Making the Cut
With its black-sand beaches and crystalline lagoons, El Salvador might be a paradise for tourists, but for designers it’s far less hospitable. A 12-year civil war and a handful of environmental disasters have left the Central American country with the most nascent of manufacturing bases. Raw materials are expensive, retail outlets are few, and furnishings are often made by hand. Given these conditions, it’s remarkable that Claudia and Harry Washington, two young interior designers from the capital, San Salvador, were tapped to create six pieces for Bernhardt Design’s 2009 Global Edition, the furniture company’s star-studded international collection. Even more remarkable is that the artfully detailed sofas, love seats, and chairs that make up the line (which is called Calibra) are the couple’s first-ever pieces to be industrially produced.
“As a culture, Salvadorans usually don’t like plain stuff,” Claudia says, explaining the influences behind Calibra. “We like modern. We can simplify a shape, but it always has to have a detail. It’s unconscious, but it gives it personality, character—” Harry, her husband, jumps in: “Salsa,” he says with a laugh. “That twist—there’s always something that has to be a silent shout.”
Claudia says she wanted Calibra to resemble “a small pig on pointe.” And indeed, the seats are voluptuous and oversize, delicately hovering over faceted aluminum feet. A deep V-shaped cutout between the arms and backrest reduces the bulk and frames two thin, inlaid stripes of fabric that stretch across the back cushions. (The pieces are also available in a version without the cutout, Calibra.02). Upholstery options range from a single monochromatic textile to a full-on Mondrian effect, with as many as six different fabrics and hues on the stripes, the cushions, and the interior and exterior of the shell.
“Part of the exercise was creating one beautiful platform that you could personalize so easily and that could be used for both residential and commercial applications,” says Jerry Helling, Bernhardt’s creative director. “It’s not just a general, run-of-the-mill, cookie-cutter piece. But then, you can also have that version if you would like.”
Bernhardt’s willingness to propel the Washingtons to a global stage, showing them alongside design superstars such as Yves Béhar and Arik Levy, was quite a leap of faith. The couple had originally learned about the company on a trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, when Harry purchased an issue of Metropolis (June 2005) that featured Helling’s collaborations with students at California’s Art Center College of Design. “We realized the style of our furniture was similar to that being featured,” Claudia says. “At that moment, we said, ‘One day, we’ll work for this guy.’ But those things you just say and want to believe.”
In November 2007 the pair was chosen as one of the winners of the inaugural contemporary-furniture competition Contempo, held in San Salvador and sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The prize was a chance to exhibit that May at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair. Once they arrived in New York, USAID’s Isabel Muyshondt tracked down Helling. “She was so excited and passionate, so committed, that I thought, OK, I’m going to see what these kids are all about,” Helling says. When he stopped by the booth, he was intrigued by the Washingtons’ Olga chair, a leather sling with multiple straps belting up the back. “The product had something in it,” he says, and recalls thinking, “Yeah, this is good, I can work with this thought process.” A few days later, he called the couple and asked them to come to the Bernhardt showroom in Chicago. When they arrived, he gave them the brief for the sofa that eventually became the basis for the Calibra collection.
The line was produced at breakneck speed. By July the Washingtons had submitted 30 drawings, and by August they were at Bernhardt’s factory in Lenoir, North Carolina, looking over prototypes. “Since this was their first commercial development, you might assume that it would have been challenging, but it was quite the opposite,” Helling says. “Because they have had to make their own products, Harry and Claudia understand the problem-solving process that is a critical part of production.” The first finished sofa arrived in San Salvador in the first week of November and appeared later that month in an exhibit at the city’s Marte art museum.
The Calibra line goes on sale this month in the United States after its ICFF debut and will be available in Europe by midsummer. In the meantime, the Washingtons are already working on tables for Bernhardt and talking with a New York retailer about carrying several of the pieces they have produced with Salvadoran artisans. But their newfound success hasn’t gone to their heads. When talking about their situation, the designers are, by turns, humble, proud, full of praise for Helling and Bernhardt, and still a little stunned by their good fortune. “We were very, very lucky,” Claudia says. “And,” Harry adds, “we’re still learning. Coming here, doing what we’re doing, getting the chance to being published, is just …” He drifts off, his loss for words speaking volumes.