American Design Stories: Matteo Fogale
Calling Uruguay, Italy, and the UK home, this designer offers his unique perspective on design and America in a global context
In the American Design Stories series, we ask designers from across the Americas to share their insights on American design today, along with three images that represent their vision of American design.
This episode spotlights Uruguayan-born designer Matteo Fogale, whose career launched in Europe but who has more recently taken on projects to uplift the outstanding design talents from his home country. His work is wide ranging but always researched, intelligent, and refined. And his penchant for collaborative approaches makes clear that his aim is toward a greater good.
What makes your American story unique?
I was born in Uruguay, but my father and grandparents migrated to Argentina and Uruguay from Italy. Growing up, I knew I was different; I didn't consider myself Uruguayan, and my peers would call me “the Italian.” I guess my name didn't help.
With time I came to realize that I wasn't the only one. Upon its independence in 1828, Uruguay had a tiny population and welcomed thousands of predominantly Italian and Spanish migrants. This is what makes Uruguay so special. This migration influenced the culture of the country, making it very European.
When I moved to Italy, I was 17, and it was quite a difficult transition. Even though I love Italian culture, I struggled to fit in. Suddenly I wasn't the son of Italians anymore; I was a South American immigrant who got the Italian customs all wrong and had a Spanish accent. I did my best to fit in, became more Italian, and learned to cook pasta properly. But something just wasn't right, and I realized I was losing my identity and the culture I grew up with.
After eight years in Italy, I decided to move to London, probably the largest and most multicultural capital in the world. Here, I found myself again and reconnected more than ever with my Uruguayan heritage. I realized that London doesn't want you to change—becoming a Londoner means embracing who you are. Now, when someone asks me where I’m from, I simply say from Uruguay and Italy but I live in London. And it’s true, I don't associate with just one place. All these places have made me who I am today.
What does “American design” mean to you today?
In recent years, South American designers have done a great job of celebrating their heritage while also looking forward with a new perspective. It's a fresh approach that carefully balances tradition with innovation. Design is a relatively new profession in Uruguay; the first design schools opened only a few decades ago.
During my years in Italy, I was enchanted by but also terrified of the legacy of the great “maestri.” I felt like it was impossible for a young designer to reach that level of appreciation. My university was very academic and conservative. We were taught to follow the “rule book for good design,” and there wasn’t much room for experimentation. After graduating, it was really hard to make it if you didn't have a name or worked for someone who did. It felt like young designers just weren’t taken seriously.
Whereas in South America, perhaps because of the lack of an imposing tradition, the youth are the ones who get to write the rule book. It’s that freedom that makes it exciting and different.
Does that notion of America or American design figure into your own work? If so, how?
Yes, this realization taught me to move forward with a new and different approach—to not look back or be worried about being judged. We just need to do what we love with the right amount of passion, and great things will come. The beauty of design is that even with globalization each continent is special, and we can certainly gain from cross-cultural experiences. I’m always looking at what's going on in South America, as I find it very inspiring and can't wait for future collaborations.
What identity obstacles do you face in your work?
Uruguay has a strong European influence, which has perhaps caused a loss of a traditional, unique national identity. We don't have a strong visual or craft heritage as in other Latin American countries. It was hard for me to find a language that I could use in my designs that felt typically Uruguayan.
I feel if anything we are quite Scandinavian. We use honest and natural materials, like wool, leather, and wood. We also use more neutral tones unlike the colorful patterns of other places in South America. I guess that's why I like working in Europe.
What are the most urgent topics that designers can and should address today?
Of course I think sustainability but also equality. The design industry is very inaccessible, starting from school and the way the fees are handled. You need money to make money, and this is not good for those who can't afford it or can’t even access design in their early studies.
We need to stand for change and do what we can, making sure design schools are more accessible, hiring people from different backgrounds, and paying fair salaries. We need to change the way designers get paid for products too. Royalties arrive years after the design work is done; the time invested needs to be covered by design fees at the start.
Galleries could also support designers by covering production costs or buying the pieces they want to exhibit and sell. This would give a chance to young designers who can't afford to produce expensive pieces or spend months designing products without getting paid.
The change needs to come from above, from established designers, companies, and galleries. There is always going to be someone willing to do the work in exchange for exposure, but this is denying the opportunity to those who just can't afford that luxury. Design is not just for the few. It can affect everyone's life, and it should be more inclusive.
What impact have the events of the past year had on your perception of your role as a designer?
I think this is not only about my perception but that of everyone else's. As we find ourselves constrained within our four walls, it has become apparent just how important our living space is—how good design can make a real difference. It saddens me to think that not everyone is as fortunate as we are to have a good living space and to work happily and safely. For many, this experience has been damaging both mentally and physically.
As designers we have a responsibility to provide spaces and products that promote wellbeing, inside and outside our houses. We also need to foster a better work-life balance and set an example for the younger generation. We have been working way too much and have dedicated way too little to our overall health.
What gives you the most joy in your work?
When people tell you how much they like your work and appreciate the things you are passionate about. It's not just a self-esteem boost but a sense of hope that our creations will bring comfort and joy to others. This is what makes a product successful and our work worthwhile.
I also love the social aspect of what we do—our work is a lot about collaboration. There's no individual in design. Everything we do depends on a mix of individuals bringing in all the right ingredients.
Thank you, Matteo! ⬥
Fogale was born in Montevideo and moved to Italy in 2001. He studied at the Art School Leonardo da Vinci followed by IUAV University of Venice. After graduating he worked on a wide variety of projects with design studios like Patricia Urquiola, Nichetto & Partners, Barber Osgerby, and MAP Project Office. In 2013, he established his own brand brose~fogale in collaboration with designer Joscha Brose, designing, producing, and distributing the Camerino Collection. In 2014, he launched a new collection of furniture and products in collaboration with designer Laetitia de Allegri, which was awarded a Wallpaper Design Award in 2015.
Since 2018, Matteo has expanded his ever-growing body of work with a series of new collaborations, including an exhibition and collection of furniture pieces designed together with seven Uruguayan design studios and launched at Aram Gallery in London. He lectures at several schools: Ravensbourne, UAL, Central Saint Martins, Bath Spa University, and London Art Portfolio.
Inspired by the 2020 Design Miami/ Podium theme America(s)—and all the complexities that go along with it, especially in this moment—Anna Carnick and Wava Carpenter of Anava Projects connected with a selection of outstanding designers with personal ties to the Americas to get their take on “American” design today. Their responses were insightful, inspiring, and diverse: From thoughts on the most pressing issues and challenges facing designers now, to hopes and suggestions for a more equitable future, and reflections on their own American design journeys to date. Each story is accompanied by images provided by the designer that embody what America(s) or American design means to them.