By Ellen Shapiro
She's not the bionic woman. It only seems that way. She traverses continents, convinces an international roster of clients to move in new directions and takes care of business and family. Vanessa Eckstein, the willowy, thirtysomething, Argentineanborn principal of blok design, seems to be doing it all beautifully and if not quite effortlessly, at least in a way that 99 percent of professional women would find inspiration al, if not intimidating. ''I'm a juggler” she says. "You can't really do it all, but it's worth trying." he's recently moved her offices to the trendy Condesa district of Mexico
City. There, in a building designed by top Mexican architect Alberto Kalach—concrete, Ibeams, frosted glass, terraces with views of treetops
and tile roofs—she runs a firm that serves clients in Mexico, Canada and the U.S., and that develops its own products and projects. This, after successfully heading the firm in Toronto for five years. Before that, she worked on brand identities at Maddocks in Los Angeles and was a senior designer at Drenttel Doyle in New York City, where she moved after completing her MFA at Art Center College of Design in 1994. On a chilly October morning, in between conducting business in two languages, talking with staff, clients and printers, she graciously serves cappuccino in the conference room, all the time making sure her assistants, Patricia Kleeberg, from Germany, and Mariana Contegni, from Argentina, are finishing the projects that need to be completed before she leaves the next morning for Bangkok with her toddler son Luka and infant daughter Uma. There, the family will meet her Mexicanborn husband, director Fernando Arrioja, who has spent three weeks in Malaysia filming a Coke commercial. "We're taking a vacation. I'm not sure how many countries we will visit," she says. "Pretty much we jump on trains. Traveling is one of my creative energizers. We believe in seeing the world. Of course, in places where there are unique hotels with local atmosphere." Eckstein was born in Buenos Aires—where architecture, graphic design, personal passions and entrepreneurism all seem to converge. Especially in her family. Her mother is a ceramicist. And her father, a chemist, has spent twenty years transform ing a crumbling old building called El Zanjon into a national monument with spaces that can be rented for events. Naturally, his daughter's firm designed the marketing collateral, with elements based on vintage postcards and the building's handpainted tiles. Encouraged to pursue higher education—not always a choice for Latin American women— Vanessa entered the Universidad de Buenos Aires in 1988. "Graphic design was a new career then," she explains. "The faculty were selftaught and had come from architecture. After the end of the military dictatorship , the country was hungry for design. Everybody rushed to open studios. I hadn't even graduated and had a bank as a client, but I still wanted to learn. I started looking at schools in the U.S. and got this amazing brochure from Art Center." Her brother was working Vanessa Eckstein is creative director for all projects and provided the caption information. Right: "A historic building in Buenos Aires undergoes an eighteenyear restoration, during which many discoveries both intentional and unintentional are made. We wanted it to have an identity as complex and layered as the building. Pattern designs inspired by 150yearold tiles, old city maps, visual ephemera, illustrations and photos of the building at various times and stages become our building materials." Frances Chen/Vanessa Eckstein/Stephanie Young, designers; El Zanjon, client.
blok design on a PH.D at UCLA, and that helped
All these influences have left marks on
clinch the decision. Under the
her work, which is richly detailed and
influence of Art Center faculty
elegant. Taupes, soft golds, olives and
including Lou Danzinger, Ramon
pale blues underscore the color palette.
Muñoz, Vance Studley and James
Print pieces are characterized by delicate
Miho, she created a specialization in
textures and refined typography. It is
intercultural design and completed a
an aesthetic more associated with
thesis titled "In Between
Borders." On the first day of school during the campus tour, she met her husband, a
Canada than Mexico, where subtlety has not been a hallmark of marketing and advertising. But perhaps thanks to blok, things will be changing.
