INDUSTRIAL TERRITORY AS A MELTING POT FOR CREATIVE ENERGY
When city officials set out their plan for the "22” movement, their aim was to attract global Fortune 500 players from the high-tech and communications industries. While some of these companies did come, the radical industrial feel of the barrio also attracted creative types in droves. Another attraction was the moderate rent for generously proportioned spaces. Old factories were turned into creative studios, like the impressive Palo Alto, a former industrial complex where star designer Javier Mariscal and other leading creatives now work, or David Ruiz’s spacious loft studio, which overlooks the entire district. We met and talked to these folks and came away amazed at the high caliber talent concentrated in such a small area.
Text Manon Holzer
Photography Stefan Jermann
ALBERT FOLCH STUDIO
Albert Folch's studio just happens to be one of Spain’s most cutting-edge editorial hubs. Folch is the original designer of acclaimed Apartamento magazine, his studio designs for Marset and recently launched an upmarket erotic magazine called Odiseo.
At a time when books and magazines fall into the dying industry category and publishers are looking for alternatives and a leap into the digital age, amazing things seem to be happening. And they are definitely happening in the heart of Poble Nou, at number 31 on the Carrer de la Ciutat de Granada to be exact, a very unspoiled corner of the barrio. It is my very last day here in Barcelona, and yesterday I was with ceramicist Xavier Mañosa who was telling me about Albert Folch’s Studio. I send a message to Folch and get a prompt reply sometime after midnight inviting me to come over, and I’m basically crashing the place last minute. Unfortunately, acclaimed editorial designer Albert Folch is travelling in Panama for his latest venture, Eldorado Magazine, but his business associate Rafael welcomes me.
It’s still a bit early, but the bright daylight in the loft style office wakes me up fast. Albert Folch, former geologist, drop-out photography student turned editorial designer, co-founder of Apartamento magazine, one of Spain’s jewels and most radical cats, has a portfolio of international clients. While I shoot some pictures of the office, Rafa shows me their latest invention, Odiseo, an erotic magazine that is more like a book, a showcase for intriguing and tasteful photography and art. You can see that the work has been carefully edited and it gives the term erotic magazine a whole new meaning. Odiseo almost feels like a personal journal, something precious you won’t be throwing in the next trash bin. In fact, Rafa tells me, the current issue is sold out. Albert’s newest magazine, Eldorado is for surf afficionados, though looking through it, there’s not much to do with surfing: it’s really more of a conceptual piece, reduced to the max, with barely any design elements. The black and white images are unexpectedly simple, and that is exactly the beauty of it. No surfers riding the waves, instead I see rocks, beautiful skies — everything that could imply surfing. I decide this is poetry, maybe because I have always admired people who, when they want to portray an apple, don’t have to show an apple. Albert and his associates seem to be people like that. In fact, as I find out, they are folks with an uncompromising vision. I have an interesting chat with Rafael who oversees the business side and strategy: “We need to have creative freedom when we take on projects: the client has to trust us.” The studio, with its six or seven employees juggles anywhere from 20 to 30 projects at the same time. International projects such as one for Carolina Herrera in New York, a big book project for a client from Chicago, and jobs for clients in Spain fill their impressive portfolio. When I ask about potential dream clients, some of Folch’s graphic folks gather around and roast their brains. One young guy explains that the dream project is always something you identify with, products you admire and buy yourself.
But what about client constraints, reduced budgets — I can hardly assume the Folchs have never encountered such things? “Yes, we feel all that, we can’t deny it”, says Rafa, but he points out that the crisis has been very good for their studio, because now, instead of spending big old advertising money, brand owners are starting to think differently and want to try to tell their stories via editorials, rather than using classic advertising. “You know, in the end it’s not so much about magazines and good design, it’s much more about developing an interesting concept which could develop in any possible direction.”
Some two decades ago, Javier Mariscal discovered an abandoned factory in Poble Nou that was completely derelict. He decided immediately to move his studio there. Now, Palo Alto is not only host to some of Spains most revered design studios, but is also one of Barcelona's lushest and most imaginative gardens, designed by José Farriol. This little green heaven is open to the public.
