When emotions speak through design

Agostina Branchi is an architect and designer who is extremely passionate about working alongside communities of artisans towards whom she feels a deep commitment and mutual gratitude. One day, true to her instincts, she returned to her native Corrientes to embark on a path that would lead her to a profound encounter both with herself and with her roots.

-How was your first approach to aboriginal communities? And what needs did you meet?
I was born in Corrientes and raised in the countryside. I grew up surrounded by the aroma of artisanship, and at a certain point I felt the impulse to take those traditions that were always in my DNA and incorporate them into my work. It was a pivotal moment both professionally and personally. Cuando comencé a acercarme a las comunidades de artesanos no fue nada fácil, romper todas esas barreras y entablar un vínculo de confianza fue algo que llevó su tiempo. Tuve que aprender cómo comunicarme, comprender sus tiempos y el por qué de ese escudo y esa resistencia que tenían a innovar. In the beginning, approaching the artisan communities was not easy. Breaking all those barriers and establishing a bond of trust was something that took time. I had to learn how to communicate, understand their times and the reason for that buffer and the resistance they had towards innovation. "Over there artisans gather in the squares, and I saw how these beautiful techniques, for example the soguería criolla - one of the most traditional techniques in Argentina - was only applied to belts or mates." I thought, what a pity that something so beautiful and valuable isn’t given the protagonism it deserves! Why not give it a spin? "The first thing they thought was that I came to take advantage of their work, something that unfortunately is commonplace for them: being offered very low wages for their work, to then resell it at exorbitant prices" - she claims with some pain, reminiscing about her beginnings -. Personally, I always try to raise awareness, to make their work hours count.

-You are an architect. What is it like to merge and adapt the different work techniques?
I had been working as an architect and interior designer for a while, and after a trip to Barcelona I began to see that in our country there was not much exploration of these objects that mix structure and functionality with the “softer” side that is artisanal work. When carrying it out myself, my training as an architect made it a lot easier. "It allowed me to discover what fascinates me, feeling like my soul was in the objects, in that direct contact with the materials" - she states, her eyes shining. As for merging and adapting techniques, it meant adapting to a different way of working. For example, I would tell them: let's make a braid three times the size you always do; and at first they refused because they explained to me that the other rope workers were going to regard their work as poorly done. Along the way I learned to know who was more open to change and wanted to join. I needed to start choosing and being chosen, to know that we were all committed. Otherwise I ended up frustrated, because I got very excited and then it didn’t end up happening and they closed off again . But I was patient, because I was convinced that this was going to set us on a very beautiful path of mutual learning.

-Why should new generations of designers adopt ancient techniques? What is currently happening in the academic field?
I studied in the province of Chaco at the National University of the Northeast, and throughout my courses very little was mentioned about artisan techniques, or current Latin American references that work on them. It is studied more along the lines of it being something historical. A clear example of this is that, as an architect, I was never taught how to build a brick in my career. I feel that it is necessary to include it in the practical work. There is still a long way to go from the academic point of view, and knowing more about the trades of the aboriginal communities opens us to a very enriching worldview when creating.

-What is innovation for you?
For me to innovate is to see how different techniques from different places can merge with one another. To think about how I can apply them to a certain material; research and get closer to other communities that work basket weaving or textiles and put to the test whether that can coexist in the same design. In my case, I started working the soguería criolla with the Corrientes artisans. Also, in my home province, specifically in the city of Mercedes, I got into basketwork with Caranday palm (the Palm’s leaf) and cipós (the twigs that climb the trees). Lately I’ve also started to get into the textile trade, following the steps of Formosa’s aboriginal communities. "How could anyone not see innovation there? These trades have a soul and love that is evident in each product ”.

-What sets us apart as Latin American designers?
“Passion” –she expresses without hesitation-. People who are from more remote parts of the country can smell crafts; Perhaps at first not all of them are aware of it, but if they do an introspection they can perceive how tradition constitutes them, it is intrinsic. I, myself felt that awakening; when I began to immerse myself in the world of artisans I thought: ah right! This is familiar to me, it connects me with my land. That is why I am so passionate about it, because it means going back to our roots and valuing our origin.

-What do you understand by cultural heritage? Why do you think it’s so necessary to preserve it?
Valuing our traditions is very important. That happened to me with soguería. When I saw that they applied it to a belt, I felt that, in a way, a technique that was very sacred for those communities was dying. The soguería criolla was employed thousands of years ago when they needed to move horses and dress the gauchos, so how can we let our cultural heritage disappear? When work opportunities are generated, it is incredible to see the positive impact and progress that takes place in that community. Apart from that, the artisans are very grateful. When they lower those initial barriers and feel that they are being valued, a relationship of mutual gratitude is born. Although Argentina is a well-regarded country in the world and its traditions are known, in order to continue positioning ourselves as up to par with global standards, it is also important to place our efforts on preserving our traditions and being aware of the social impact that this has on a national level.

