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Mario Hugo: Mystery, Geometry, Gravity

At the age of 26, Mario Hugo’s style is already more sophisticated than most designers twice his age. Playing with shapes, lines, and space, he crafts ethereal, timeless art that is blissfully free of parody or obvious references. Even when it’s hand-drawn or inked–which it often is–Hugo’s work is no lo-fi, slapdash affair, but rather a careful, mysterious exploration of the tension between organic, human shapes and a sort of mystic geometry.

One of the most riveting aspects of Hugo’s art and design is how many different media he works in. Work for Dolce & Gabbana’s 10th anniversary book and Flaunt magazine is turned out with gouache, graphite, and China ink on sepia-toned book pages, reminding simultaneously of Da Vinci’s drawings, Dali’s surrealism, and a sort of late-’70s psychedelia. At Spanish gallery Vallery he explored acrylic paints and large-scale embroidery; his logos and type are fairly straightforward–but no less clever–matters of pixel-pushing and pica wrangling. Mock-ups for Beck’s Modern Guilt album (which went unused) are an even more interesting meld between handicraft and graphic design, showing Hugo playing with inkblots, spray paint, and bold celestial themes.

A fan of author Milan Kundera and designer Peter Saville, Hugo nonetheless doesn’t like to play favorites. “My tastes change quickly,” he demurs, preferring instead to talk about the process of creation and the abstract ideas that shape his work.

XLR8R: What is your favorite childhood memory?

My aunt narrating an animal alphabet book–it’s a super-vivid memory. A small piece I finished recently is actually a quiet homage to that memory.

What has been your favorite project to work on?

I took about six months off from commercial stuff to create drawings and embroideries for my first solo show. I don’t even really remember the opening, but the process itself was the reward: the lack of sleep, coffee addiction, maniacal consumption. It was nice to get lost for a bit, and I’d like to do it again next year.

You seem to work in so many different media. Are you in a certain mood when you want to work with ink versus embroidery, for instance?

I like thinking about my work tangentially. I like to introduce a sentimentality to my stuff regardless of what media I’m exploring. It’s not as random as it seems. I like to extrapolate a theme… Let’s say my last piece was all about shape. Shapes are composed of line, so let’s make a piece all about line. How can we make line more interesting? Let’s embroider it; let’s have people run their fingers through what is essentially a three-dimensional drawing. I think it’ll all continue this way. There is a romance to carrying ideas from media to media for me, and I really like this humanist place where people get lost in a variety of textures and details.

What is hardest medium to work in?

I’ve never taken to painting and I find cameras tricky.

What concept did you have in mind when working on graphics for Beck’s most recent album? Was this developed upon listening to the music?

They sent some [aspirational] references and the title Modern Guilt. To tell this story allegorically, it was as if I’d been asked to score a soundtrack at least as good as Jaws, Indiana Jones, or Star Wars. Beck didn’t want to influence me with the music, so I had no context and the only direction was a title. I thought I’d create stuff that vaguely spoke of airbrushed vinyl and ’70s pseudo-science. They loved the comps, kept me at it for a month or two, but it didn’t fit his concept and the designs just didn’t stick.

What is your favorite part of your daily routine?

My cat wakes me for food. I oblige her resentfully.

How did your collaboration come about with Barcelona-based store Vallery?

Vallery was a great experience. [Design collective] Vasava just wrote me and asked me if I’d like to exhibit [in their gallery]–my work was quite small and delicate at that point, but I agreed, and spent the next six months forcing my work to grow in size. I think they are the only online store that sells my work, but I’m kind of ambivalent about selling prints in general.

How many siblings do you have? Tell me about collaborating with them.

I’m the oldest of four: Gabriella is 19, Gaston is 15, and Alejandro is nine. We’re all quite creative, but I collaborate most with Alejandro. He’s the subject of a variety of drawings, and we sometimes share sheets of paper, returning the page to one another once we’ve added some of our own experimental elements. It’s just fun to put together pieces, and I hope to one day bind our experimentation into a book, tentatively titled Reverie & Trouble-Making.

What music do you listen to while you work?

I like all kinds of stuff, really. This last week I’ve been listening to Nilsson, Benoît Pioulard, Khonnor, Emmy the Great, Sleeping States, Tunng–the soft stuff that sounds like I’d like my work to look. I’ve been more into books on tape and radio podcasts than music for the last couple years.

Have you always had such an affinity for shapes?

I love the universality of simple things: shapes, contrasts, geometry. It’s a language everyone understands. I prefer to suggest narrative [rather] than tell stories, and shapes are just an excellent means of suggestion. I love old stuff, too: Bruno Munari, Kasimir Malevich, the Albers. I really respond to the early/mid-century stuff.

It seems like a lot of your recent work has sort of outer-space themes…

It’s not space so much as balance and tension. I’ve always been drawn to these very natural compositions–shapes that weight one another, gravity and tension. Sometimes space fulfills that narrative (and I’m a fan of space, as evidenced by sweaters and scarves) so I use it, but I’d say it’s just one vernacular tied to a love of making objects float.

What scares you most?

Coming off talks of space, I have a totally irrational fear of UFOs. This one movie called Fire in the Sky really messed me up as a kid.

Who is your favorite artist of 2008?

I’ve seen a lot of Deanne Cheuk’s new stuff recently and she’s a perennial favorite. Benbo George makes some fantastic stuff. Masako Ando is great. But this list changes and grows daily.

What visual artist or musician would you have most wanted to trade places with when you were 16?

Wow. This is a great question. Jarvis Cocker is my gut response. I’ll regret this answer tomorrow. His ’n’ Hers era, for the curious.

Dune, 2001, or Clash of the Titans?

2001, no competition. 2001 is in my top 10 anythings of all time.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

Make yourself uncomfortable; fall into holes you have to claw your way out of.

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