Matter at Hand
AGO Projects champions Latin America’s rich history of the handmade
*This story was written by Hamish Andersen, and originally appeared in Miami Design District Magazine, under the title In Good Hands. It has been slightly edited.
“This important Latin American curator told me I was like Don Quixote,” says Rudy Weissenberg, the cofounder of contemporary design gallery AGO Projects. “I don’t know if it was a compliment or not, but certainly we are trying to start a conversation.”
Depending on your point of view, Don Quixote either saw things that just weren’t there, or he perceived things that other people couldn’t and conjured worlds into being with his imagination. At least one of these descriptions is apt for AGO Projects. The gallery works in a relatively nascent field (“believe it or not, collectible design is a new market—maybe 20 years old,” says Weissenberg); and despite the business being dominated by European objects of sober-hued precision, Ago champions traditionally underrepresented Latin American work, with a focus on colorful, handmade pieces.
The gallery, located on the fifth floor of a building on Avenida Paseo de la Reforma (Mexico City’s bustling main drag), features floor-to-ceiling windows that allow views of the area’s green palms, purple jacaranda trees, ten lanes of traffic, swarms of pedestrians, near-weekly protest marches, and one of architect Mario Pani’s huge, colorful apartment buildings. It’s a lot of visual information, but it can’t compete with the riot of colors, shapes, and textures inside. The main space is currently empty (it’s being painted bright yellow for a forthcoming show), but the office and showroom are stuffed with pieces by AGO designers: gold-colored lamps resembling fruit, painted ceramics in multiple forms and sizes, and red chairs upholstered in a painterly blue and yellow check.
Despite the bold colors, however, it is the process that remains central to the gallery’s mission. “Everything being handmade is really important for us,” says Rodman Primack, Weissenberg’s partner in business and life. “What makes something different or special for us is seeing the hand of the creator. It’s really about seeing how things can be made organically—not just from literally organic elements, but something that connects to the region and to the makers and their traditions. Most of the designers we work with are interested in continuing that dialogue.”
Primack says one of the main reasons AGO established itself in Mexico is that the country “has such a deep history and deep well of possibilities to make things by hand, from textiles to ceramics to furniture.”
Some of those fabricators make things themselves as well—producing what Mexicans call “artesanías”—blurring the line between a maker who might be thought of as a craftsperson and a “designer.” “It depends who you ask and what day of the week it is,” says Weissenberg with a laugh. “But I think there’s a difference between making something that’s always been made the same way and is almost a nameless design, and something where you see a person’s specific design language. For example, there’s this incredible ceramicist in Mexico, Jose Garcia Antonio, who is blind, and he recreates his wife’s face from memory on these very traditional ceramics: I think he’s really a designer and an artist because only he does what he does.”
Using traditional Mexican techniques to express something unique and modern—doing untraditional things with traditional forms—is something many of AGO’s designers do. A selection of them were shown at AGO’s group show at the most recent Design Miami /, including Mexican designer and architect Daniel Valero, who describes his work as “wild objects and textiles.” Valero works in four different regions of Mexico, adapting to each region’s unique materials and techniques, but infuses the pieces with his own artistic language. You can see traditional techniques in Valero’s rugs, but their designs make them resemble abstract paintings. They could hang on a wall in a gallery as easily as they could sit on the floor of a house.
Valero’s work was shown in Miami in December alongside pieces by Lanza Atelier, Louis Ercole, and others, but the “real spine of the booth,” according to Primack, was a tile project created in partnership with a Guadalajara-based ceramics manufacturer. “The majority of the booth [was] tiled with a mural by [award-winning furniture and product designer] Fabien Cappello. We’re introducing a new way to think about tiled walls as unique pieces, so you can commission a custom design that’s as small as a table or as big as a building,” he says. As with the rest of AGO’s output, it combines age-old handcraft and contemporary, individual design ideas.
The chance to show at Design Miami/ is always particularly special for Primack, who was previously the fair’s executive director and has spent plenty of time thinking about what it means. “When you realize you’re interested in design, your world opens up, though it takes people time to get there,” he says. “Once you get hooked on design you understand that if you’re collecting contemporary art of any kind, you should seriously collect furniture and design, too—it’s an extension of how you live.