film major. "Art Center couples," she
Right now, the firm's diverse Mexican
laughs. "Lots of people get together as
clients include Tequila Jose Cuervo, for
students. Many split up." These two
which they're designing packaging;
have stayed together. "Fernando and I
Nike, which commissioned retail store
have always supported each other,
designs and collectible World Cup
and moved to the city where the other got the best job." After
soccer star cards; and Taller de Empresa, a startup incubator
graduation it was twoandahalf years in New York, where
and financing source. Blok has also retained its Canadian
Eckstein was involved with major Drenttel Doyle projects for
clients, including Roots, a major consumer apparel brand
Martha Stewart, Champion Paper and the CooperHewitt
headquartered in Toronto, and Change, a Vancouverbased
National Design Museum. Then back to L.A. so Arrioja could
sustainability branding company. Says Marc Stoiber, Change's
find work directing commercials. Then came what she
founder: "I knew from day one that the way to make our
describes as "an amazing opportunity" in Toronto. ''I'm an
company successful was to find the best talent. I called
entrepreneur at heart," she says. "I knew absolutely no one
Vanessa when we got our first big project, for a company that
there, but the design community was warm and welcoming."
turned garbage into fertilizer. She took our concept—dubbed
After freelancing at various offices she began cultivating her
REarth—and turned what could have been hippie compost
own clients, beginning with Industry Films— naming the
into a fashion icon. She transformed another green project,
company and collaborating with architects on integrating the
for wooden cutlery, into high design. Vanessa and her team
identity with the company's space. It was the first of many
are easy to work with and generous," he says. Guadalajara
film company projects.
based art curator Patrick Charpenel, who worked with the
Multidisciplinary collaboration is a role that Eckstein sees as integral to blok's own identity. "Blok is more than design. It is a space for collaboration," she emphasizes. "The name blok was taken from a political magazine from the Russian Revolution,
firm on an art exhibition and book, calls her " una diseñadora
sensible que se compenetra a fondo con los contenidos de cada proyecto [a sensitive designer who plunges deeply into the content of each project]."
but it could be from Scandinavia, Russia, Argentina. Bring
How does she do it all? "I try to be very, very organized," she
your own interpretation. I lived through the military dictator
says. It helps that professionalclass Mexican households
ship and believe in activism. For me, design is a means of
have livein maids and nannies, but Eckstein is handson, both as
communicating, serving, being pan of society."
business owner and mom. Every day at noon, she zooms off
After a few years in the Toronto design community, Eckstein became a vice president of the Regisrered Graphic Designers of Ontario (RGD). "In Latin America we don't have professional organizations," she muses. "You have to do it on your own. I admire people with clarity, vision." She and Arrioja spent five years in Toronto, frequently crisscrossing the U.S. by car "to
get to know America." She recalls, "We would take two weeks to get from L.A. to New York, traveling on small roads
in her black suv to pick up Luka from Montessori school and feed Uma before returning to the office for a full afternoon's work. On the day of my visit, that included completing an agenda for Nueva Escuela Technológica, a trade school for lowincome students, which Patricia Kleeberg, who came to Mexico in 2005 from Frankfurt, is designing. With this project,
Kleeberg might be taking blok in a bolder direction: lots of bright yellow and large type. ''I'm more a strong color person,"
and stopping to see what interested us."
Right: "From its name, a Mexico Citybased film com pany expresses its independent spirit at every opportunity. The identity balances the complexity of personal thoughts and feelings with the simplicity of a clear vision and purpose." Mariana Contegni/Vanessa Eckstein/Patricia Kleeberg, designers; Henrik Drescher, illustrator; Emigre Film, client.