When Jobs and Wozniak started out in their garage, could they ever have envisioned the impact of their - let’s call it tinkering? I assume not, even though Jobs later developed almost fortune-teller-like abilities, predicting how a generation would function and what their needs would be. The origin of all this was an unstoppable, and maybe naïve, passion for a cause that they believed in: a story very similar to Javier Mariscal’s. He started out as the pioneer underground comic artist in Spain, and after his work was confiscated by the regime he turned his hand to graphic design, went on to design his own furniture pieces and became a multi-tasking whiz, ultimately attaining super-stardom with the corporate design for the Barcelona Olympics and the Game’s mascot. A few years later, when he found an abandoned factory in Poble Nou, he seized the opportunity to restore it while preserving its heritage and history, to become one of Barcelona’s most beautiful creative spaces. The name Palo Alto may be a nod to the place Jobs called home, and perhaps also a reference to Silicon Valley’s inventions, innovations and daring visions. Palo Alto is an oasis and every creative’s dream workspace. It has the surprising coziness common to many old factories, while the interiors are sleek, modern, and minimal. I am greeted by Mariscal’s secretary and she tells me that Javier is out of town, but I am welcome to look around. After all, I just discovered the place by accident and I hadn’t made an appointment with one of the world’s most award-winning designers. Trophies and awards are everywhere, the office is colourful, as are his drawings. His work has a resonance, the Mariscal signature style, some of the drawings, posters and books I spot have a child-like whimsicality, yet they are commercial. When fine art meets the capitalist advertising world, and the marriage works out, then you’ve killed two birds with one stone. Mariscal is doing exactly that and he seems to be doing very well.
Palo Alto is often mentioned in association with Javier Mariscal and some of its other star occupants, but it is equally renowned for its lush, green gardens, which are open to the public. This really is an urban island, a small oasis created by acclaimed landscape designer José Farriol, who turned the space into a peaceful spot for relaxation. If you want to escape the tourist masses, this is the place to go for some quiet time and a bite to eat at the Palo Alto Cantina.
There is a Cindy Shermanesque quality to her images and I ask what this project is all about. “The idea is sort of a conceptual poetic exchange between writer Roberto Ruiz Antunez and myself,” Eli replies.
I was referred to Eli via a mutual friend, I was specifically looking for people living in Poble Nou and I wanted a ‘female creative’. This may sound strange, but the business, even in Spain is male dominated. Period. Don’t ask me why. Eli is from the Basque country, a place where people have a different mentality, their own minds. A bit stubborn maybe, a bit closed off, but once you have earned their trust, they are yours. She shows me around her place, which she shares with another artist. In the kitchen, motorcycles are everywhere and there are bycicles next to iron sculptures. Interesting combinations, I think. In Eli’s room I spot pictures on the wall, all self portraits. I see blood on her face, a naked body, skulls. I see that she has an enormous talent for transforming herself. There is a Cindy Shermanesque quality to her images and I ask what this project is all about. “The idea is sort of a conceptual poetic exchange between writer Roberto Ruiz Antunez and myself. I take a picture and Roberto writes a poem and sends it to me or vice versa.” The result is quite an impressive collection of poems and photographs. The outcome is unclear, but right now it is more to do with the process, rather than about making an exhibition or a book later on. Besides her personal projects, she is working as a commercial photographer and is focusing full time on that right now. Before, she was teaching elderly people how to use Photoshop and doing other occasional jobs, but now she feels the time is ripe to focus on just one thing.
From a mall in China, to designer chairs, lighting and World Championship medals. lagranja design is a jack of all trades in the champion’s league of industrial and product design.
I love to crash people’s places without an appointment, and it works shockingly well here in Poble Nou. I ring the bell: “Yes, sorry for disturbing you, but I was wondering if I could stop by and take some pictures, ask you some questions, this is for a new magazine called Mirus.” “Sure - come on in”, Maria greets me, and I start explaining my presence and my purpose. After taking some shots I sit together with Maria and we chat. Next door, the management has a big meeting, so nobody is around. Perfect timing.
lagranja is an industrial and product design company and their range of designs goes something like this: chairs, lighting, the winners’ medals for 2013 swimming World Championships, entire shopping mall hallways in China, and the interior design of the penthouse suites in a new luxury hotel in Hong Kong. Maria lists what they do as if it were the most common thing in the world. When I wonder aloud about people coming all the way from China to Poble Nou for shopping mall design, Maria answers: “The Chinese don’t have the same flair for colour as the Europeans do, and that’s what they like about us.”
