-produced items, something that the industrial revolution took away from handmade production. However, at some point design became a cult object detached from the needs of specific social actors, groups, and communities. Design’s star system is part of the international design community, nonetheless, the future of our national design should not be attached to such expectations but rather focus on finding solutions for Argentina’s specific and diverse problems. Somehow, that could be our unique contribution to world design.
This agenda covers different fields, many of which appear to be in opposite extremes. In that respect, we can include the contributions designers make by providing services and innovations to the sectors that show the biggest growth potential in our country (software development, food industry, energy, agricultural machinery, health equipment, Internet of Things and industry 4.0, and manufactures that depend on design like fashion clothing, furniture, and toys), cultural and creative industries, and handmade products, among others; generating new designs or re-designing with the goal of increasing the competitiveness of small and medium sized export companies and differentiating them; developing devices that can profit from reusable energies and more sustainable products and systems; binding knowledge, ideas, and tools to policies devoted to improve the quality of public services; getting involved in projects aiming at improving the situation of vulnerable groups and minorities by generating products, communication, and experiences that make these sectors visible to the rest of the society; devising territorial development projects that aspire to reduce the inequalities that affect our country and better exploit internal potential in each region; participating in transdisciplinary teams that could come up with innovative solutions that profit from design methodologies and logic. As producers, we need to continue developing business endeavors based on knowledge, innovation, and differentiation that will consolidate ecosystems of sustainable enterprises with growth capacity.
Finally, as a group, we must achieve greater interactions that will foster transference of knowledge and experiences. The initiatives originated from this process must be communicated both within the design community itself and to the rest of the society and to designers worldwide through international forums.