blok design she says. And Mariana Contegni was finishing a book on atrisk marine species for ING, 192 oversized pages of underwater photography. Navigating expertly through the traffic, sights and sounds of Mexico City—a city that's getting bigger, shinier and more affluent while retaining its color and charm— Eckstein says, "This is a city of many wonders and neverending museums. It's so inspirational." Blok is an allgirl office, and will continue to be. The newest staff member, Ana Villanueva, a native of Mexico, has just joined the firm. These women not only have developed a working style that has formerlyconserv ative businessmen following their direction, they are creating their own products and content. "This is what we love to do most, and we come to work with smiles on our faces," says Eckstein. With Guillermo Gonzalez Guajardo, they've founded Lampyro, which is commissioning top artists to illustrate children's books. Another new venture is called Free Word. "We're teaming up with three companies— Crush, Emigre Film and LaBrecque & Co. —to do storytelling about the power of the word for social change," Eckstein explains. Blok recently launched Intento I, a line of curvaceous tableware sold in design stores throughout North America. Intento 2, a range of floor coverings, is in the works.
Left: "The book for the exhibit "Solo los personajes cambian" [Only the character changes) is a bold presentation of the various artworks, questioning the existence of borders and the certainty of identity," Mariana ContegnilVanessa Eckstein, designers; Museo Marco, client. This page: "The title of a design conference, Points of Interaction, inspires a concept that invites the audience to connect the dots to recreate the invitational poster, Diecuts augment the character of the invitation, and the underlying concept." Mariana Contegni/ Vanessa Eckstein/Vanesa Enriquez, designers; Á Diseño, client.
blok design Taking all this in, I want to become a cheering section for all bloc’s endeavors. Bill Drenttel, former AIGA president, remains one of her fans. “One of the rewards of running a successful studio is seeing talented young people go off on their own,” he says. “in Vanessa’s case, this has involved watching her create an international practice with finely honed work.” That young women are running a successful design businesses hasn’t been newsworthy for years. But changing the course of marketing communications in Mexico, land of machismo, is. Eckstein and her team are a shining example of just how far international women in design have come. And there’s no telling how far they will go. CA
This page: “A company with unsurpassed passion for the pr in t pro c es s, and the expertise to match has the lively feel of a collective, or a good conversation. For people who approach what they do with imagination and pleasure, a certain playfulness feels just right.” Frances Chen/Vanessa Eckstein/Stephanie Young, designers; The Production Kitchen, client. Right: “ICC, a chemical company positions its organic fertilizer, plant food and compost products as the future and chemically derived products as the past. Pac kagi n g expresses the essence of a company committed to the environment.” Marc Stoiber (Chenge), art director; Mariana Contegni (blok design)/Vanessa Eckstein (blok design), designers; Change, ad agency. “Nienkämper, a manufacturer and retailer of highend furniture, needed a br o ch ur e to spread awareness of its growing product line. Our solution was to extend the functionality of the specification catalog by creating a piece that also worked as a set of promotional postcardseach tearaway features a different Nienkämper product. The clean design and subtle typographical detail reflect the quality and originality of the products.” Frances Chen/Vanessa Eckstein, designers; Antoine Bootz, photographer. “For a new restaurant ö dü n, opening in Mexico City, with a mixed menu from Thailand, China, Japan, Vietnam, etc., we needed to define an identity that would carry the flavor and scent (spices and sensibility) of the region without reflecting one specific country. W e designed patterns based on the diverse cultures with a color palette that feels Asian yet contemporary.” Mariana Contegni/Vanessa Eckstein/Patricia Kleeberg, designers.
blok design Left: " El Centro is a design, film and product design university located in Mexico City. The identity had to be simple yet visually enticing. In our aim to design smartly we did overruns of posters and made envelopes out of them. The result was random imagery that appeared throughout the system" Mariana Contegni/Vanessa Eckstein, designers; Colin Faulkner, photographer. This page: "A production company whose initials happen to coincide with the abbreviation of 'Distrito Federal': official name of Mexico's capital, boldly uses them in an identity that expresses pride of place." Vanessa Eckstein, designer; Distrito Films, client. "A restaurant at the Design Exchange in Toronto requests a muraland receives a wall that becomes a dynamic part of the environment. Random words become sculptures of meaning and blur the distinction between author and reader." Frances Chen/Vanessa Eckstein, designers; Kubo, client.