Two years ago at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, the curators of this year’s Whitney Biennial were handed a book of the Puerto Rican artist Beatriz Santiago Muñoz’s film writings. They were at Muñoz’s launch party, and were struck by the varying textures and die-cuts inside the publication. Fast-forward to 2017, and that book’s creators are behind this year’s Whitney Biennial catalogue. “It was like destiny. They came up to us at Bea’s launch and told us we’d been on their radar,” says Olga Casellas, the founder of this San Juan-based studio Tiguere Corp.
The catalogue is a serious black tome speckled with mathematical yet mystical symbols, and expresses the exhibition’s conceptual emphasis on negating binaries, encrypted messaging, spirituality, and queerness. “We’re a low-profile studio from a tiny island in distress, so getting the Whitney job was interesting,” says Casellas. “We didn’t even have a portfolio up online; most of our clients come to us through word of mouth.”
Tiguere Corp is more social think tank than conventional graphic design agency. Founded five years ago, the collective of six graphic designers, project managers, architects, and industrial designers extend their interest in design not just to the development of products and brands, but towards the structure of wayfinding systems, business plans, and neighborhoods. A few years ago, Casellas began venturing into ecological agriculture, applying her training and thinking as a graphic designer to developing a system that would allow farmers to make more money from harvesting organic produce.
In terms of Tiguere Corp’s graphic output, the studio has primarily worked with artists in Puerto Rico on catalogues and project-based publications; a central concern is the way an object will sit and feel in your hands. “That’s why we use videos on our portfolio instead of stills,” says Casellas, keen to emphasize the tactile experience that’s central to Tiguere Corp’s editorial approach.
It’s only been since releasing the Whitney catalogue that the studio has had a serious online presence at all; the idea of a portfolio makes Casellas shudder, she’s certain that when a client makes an approach based on work they have already seen, it’s because they want it repeated. A portfolio can discourage innovation.
“With Tumblr and the way work is displayed online, design is reaching a point where a client wants you to be a stylist,” says Casellas. “This isn’t how we like to work. We don’t know what we’re going to do before we start; instead we make sure that the concept is solid. If it’s solid, then the design won’t look like anything else. Sometimes thinking in this way means fighting with our egos, but a piece of design should look like what it’s supposed to be, not like something that’s been done elsewhere and for someone else.”
An element of personal experience is still central to the Tiguere Corp design process, as becomes clear when looking closely at the studio’s catalogue for the Whitney. “During our initial meetings with the curators, they were very clear about the conceptual framework for the biennial. It was a couple of months before Trump, but the themes of queerness, social movement, and spirituality were very much present in their vision—all ideas close to us. The curators were open to our interpretation of these themes, and wanted us to have our say.”
To organize the catalogue, Tiguere Corp created a series of circular symbols for the top of each page. As each section of the catalogue waxes, more symbols get tacked onto this top section, animating like a flip book as the icons increase in number. With this, Tiguere Corp evokes a progress bar and digital encryption, yet the design of the circles and crosses, which resemble symbols cut into stone, draws vaguely from the studio’s Puerto Rican backgrounds and Casella’s own fascination with mysticism.
“We looked a lot at Ifá, a system of divination that has modified forms throughout the Americas, West Africa, and the Canary Islands,” says Casellas. “We were drawn to how the Ifá method of divination works using only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers.” For a biennial dealing in part with the exploration of restrictive binaries, Tiguere Corp’s research centered on what a binary visual language could look like. The evocative circles and crosses that draw very subtly from Ifá are one answer to evoking dualism—but also, in alluding to magic and the spiritual, they represent mysterious, indefinable things that cannot be categorized.
This design detail is ambiguous but stems from political thinking in its exploration of binary, and it’s disappointing that the sensibility of political awareness it so abstractly suggests hasn’t translated to the show itself, as recent protests around the exhibition’s disrespectful choice of displaying Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket have made clear.
“This catalogue has been key for us,” says Casellas when I ask her about the design scene in Puerto Rico as a whole, where the studios that survive function more as ad agencies, and post-Colonial economic and political hardship has restricted creative freedom and experimentation. “It’s symbolic and important for us to work outside of Puerto Rico, and for other designers and artists here too.”