-What projects do you always remember as being key moments in your professional and personal path?
The decision to exhibit abroad was a very big leap. I exhibited my work six consecutive years in Milan, New York and Paris, and it was very important on a strategic level to be recognized outside, since that also brought me greater recognition in our country. When I came from Corrientes to Buenos Aires I started from scratch, and being among the most well-known designers was a lot of work and it involved showing my potential and looking for what made me different, to achieve visibility. I built my path step by step; for three years I was selected by the Exportar Argentina Foundation, which provided me with partial funds to be able to exhibit abroad. Another pivotal moment was when I entered a contest to exhibit in New York in which out of 2,000 designers, only 15 of us were selected. That really was another opportunity to show my designs and strengthen relationships with clients, the press and curators. Then it was time to cast fear aside and stand on my own, forge my own path, continue to grow and generate more work for the communities.

-How is Argentine design received at international fairs? What was the first thing that struck you?
Whenever I am abroad, the appreciation of Argentine design is even higher than in our country and they welcome us very well. "Even the material itself they consider a luxury, imagine when they see the techniques…they take their breath away" - she tells us proudly. Besides, in the exhibitions you have the possibility of explaining more in depth the behind the scenes: how many hours of work it takes, who and how we do it, which equates to sharing and bringing our culture closer to them.

-How was the transition from your studio being called Brana to it carrying your name? And how do you approach work style in your studio?
At first I started with Brana because I did not want to put my name. I was very shy, still am quite the introvert, in fact. Then I changed it to Studio Brana in order to suit my work internationally. Until finally, in 2019, I got encouraged and named it Agostina Branchi Estudio. I felt that I had to feature on it, break the ice, because beyond the product there is also the artist. I needed to give entity to all that journey and empower myself.

When I arrived in Buenos Aires my first job was in a sustainable design studio and, although my head was set on trends, I was also very focused on conscious design; however I slowly discovered that I did not like serial work. It was there that I also discovered my hands, explored techniques, investigated and above all, found my passion for Argentine objects and traditions. To put soul into objects requires that I dedicate time to them, and each piece that I design is unique, that's why I work on limited editions. For me a standardized product has no soul.

-How do your creative and exploration processes begin?
I have two processes: one in which I choose the material, study it, play with it, fall in love and then ask myself: What am I going to do with this?! The other starts the other way around. For example, I want to make a chair. So I see typologies, I evaluate materials and choose which techniques I am going to apply. The creative process involves a lot of trial and error, but personally my relationship with the materials is extremely important, as well as the emotions generated by the objects that I am going to design. I remember when I started making hammocks, I was always thinking about the pleasure and feeling of freedom that people would feel when they reconnected with their childhood. My creative processes are undoubtedly closely linked to generating those emotions.

-When do you feel that a piece is finished? How is that moment of emotionally letting go of the object?
It is difficult, because I am quite the perfectionist. “I actually know that this object is ready when it gives me goosebumps, otherwise it’s not. I have worked six months in a chair that didn’t elicit that reaction in me, and two days before traveling I said no! And I did not end up presenting it ”-she laughingly tells us. "And since I'm terrible at selling, I let them sell themselves, so for them to be bought…they have to give you goosebumps." I have to feel proud, in love with that product, be honest with what I am designing, because I do not do it just to deliver. When I design it is so that that object is really enjoyable, so that it fills you and generates something in you, otherwise it lacks meaning. And I am the first filter, the most rigorous when it comes to this process.

-What are you currently working on?
Nowadays I am very into textile art, the pandemic unleashed that in me. A few days before quarantine was declared in 2020, I went to buy 20 kilos of yarn. I love it and it gives me a lot of freedom because I can do it anywhere in the world, without depending on anyone, but always working together with artisans. My studio today are my hands and I find that incredible. This year I have to deliver a very large piece to an art gallery in New York, and I am already contacting others in Paris and Milan. I am quite focused on making larger installations. My head works like this. I am very committed to the artisan communities and cannot move forward without thinking of providing them with work continuity throughout the year, regardless of whether or not I can return for a period of time to be with them. I learned so much with the artisans, that today I notice myself mixing techniques and get excited. I look at everything that happened and it fills me with happiness. We formed a very close bond of mutual learning. For me this is a lifelong commitment that I shall carry out with pleasure. Such is life, a constant give and take...they were always very grateful to me and I to them. Then the wheel keeps turning because you commit from the heart.

- A hotel in Argentina? The boutique hotel La Alondra in the province of Corrientes.
- Your favorite restaurant in Argentina? Any place where they serve chipas. And the restaurant Tegui.
- Your favorite destination in Argentina? Corrientes will always be my favorite destination.
- A favorite Argentine craft? The soguería criolla.
- Where do you look for inspiration? In architecture and in nature, in how they are able to coexist.
- Your favorite destination in Latin America? Chile.
- When you travel, a favorite souvenir? Stones or elements of nature.
- Your favorite materials? Leather and yarns.
- A Latin American person who inspires you? Sergio Matos, Brazilian designer who has worked for years with artisan communities in his country.
- What is artisan design in a nutshell? To apply tradition to beautify and craft a product with soul. Because artisans put a lot of heart in each piece they create.
- A message that you want to transmit to the new generations of designers ...The first thing I recommend is that they believe in themselves. Let them fall in love with what they do, because to leave a mark you have to fall in love with what you do, it has to mean something to you. When that happens, it means that product is successful beyond all else.
You have to believe in the impact you can have on others through your designs.

By Gaby Ratner

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