We chat a bit more and what filters through is that while the economic decline is slowing the business, at the same time it is opening new doors. Right now lagranja is establishing offices in Hong Kong and Istanbul, two hot spots for conquering the Asian market.
lagranja has been in Poble Nou for seven years. The crew seems to enjoy it here, it’s quiet, an ideal work space, has creative energy. The only downside is the vast emptiness on the streets at night, says Maria.
RUIZ + COMPANY
Building 71-75 on Calle Avila, where Ruiz + Company is located, has a nondescript character. It might have been a warehouse in the old days but now it houses offices, and in the attico, one of the most reputable design studios in Barcelona. The studio deserves the description designer’s loft in every respect. One huge, light flooded and welcoming space with a motorcycle parked right by the entrance, apparently ready to be taken for the next creative ride. Checking out the walls, you notice that Ruiz has probably won every creative award there is, and there are good reasons for this, as we are about to find out. The space is well organised, there is a lounge area, a ping pong table and a big balcony for relaxing and enjoying the views to the sea and right up to the ‘Torre Agbar’.
The charismatic founder of this small yet thriving studio, David Ruiz, has been operating his venture for some 20 years, along with 5 team members. These are people that he trusts and can very much depend on, whether he is working on a big project for Camper, Audi or Tous – or whether he is far away, crossing the Atlantic Ocean alone on a 20 day journey in challenging waters. (Not many people have actually done that, I discover after our meeting.) The studio is multi-disciplinary and focuses on graphic design, packaging, identity and advertising. In talking to this man, one quickly realises that he really lives design. Ruiz always aims for the best and the highest quality, and that is why Ruiz + Company only works on a project basis. In contrast to the other big players, Ruiz is not interested in big accounts. This is a very conscious strategic decision, and David tells me he is very selective about the projects he takes on: only those with an interesting brief and only from clients who are looking for the highest creative qualities. When asked if he has had to turn down jobs because of his scruples, he smiles and says: “Oh yes, many times, many times. You know, of course we want to eat and pay the rent, but we also want to stay true to ourselves. When a potential client approaches us now, they usually know what kind of work we are capable of delivering.”
Whether David Ruiz is on a big photo shoot with superstars like Terry Richardson or Mario Sorrenti,or developing a new brand identity for a client in Dubai, this man’s humility is instantly palpable. He is enveloped by a trustworthy vibe. And when asked how it was working with Terry, he answers: “Well, you know, at first I was a little worried how this would all turn out, but Terry was very good to work with and the team surrounding him is highly professional. We did this shoot in New York and it was a great experience.”
When talking about Poble Nou his eyes sparkle and he admits to having fallen in love with this neighbourhood, even though he didn’t like it at first. He says it’s the industrial feel of the place, the closeness to the beach and being in a creative environment that creates a good mix. As he points out: “Fifteen years ago Poble Nou seemed way too far from the city, but now, all the creatives are coming here! The city’s idea behind the huge Poble Nou development was to create a high tech hub, mainly for IT companies. Some of them did settle here, but never as many as they expected. What came as a surprise was the number of people in the creative field that were attracted here, and it’s an excellent side effect.”
WASSABI & h2ò
At Carrer de Roc Boronat 66 there are two design collectives that share an amazing penthouse space, and at times, they also share their knowhow and workforces. While Wassabi is more oriented towards graphic design, packaging and product design and was responsible for designing a campaign for the European Parliament, h2ò is a branding company with a portfolio that includes multinational clients. Enric of Wassabi and Lluis of h2ò couldn’t be more different in appearance: Enric is every inch the creative type, while Lluis better fits the description of a creative strategist.
As we enter their studio, things are hectic: times are very busy says Enric. At the mention of Spain’s economic woes and unemployment close to 10 million, he raises his eyebrows. While admitting that everyone is feeling the pinch and that the economic situation is difficult, and that clients are more hesitant, he says that a lot of new projects have come as a result of their own initiative. “We don’t wait until a client gives us work: we are pro-active, we suggest new ideas and projects to clients, give them ideas on how they can improve their business and products.” Lluis adds that while the economic downturn is a fact of life, he can’t complain: there’s been so much work coming in, they had to hire three more staff.
To Enric and Lluis, Poble Nou is a blend of tradition and innovation, and they both really love the area. They see more and more creatives settling in Poble Nou, and while they were the first creative studio in the building a few years ago, other designers have since moved in. And there’s a notable absence of competitive elbowing between companies. When we ask Enric which other top creatives we should talk to, he mentions David Ruiz…