Images from Gráfica Ilustrada del Uruguay

Put the word “design” in front of the name of some countries, and it becomes shorthand for a certain aesthetic. Scandinavian design evokes calm, sensible minimalism; Dutch design, a bold, often conceptual approach. Swiss design generally connotes tight grids and typographic rigor.

Uruguayan design may not have such a direct connotation, but as evidenced by the platform Gráfica Ilustrada del Uruguay (GIU), the country’s graphic design history is fascinating, and one worthy of study. The groundbreaking design and designers that have emerged from the South American country are less familiar than their U.S. and European counterparts, for a number of cultural and geopolitical reasons. There’s the fact that graphic design wasn’t recognized term (let alone profession) in Uruguay until relatively late in the 20th century, as well as the skewed nature of design history taught in contemporary arts education even inside the country. There’s also the lack of tools and materials that graphic designers had access to, which could be put down to a series of economic crises that put an end to a democratic period that had begun in the early 20th century, culminating in a 1973 coup that established a civic-military dictatorship for the next 12 years.

Images from Gráfica Ilustrada del Uruguay

Of course, just because the country’s design is lesser known doesn’t mean it isn’t there. For years, Uruguayan designer Martín Azambuja had been finding the work of midcentury Uruguayan designers on sites like Flickr and various blogs in between his studio practice, and also to inspire it. He started GUI with the idea of showcasing his finds, as well as actively sourcing other pieces in order to garner more recognition for his country’s design history. “[Uruguay’s] design education usually includes very little local reference,” says Azambuja. “You might hear some names, but there’s no assessment or real analysis of that era in our country.”

Along with some friends from Estudio Mundial, a studio he founded eight years ago in Uruguay, Azambuja, who currently works on Michael Bierut’s team at Pentagram New York, set about creating a platform that showcases old and rare graphics and illustration work hailing from Uruguay between 1950 and 1980. 

Images from Gráfica Ilustrada del Uruguay

While a handful of these designers—especially those working in the 1960s—did achieve some recognition during their time and were covered in international publications such as Novum or Graphic Annual (namely Carlos Palleiro, Horacio Añon, and Ayax Barnes) most didn’t, both within and outside of Uruguay. One reason is that many of the designers of the era have since passed away, leaving their work either in the care of their families or simply losing it to the annals of time. Another reason is that design education in Uruguay tends to look more towards the U.S. and Europe. “When I was at university, some of my teachers counted the graphic designers we’re showcasing [on the site] as their friends, but their work just wasn’t published anywhere,” says Azambuja. “For a long time there was little recognition of the profession, and consequently, much less around its history.”

In order to track down more of the work he’d loved from Uruguay in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, Azambuja first looked into finding more work from the familiar record covers, printers, publishers, and designer names that he’d known both from his design career and his childhood. The advantage of Uruguay being a small country, though, means that finding contact with the right people is generally quite easy. “The curiosities of me and my friends lead us to find more designers, who put us in touch with others who were designing during those few decades here,” says Azambuja.

Images from Gráfica Ilustrada del Uruguay

But why the strict focus on those three decades? “As a studio, [Estudio Mundial is] fascinated with mixing graphic design and illustration, which is what these artists were doing,” says Azambuja. “The expressiveness of the drawing reinforces our idea as a studio that drawing can have many different facets—and that it can be used as the main ingredient of graphic design.

“It was really important for us to look at work made in the pre-computer era. Once designers learned to use [computers], I feel like the work wasn’t so good. They started to play with gradients and effects and new things like that, but we always preferred the work made before computers. It still feels so polished—it’s on another level.”

The expressiveness of the drawing shows that it can have many different facets—and that it can be used as the main ingredient of graphic design.

This appeal is shown as Azambuja reels off a few of his favorite images from the site: a poster showing Christ was created with pen and ink, for instance. Meanwhile a Christmas stamp “always generates a smile, even though his face is quite serious—I never saw a Santa Claus in that position to be honest!” The illustration prowess of these designers is shown off superbly when matched with the designers’ skill with composition, as with the book cover for Juan Carlos Onetti’s 1939 short novel El Pozo (The Well). “The decisions made around where to put the elements already conveys the idea in a very powerful way,” says Azambuja.

Images from Gráfica Ilustrada del Uruguay

As he and Estudio Mundial researched the designers they admired further, “we discovered that they were very much in tune with what was happening in the rest of the world,” he says. The designs from Uruguay are far from created in a vacuum. As Azambuja points out, there’s a lot of Polish influence to be found in the archive—just look towards the striking, highly illustrative, often painterly film posters that emerged from there in the 20th century. He also suggests that the Romanian cartoonist Saul Steinberg, best known for his work for The New Yorker, was a big influence on the way Uruguayan designers approached color, composition, and character design. The typography that was emerging from Italy, France, and Spain at the time is also evident in the work.

Perhaps the most significant thing that informed mid-20th century Uruguayan designers, though, was the limitations they met. “Designers travelled, but they mainly only had references from books,” says Azambuja. They were also limited in their tools: one of the best known designers, Horacio Añon, is renowned for his use of bright orange, “not necessarily because he liked it, but because when he printed it, it kept coming out better than any other colors,” says Azambuja. “They didn’t have many inks, and those they did have all came in a big can, so it was about what they had or could mix.” 

Such creativity flourishing in limitations is exemplified in a poster for Hot Club. “I feel it has huge power: A single ink, used well, with stripes painted in such a way that it feels like you can hear those strokes,” says Azambuja.

“Limitations became the main ingredient of a lot of work, and made a huge impact.”

These limitations—the use of the aforementioned single ink was through lack of resources as much as aesthetic decisions—meant that Uruguayan graphic designers didn’t even use the term graphic design, instead referring to the job as “cartoonist”. They started using the term graphic design after seeing it used in German magazine Novum. “From that they began to be recognized as, and call themselves, graphic designers. For many of them it was a relief to be able to define themselves, as they didn’t only feel like ‘cartoonists’, since they worked with things like typography or photography too.

“Their limitations beam a very powerful and recognizable language of their own,” he adds. “They became the main ingredient of a lot of work and made a huge impact.”