The back view of Archivo. Photo by Pia Riverola©

In the western neighborhood of Tacubaya in Mexico City, just beside the famed Casa Luis Barragán, sits a minimalist 1952 residence built by the much less famous architect Arturo Chávez Paz. The building’s front sports a flat, Brutalist facade and bright blue industrial doors; a tunnel-like path from the street to the back of the house opens up to a lush jungle of a garden, designed by Barragán, where vines snake up bleached walls and monkey grass carpets the floor. The back of the house is glass and open, showing an exhibition space and library through its enormous windows.

This is Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura, an archive of more than 1,500 industrial design and architecture objects, and a space dedicated to showcasing Mexico City design and the design of Mexico in general. It was founded in 2012 by the architect Fernando Romero and his wife Soumaya Slim de Romero (the daughter of Carlos Slim Helú, a Mexican business magnate, who in 2013 was ranked the richest man in the world). Romero once used the house as his own office, but it’s now home to Archivo’s extensive and growing archive, which began with his personal collection and now features works from both Mexican and international designers. Since Mario Ballesteros came on as director and chief curator in 2015, the multi-use space has evolved to house all sorts of things in the name of furthering research into Mexican design—with a revolving exhibition space, a cafe, library, reading room, open archive, and an office for a close-knit three-person curatorial team.

Archivo backyard garden, designed by
Luis Barragán. Photo by Emilio Diaz©

When I meet Ballesteros and assistant curator Alejandro Olávarri by the coffee hut in the backyard, they tell me how the collection has grown from what was mainly a personal collection of chairs that Romero began when he was still in architecture school, to something much broader in concept. “The question, ‘What should a Mexican design collection be?’ has always been in the backdrop,” Ballesteros says. He and Olávarri share the belief that design education in Mexico is too focused on production, and not enough on design history and criticism. They wanted the archives to be a public place for that sort of research. “We were really interested not only on the exhibition program, but also how the space can work as more than a gallery—sort of an active resource for the design community.” 

The space certainly feels communal: as we speak, the third curator, Pedro Ceñal, gives a tour of MXCD01: Presente, an exhibition on design in Mexico City and one of a three part series focused on the past, present, and future. Upstairs the permanent collection is open to all, and students and teachers are welcome to browse the 3,000-volume art and design library. A cozy reading room near the exhibition space holds books that give further context to the subject of the show. The focus on research and an open ethos gives the space the feeling of a university; while the very modern residential backbone of the place makes it feel stylish yet homely. Barebones wire shelves by Giacomo Castagnola, an emphasis on flexibility in the space, and the ever-changing exhibitions give it a sense of constant shifting and experimentation—a situation that is also reflected in Archivo’s new and still-developing graphics program.

Olávarri, who works as a curator but also has a background in graphic design, is the institution’s sole graphic designer. For the past two years, he’s been rethinking the entirety of Archivo’s visual communications, bringing the identity branding, promotional and exhibition graphics, and web design all in-house. Rethinking the design has given the team a chance to take stock of how the institution has expanded and changed since its founding, and to define its current incarnation for a wider public. “When I came on, it was confusing,” says Olávarri. “Nobody really knew how to present Archivo, or how to talk about it, how to adapt all these different exhibitions, contents, and viewpoints as something that has some sort of underlining logic.”

The original graphic identity, designed by Sociedad Anónima and S consultores en diseño, featured simply the wordmark, set in Electra, flanked by two lines above and below the AAt the time of the initial design, Archivo was a design archive and not much more, which the lines did well to represent. But by the time Olávarri came on, they felt restricting and inaccurate in depicting the other roles that the space had taken on—archive, library, community space, publisher. Olávarri removed the lines from the logo, developed a set of pictograms that represent different aspects of the institution, and established a grid. A bright, primary blue became the core color for the new system, and Electra got a complementary typeface in Neuzeit.

In the past, for each new exhibition, Archivo hired an outside designer or studio to do the graphics and identity for the show, making the overall visual communications as morphing and in flux as the exhibitions themselves. “The formula for the first couple of years was that we’d bring in a guest curator, either from a design background or art and architecture background, and she would be invited to sort review and give a different reading of the permanent collection,” says Ballesteros. As the team sought to establish consistent programming, it was important for them that the design reflects that, but without losing the flexible, experimental nature that makes the space interesting. Olávarri now does most of the exhibition branding, with occasional help from contracted studios. 

Importantly, before Olávarri came on, there was also no concise way of describing what Archivo is, and of communicating its value in furthering education on Mexican design. The team came up with the phrase, “Archivo is a SPACE dedicated to COLLECTING, EXHIBITING, and RETHINKING design and architecture,” a distillation of the way they had been thinking of Archivo internally into an effective message to the outside.  From there, “everything started to make a bit more sense,” says Olávarri.

The other big component to the redesign process has been revamping the website, a working version of which can be seen here. Soon, the homepage will feature the above phrase, with each highlighted word leading to its own section on the site. Each section will contain different categories or functions relevant to its word, all of which will be represented by one of the pictograms in the system. The abstract shapes of the pictograms will be draggable so that the website can be “rearranged,” much like the curators do with the physical exhibition space.

In that way, the website will cleverly reflect the flexibility of Archivo while also maintaining graphic consistency and giving information on what’s going on in the space. In the SPACE section, visitors can find the history of the house and information about the cafe and design store. The RETHINKING section will contain essays, research papers, opinions, videos, graphics, symposiums, and talks that relate to the exhibitions. “The [website] navigation is so random, but that’s also how you navigate the space,” says Olávarri. “We wanted to challenge the typical linear navigation of an institution website.”

Meanwhile, the curatorial vision for the space remains the same: to provide a unique resource for design in Mexico throughout history. The institution’s flexibility is seen in its approach to the field of design, too, which Ballesteros considers widely and holistically. “Design in Mexico is still very categorized: you’re either a graphic designer or an industrial designer, or an architect, and there’s very little communication or exchange between these professional disciplines,” he says. “That’s something we try to push, all the time. Design is design is design, whether it be architectural, graphics or whatever else.”

Design for Mexico City Design “Past” show, by Alejandro_Olávarri.