Here’s Why You Should Be Paying Close Attention to Colombia’s Design Scene
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Here’s Why You Should Be Paying Close Attention to Colombia’s Design Scene

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By Jenny Xie
Rooted in rich craft traditions, Colombia’s luminous young designers are leading the way in the country’s upswing.

Nestled at 8,600 feet in the eastern branch of the Andes Mountains, Bogotá offers a captivating mix of tropical greenery, dense brick architecture, and mercurial weather, thanks to its high altitude. At the city’s edges, cascading green hills seem to swallow a sprawling carpet of buildings, a reminder that nature presides over all—a common theme in the work featured by Design Room Colombia, a virtual platform and design showcase that recently drew me to the capital for an all-too-short visit.

Nestled at 8,600 feet in the eastern branch of the Andes Mountains, Bogotá offers a captivating mix of tropical greenery, dense brick architecture, and mercurial weather, thanks to its high altitude.

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A government-backed initiative, Design Room Colombia spotlights 10 Bogotá–based designers whose work demonstrates the incredible creativity and craftsmanship found in Colombian design today. Over and over, I heard a tone of optimism and pride when talking about contemporary art and architecture, and learned that the momentum isn’t just something in the water—it’s partly thanks to President Iván Duque.

Bringing together 10 designers drawing from Latin America’s cultural heritage, Design Room Colombia creates interior concepts by today’s powerhouse talents. Above, a Folies loveseat and coffee tables by Zientte are complemented by lighting by Ángela Ramos and textiles by GRES and VERDI. Accessories by Artesanías de Colombia sit on the tabletop.

A bed by Muebles y Accesorios (M&A) by designer Rodrigo Torres is flanked by Ángela Ramos pendants and topped with GRES textiles. A VERDI rug lies underneath; the woven baskets are by Artesanías de Colombia. 

A core part of Duque’s campaign—and vital to the first 100 days of his term, which began last August—is promoting what’s called the Orange Economy, or the country’s creative industries. This translates to investments in, and better infrastructure for, fields like design and architecture, visual and performing arts, literature, film and television, music, dance, food, fashion, and digital media. It’s not only a way to champion the arts and make sure creatives are fairly compensated, but also a bid to lessen the country’s dependence on oil as long as pipelines remain vulnerable to attacks from the leftist, guerrilla National Liberation Army (ELN).

Artesanías de Colombia (@artesaniasdecolombia)

The impact, as Design Room Colombia illustrates, has been huge. A major player in the program is another government organization: founded in 1964, Artesanías de Colombia matches artisans around the country with contemporary designers to help them get their products ready for the international market. It’s a program that benefits some 11,000 to 15,000 artisans every year, providing threatened and displaced communities with a crucial source of income, and that promotes the richness and diversity of the country’s craft traditions.

Artesanías de Colombia is headquartered in a 1750 Dominican convent and 1850 military hospital that have been converted into offices and a brick-and-mortar store, where you can find items like these werregue baskets. Spun from werregue palm fibers, these baskets feature indigenous colors and patterns that might celebrate nature or bless food.

It’s a symbiotic relationship as well, explains general manager Ana María Fries. "We’re creating a movement of modern design and creating opportunities for designers to work with these handcrafted materials," she says. "We preserve the DNA, technique, and language of traditional craft."

Likewise, the designers of Design Room Colombia draw from a deep wellspring of regional traditions, bringing a fresh eye to long-established materials, colors, shapes, and processes. Take a look at their work below.  

Ángela Ramos (@angelisaraga)

Born in Montería near the Caribbean coast, Ángela Ramos infuses her lighting and furniture designs with the deep-rooted traditions of Zenú culture.

The sinuous Zenú Chair, strung with colorful, natural fibers, features a diamond pattern, which signifies abundance in Zenú tradition; the chair’s curvaceous form recalls the shape of a river, another symbol of prosperity. "My designs tell a story about our nature and animals," says Ramos. "Every object has a soul and a spirit."

VERDI was founded with the intention to recover a legacy: after the death of their father Carlos Vera Dieppa, a leading textile designer who developed a technique to interweave natural and copper threads, brother and sister Tomás and Cristina Vera tracked down their father’s looms and the weavers who originally worked with him. VERDI’s rugs, which bring together materials like alpaca wool, copper, stainless steel, and fique fiber (made from a native Andean plant), shimmer and shift with changing light and perspective.

