Anyone who’s made a recent return to Barcelona after a few years away might have noticed something different about the magical city. Its streets have been invaded by big, bold logotypes and bright, primary colour identity schemes. They’re everywhere – on buses, council cleaning vehicles, restaurants, the city’s main bank, its convention centre and, if you time your visit right, a major exhibition or two.
Remarkably, this incursion of north European typographic sensibility is down to one man and his modest studio of co-designers. Mario Eskenazi may not be known to many in London, Manchester and Glasgow, and that may be because most of his work has been for Barcelona-based clients. But he should be. It’s hard to think of another designer, apart from maybe Massimo Vignelli, whose influence on the graphic environment of a single major city has been so great.
Javier Mariscal is the name most designers would associate with the Catalan capital, and rightly so. In the 1990s, Barcelona was identified in design terms by Mariscal’s heady Mediterranean brew of a Miró-esque illustrative style, cartoon characters and hand-drawn type. Cobi, the cuddly canine character Mariscal designed for the 1992 Barcelona Games became the most commercially successful Olympic mascot and brought the designer to international attention.
Eskenazi has quietly shifted the look of central Barcelona about 10 degrees north. His identities, incorporating simple, suggestive typographic elements ripe for repetition, extension and variation across print items, interiors and vehicles, have a London flavour. They aren’t about one person’s artistic style. There’s always a single, clear idea close to the surface. For Banc Sabadell, it was the idea of a sun. For Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona, and its bus system, it is the city’s characteristic street grid. And for Barcelona pel Medi Ambient (the city council’s environmental department), it is a capital B, with a different infill for each area of activity: clouds for cleaning, leaves for parks, the sun for energy and so on.
It’s a very un-Spanish way of designing. “My working process is quite Anglo-Saxon,” he says. “That was a very unusual and shocking approach in Spain 20 years ago, because concepts and simplicity were perceived as betraying a lack of creativity.
“My clients like this approach. They are generally surprised at how much my proposals are reasoned and logical. Even today, this approach is not widespread in Spain.”
Like Vignelli, Eskenazi’s atypicality owes much to the outsider status he originally held. Born and raised in Argentina, and trained as an architect, his early influences were not those of the typical Spanish art school. “When I studied architecture in Argentina, graphic design studios did not exist. I learned the basics from architecture. I understood the need to have an ‘underpinning idea’ to develop any project. Also, that having an articulated structure, what we called a ‘grid’, can be very helpful. And the concept of flexibility. And to conceive of the formal solution as a whole, where the parts cannot be separated (gestalt). The main (formal) difference is spatial, to go from thinking in three dimensions to doing it in two.”
After moving to Barcelona in 1971 and working in other designers’ studios, he set up his own, which for 17 years he has purposely kept at the same modest size: himself, two or three other designers and one administrator in a space overlooking Barcelona Cathedral. “Personally, I need a relaxed environment in order to work, to know that I have enough time and the necessary means to find the best solution. Work needs to be enjoyed, not suffered.”
To Barcelona’s benefit, he seems to have got the balance right. Food has played a big part. He has been in his element designing a long string of identities for the fashionable restaurant and hotel chain Grupo Tragaluz: El Japonés, Mordisco and Hotel OMM, off the Passeig de Gracia, and La Xina/Luzia and Bar Lobo off La Rambla, to name just a few. And his design of the exhibition, Ferran Adrià i elBulli, a trip through the creative universe of the elBulli founder, can be seen at the Palau Robert until February 2013.
But, despite designing transport systems and public services, he has yet to design an identity for the city itself. “I never thought, in terms of graphics, about the character or personality of Barcelona. It’s very difficult to define, it’s a very contradictory city,” he says. “A topical way of defining it would be to say that it’s ‘Mediterranean’. But I’m not sure that would be my way of thinking about it.”