Mario Hugo

Posted inDesigner Profiles
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If you find a used bookwith its flyleaves removed, there’s a good chance Mario Hugo isresponsible. The 25-year-old artist, designer, and illustrator oftenspends his weekends rummaging the racks at New York City’s Strandbookstore. He buys old books, extracting the thick, blank pages and,often, returns the harvested books to the store. Sacrilegious? Perhaps,but the poetic, emotive artwork this act enables should more than repayHugo’s debts to literature and society.

“It’s notlike a cheap nostalgia,” Hugo explains of his chosen medium.“There’s a poignant energy to these pages—the way theysmell, their grain, and the way they feel. And you always discoverthings—sometimes funny, sometimes oddly erotic notes that peoplehave left.” Hugo tapes the pages together to form a canvas onwhich he draws portraits, geometric shapes, letterforms, and otherminimalist motifs using a combination of china ink, graphite, andgouache or acrylic. His work is predominantly black-and-white with spareuse of color (he confesses to being partly color-blind). The overalleffect is at once new and old: technically precise, yet aged andimperfect. He says, “I’m inspired by a lot of culturalreferences, but none of them are recent.”

Born to Argentineparents, Mario Hugo Gonzalez (the art world already had one MarioGonzalez, hence the shortening), he is the eldest of fourfirst-generation children. Always a natural with pen and paper, hestudied fine art and sociology at Boston College, but a junior-year tripto Sydney led him by chance to the Semi-Permanent design conference. Hereturned wanting “to learn more about speaking to people andcommunications,” so he transferred to Brooklyn’s PrattInstitute to study art direction. After graduating in 2005, Hugo took ajob at interdisciplinary studio Syrup NYC, working on websites for theMTV Video Music Awards and L’Oréal. Describing that work as“too ephemeral and strange for me,” he says he prefers tocreate “things for people to treasure, to keep and look at in 15years.”

Hugo left Syrup after one year to freelance and makeart. This work is largely inspired by his family, especially hisyoungest brother Alejandro. Despite a 17-year age gap, the pair isco-creating a book of portraits and writing called Reverie andTrouble-making, which will be part autobiography, part invention.Hugo cites designer Bruno Munari’s children’s book NellaNotte Buia as an influence; he aspires to make children’sbooks professionally, to tell stories with an “undercurrent offantasy and abstraction.”

Although he’s not ready toforgo client work altogether—his illustrations have graced TheNew York Times Magazine and the cover of Flaunt—Hugodedicated most of 2007 to his first solo exhibition. “I’veGot Something I’d Like to Show You,” held at the Valleryspace in Barcelona in fall of 2007, featured such pieces as And ItWas Left Void, a fluid, typographic painting on yellowed book pages,and large-scale, hand-embroidered compositions like Twilight, abold typographic treatment stitched into a hemp-silk blend.

“Ireally like tangible things. I find that people who enjoy my workactually like it for those physical qualities,” Hugo says of thewarm reception he has received. “Maybe people are a little tiredof the overly computerized design world.”