VERDI’s rugs, mochilas, and art pieces are 100% handmade with master weavers at the looms. "It's kind of like dancing salsa," says cofounder Tomás Vera, referring to the artistry of weaving as he took us on a tour through their workshop. "You can either do it, or you can’t."

Luisa Aldana founded Ícono Taller, a handcrafted ceramic tile company, with her brother three years ago. They work with clients to create custom colors, patterns, shapes, and sizes, adding to an ever-widening library of designs that range from traditional to contemporary. Above, the company’s graphic tile floor is pictured alongside a Folies daybed, a lamp by Ángela Ramos, and accessories by GRES and Folies.

During our showroom visit, Aldana welcomed us with a spread fresh-cut, local fruit.

Architects Silvana Vergara and Catherine Jessurum founded GRES in 2016 after experimenting with handwoven fabrics and researching local weaving techniques, which ultimately led to their first collection of pillows. Now, the brand, whose architectural roots are apparent in its attention to shape and geometry, has branched out into pottery and lighting design. "Our built environment has a powerful influence on our wellness," says Vergara. "We aim to bring objects into a space with thoughtful and soulful design."

Most recently, the duo has been experimenting with Chamba pottery, made from a type of black clay uniquely found in the small town of La Chamba, some three-and-a-half-hours southwest of Bogotá. The clay is fired at high temperatures to turn black or red, and then polished with an agate stone. The Chamba vases above are a modern take on the poporo—traditional vessels used to hold lime, used when chewing coca leaves—and are modular, able to grow with a simple change of hardware.

Industrial designer Eugenia Robledo (left) and architect Jimena Londoño (right) teamed up four years ago to found Folies. From restoring midcentury modern furniture to their current catalogue of original pieces, the brand draws from Colombia’s design legacy and employs current materials and techniques—merging past and present to create heirloom items for the future.

"Eugenia is an industrial designer and has a background in color and design culture that is a little more youthful than mine," says Londoño. "We merged our two criteria. We fuse our experiences in workshops and in manufacturing."

Nearly five years ago, designer José David del Portillo created the eponymous Del Portillo furniture brand in an effort to "recover craft traditions, looking for materials in their environments—such as sustainable timber—to create objects that transcend time." Above, he sits in Del Portillo’s hip studio in Bogotá’s Chapinero district, which is set up as a bar where he and his team meet with clients to discuss colors, materials, and other custom designs. 

A street-inspired flavor runs through Del Portillo’s designs. The brand collaborated with internationally renowned, Colombian muralist and graffiti artist LeDania to create a limited-edition chair. Del Portillo and his team insist that each design has heart; when something isn’t working, a common critique is "la falta de amor"—a lack of love.

What started in 1985 as a sofa workshop in Bogotá famed for its high-quality leather has turned into Zientte, a home goods company with 15 stores worldwide. "I have been trying to design nature back into the home," says creative director and designer Sergio Vergara, pictured above in the Bogotá storefront. 

Medellín—and Beyond

The country’s revival isn’t just concentrated in the capital, either. About 150 miles northwest of Bogotá, Medellín is in the throes of transformation as well, much of it fueled by public spaces once fenced off to keep armed conflict at bay. Named the world’s most innovative city by the Wall Street Journal in 2013, the "city of eternal spring," famed for its sunny weather and the sunny disposition of its inhabitants, has an especially strong presence in the textile and fashion, telecommunications, and automotive industries.

From art, design, and architecture to public works, Colombia’s advances and investment in its most important asset—its people and their legacy—are definitely something to watch.

Built high up in the hills and linked to the rest of the city by one of its cable car lines—Medellín has the only metro system in the country—Comuna 13 was once one of the most violent neighborhoods. Community leaders have stepped up to create opportunities for kids in art and music, and now it’s a popular tourist destination where the main attraction is a constantly evolving landscape of graffiti and hip hop (and I mean constantly—a mural I took a photo in front of was painted over mere hours later). The city installed six orange-roofed escalators in the neighborhood in 2011, cutting through the maze of narrow streets and alleyways that are inaccessible by car. 

Designed by Plan B Architects and JPRCR Architects, the Orquideorama is a modular, biomorphic canopy in the city’s free botanical garden, shaped to mimic a honeycomb. It hosts public events throughout the year.