Not much springs to mind, design-wise, with Central America. Architecturally, there are the elaborate expat villas of Costa Rica, fashion has the brightly patterned huipiles worn by Guatemala’s indigenous female population, and that’s about it.
On the surface, El Salvador seems to have even less going for it. The seven million-strong nation, squashed between Guatemala and Honduras, was battered by earthquakes in 2001, buffeted by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, and only emerged from a 12-year civil war in 1992. What’s more, there’s no professional body such as the UK’s Design Council to promote design. To call San Salvador’s design scene anything but nascent would be an exaggeration.
However, the capital does have the University of Applied Arts. It was here that Harry and Claudia Washington met, when they were both studying interior design. Courses in product or furniture design weren’t on offer, but that doesn’t mean that the university’s graduates don’t do furniture.
When the Washingtons and their peers get interior commissions from private residential clients, retailers and restaurateurs, they also get to design the pieces that sit in them.
After all, there are no B&B Italia showrooms anywhere in town to order anything from. ‘We wanted to open a furniture shop and bring these brands to El Salvador, but we didn’t have the money,’ says Harry.
The couple, who have been married for a year now, enjoy an advantage over many of their contemporaries, as they were able to spend some time, at the beginning of the millennium, at Milan’s Instituto Europeo di Disegno.
Their studio in San Salvador, Due, includes a workshop where they build much of what they design. ‘Our approach has been to find a way to make industrial-looking products through craftsmanship,’ Harry adds.
Life could have continued happily in this vein, if the US Agency for International Development hadn’t funded a contemporary design competition in El Salvador, called Contempo. Following its success there, Due was invited to exhibit at New York furniture fair ICFF, and it was there that the Washingtons managed to get a meeting with Jerry Helling, creative director of US consultancy Bernhardt Design.
The 19-year-old design arm of the 119-year-old Bernhardt Furniture Company includes among its designers Ross Lovegrove, Yves Béhar, Jaime Hayón, Christian Biecher, Shin Azumi, Patrick Norguet and Cul de Sac, so Due is keeping good company.
The Washingtons were briefed to create a seating collection that would appeal to the residential, as well as the commercial, market. The result is Calibra, a sumptuous sofa on slim, polished aluminium legs. Claudia says of their inspiration, ‘We were thinking of a little piggy dancing en pointe. It’s for the global edition, so it needed to look modern but classic – the look that some Italian pieces have.’
Due is now working on an occasional table for Bernhardt, which should launch next year.
And down the line, the duo likes the idea of teaming up with De La Espada in London or Spain’s Andreu World. ‘We relate closely to the materials they use and the natural feeling held in the products they manufacture,’ says Claudia, adding that B&B and Cassina would also be on their wish list.
And like many a fledgling design group, the Washingtons hope to broaden their horizons – what about a perfume bottle, a bathroom faucet or the interior of an aeroplane, they muse?
They’d also like to increase their interior design work, following up the two children’s shoe shops called Barrilete (meaning kite) they’ve designed in San Salvador.
In the meantime, contemporary design seems to be creeping up the agenda in San Salvador. Contempo has US funding for a third year, and, in October, the city’s six-year-old Art Museum of El Salvador will host the show for a month in its main gallery.