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Sánchez: «The sectors that respond emphatically to social demands are the ones related to interface design and others with an interdisciplinary foundation; it is not fortuitous that those fields provide better solutions within the global pandemic»

The head of Design of the National Arts Fund (FNA), María Gemma Sánchez, analyzes the discipline’s transformations propelled by the constant social behavior changes.

María Gemma Sánchez is an industrial design graduate from the National University of Cuyo (UNCuyo). A native of Mendoza, upon her 1980 graduation, she received a scholarship to attend the Hochschule für Angewandte Kunst in Austria. Once her training finished, she settled in Milan for more than a decade. There, she became the personal assistant of Ettore Sottsass, a post-modernism icon, for whom she managed clients, while adapting and producing jewelry, objects, furniture, and interior design for homes, offices, and exhibitions. At the same time, she designed such pieces as the Squash ceramic ashtray (1985), which has been produced by Memphis until today with different finishing styles.

Being extremely prolific in project development endeavors, she has conceived products for companies like ASIA, Ermenegildo Zegna, Alessi, Montedison, Robur, Max Klein, and Republic Moulding. She has also been a consultant for the national enterprises Easy, Essen, Kreo, Lumilagro, Modulor, and Neila.

In the sphere of cultural management, she collaborated with the creation of the Metropolitan Design Center (CMD), where she coordinated the Furnishing, Product, and Strategic Design areas during the first stage of the process. Simultaneously, she helped launch the Industrial Design program at the National University of Misiones (UNaM), with a curriculum created specifically for Argentina’s northeastern context, as well as the Design program at Austral University (UA).

Besides teaching in the National University of Northwest Buenos Aires (UNNOBA) and in UNCuyo, she performs as a member of the Advisory Board of the Design Center linked to the National Institute of Industrial Technology (INTI) and the Academic Council of DiSUR.

The current head of Design of the National Arts Fund (FNA) participates in the “Expert Opinion” section of April’s Old&Newsletter with a reflection about the penetration of design in the social fabric and its dialogue with the new demands of the global community.

–Can we rethink or redefine the meaning of design based on knowledge? And re-define knowledge from design’s perspective? Can either one be separated from the other?
–We can absolutely re-conceive and re-define not only design and society but also its mutual interaction. More so if we consider that culture is the bridge that connects both of them; according to one of the best known definitions, culture originates “when the persistent, intergenerational transmission of knowledge and behavior occurs through learning processes”.

More than ever, design is being permeated by culture at a fast pace. In this coronavirus context, wide-scope transformations become evident. Even though we are uncertain of when this will happen, it is clear that, at the end of the pandemic, society will be modified. Undoubtedly, this will be a partial transformation, since there are always elements that survive, however, this experience has such a magnitude that each and every one of us will contribute actively with the, still undecipherable but unequivocal, conditions that will ensue.

Given the current situation we can agree upon the fact that the phrase “reality imposes itself” has seldom been more overwhelmingly powerful in history as it is in the world we are facing now.

–What cases, actors, products or elements related to Argentine and international culture embody an uplifting experience of that sort?
–Based on my experience as a director in the National Arts Fund (FNA), some relevant elements have clearly developed. Nationally, all actions aimed at asserting the federal nature of design have been extremely valuable in terms of fostering changes and improvements both in Argentine society and design.

The “territorial-national” dialectic is successfully achieved when provincial territories take action and the perennial mediation with Buenos Aires, conceived as the capital of culture that conditions -and, sometimes, determines- the ways of thinking, imagining, and, in consequence, of creating and innovating, is remodeled.

The second conclusion we drive from examining the Argentine landscape (even from popular common sense) is that there exists a strong preference for specialized design rarely beaten. The sectors that respond emphatically to social demands are the ones related to interface design and others with an interdisciplinary foundation. It is not fortuitous that those fields have been the ones providing better solutions throughout the XXIst century – more so within the global pandemic context we are currently experiencing.

If we regard the international landscape, the latter claim finds a stronger support due to the theories and experiences that crisscross XXth century hegemonic disciplines with the central aim of strengthening the conception of design as attitude.

–Has the bond between design and knowledge changed throughout the XXI century as a result of new technologies and new ways of learning, living, consuming, and interacting?
–It has certainly changed. Today, the focus has, partially, moved away from the understanding of design directly connected to physical objects, even though there are still people that think that design is nothing more than beautiful chairs, lamps or cars. Designing not only equals producing nice things it has also become an environmental act, a political act, a technological art… that is, design is related to human actions and behaviors; it is an exercise of reflection upon the artifacts we create, both material and digital, and about its impact. It resembles a tsunami — the impending moment to re-think the world, and global culture, a process in which Argentina is involved.

In a recent lecture, Paola Antonelli, head of Research and Development of the New York Modern Art Museum, said it is an extraordinary event that Design schools have mutated into the places where the new geography of design is being defined. In the past, that role was played by factories; later on, during the post-industrial period, the activities linked to branding and marketing fulfilled that function; and, currently, just as those are fading away, the design schools erupted and took their place as if they were anchors attached to the territory.

–How can we boost the potential of this pairing in order to produce innovative solutions that foster improvement in such areas as social inclusion, cultural diversity, gender equality, environmental care, and access to education?
–Behavior is one of the strongest ties that bind the pairing design-society, therefore, verbs, that is actions, change alongside design.
Today’s proposal is based on the exploration, articulation, and integration of concepts –some of them imported from other areas of knowledge-, that are combined and revisited in order to apply them in thematic fields such as interaction, health, coexistence, violence, common good, citizenship, and communication, among others. Within those concepts, we can identify the processes, the systemic vision, the criticality, the visualization, the strategy, the participation, the interdisciplinary approaches, the public policies, the service, the complexity, the mile 0, the ambivalence, the organicity, the responsibility, the awareness, the pragmatism, the narratives, the fiction, the humor. By the way, this situation has also changed the links between another pairing: the form-function association. Objects (and people) participate now in a choral dynamic.

I want to cite a definition, presented by Cayetana Mercé in the December issue of the "Expert Opinion" section, that embodies these processes: “One of the challenges that will be faced in the future by the design community is, basically, the need to reformulate its teaching principles; to take into account the community, to disarticulate the canons that burden us, and to celebrate the great masters while giving them a farewell in order to welcome other ways of practicing the discipline in consonance with the social demands of our present times”.