Mario Hugo

"I'm not terribly interested in the idea of style. What I'd like to have is some kind of tonality." Design's young star, Mario Hugo, talks to Garrick Webster about the new design counter culture and the beauty of tactile things.

When we talk to contemporary designers about inspiration, one name seems to crop up again and again. At just 27 years of age, New York designer Mario Hugo has already influenced a generation of young creatives with his strongly personal and artistic approach. Some of his best-loved work includes beautifully sketched elements - in his hands, it's almost as though a pencil can take a photograph. Elsewhere, he creates fascinating decorative type. Beyond pure talent, however, it's clear in talking to Hugo that his rise to glory is down to hard work and loving what he does. We called on him to talk about his passion for being creative.

Computer Arts: You're a designer, an art director and an illustrator. Does one of those occupations stand out as being your main focus?

Mario Hugo: They all overlap. They are essentially the same thing to me. I've never been able to draw these distinctions, and I don't really care to; it feels very limiting to call yourself one thing or another. It's a very big world out there, you know. I don't think that going purely illustration or purely design or purely art direction does what a designer would really like to do any justice. [Those in] the emerging world of design would prefer to broaden their horizons and work in very different environments.

CA: Aside from your own creative work, you've set up Hugo & Marie to represent other designers, and there's even an online boutique selling their creations. What drew you into management?

MH: A lot of people have their creative outlets like, for instance, Mike Perry is a good friend of mine and he creates all kinds of books about design. People keep their blogs and their Tumblrs; people are always sharing things that they love and admire. Hugo & Marie is very similar. It's an idea of creating a small agency that represents talent, and presents the opportunity to combine efforts to bring larger projects to fruition, or work individually depending on what a client needs. With a lot of the people we represent - certainly the people we represent right now - there's a certain degree of craft. There's a real kind of passion and love in the work that they make. That is one of the characteristics that we look for in the designers.

CA: Why is the craft or handmade element so important to you?

MH: I don't want it to sound too grandiose, but this is the way I think about it: we grew up in the last generation before the internet; to me there's something very nostalgic about working by hand. I work digitally all the time, mind you, but when I work on a drawing it's exclusive to paper. I don't really take it into the computer at any point - only to scan it and put it online; I don't manipulate the imagery - and something about it feels very honest and warm to me, and I can't necessarily put my finger on it. But again, I grew up just before computers were in every facet of our lives. Maybe that's where it comes from, but I'm not certain.

CA: Like a certain percentage of men, you're affected by colour blindness. How has that shaped your work?

MH: I am indeed a little bit colour blind. It's funny what a lot of people's perception of what colour blindness is, because for me it's just that certain colours kind of merge together and I don't really see them differently. I think it's almost a benefit because I've really tried to work more with light, shadow and composition than colour. Colour is like an afterthought for me. It doesn't mean I can't see it or can't apply it, it's just to say that I probably lean towards certain colour spectrums because I don't perceive all of them.

CA: You mentioned your friend Mike Perry. He makes books, and many designers are making their own magazines, garments, pillows, crockery sets... Why do you think this movement is so popular?

MH: I think that designers universally share a love of craft, and I think that the world we grew up in was very modernised and very commercial. It's interesting when you talk about plates or ceramics; I think when I was a kid I was sitting there with plates with Transformers all over them, or GI Joe. The world was such a particularly commercial monster, and then we were exposed to the internet and things became very ephemeral. Things only exist on someone's screen, and I think that there's a certain degree of counter culture and counter current to the internet that's really begun rising up over the last few years. There is something very beautiful and tangible in tactile objects, whether it's things we make for ourselves, things that we make to sell or things that we make to exhibit.

For designers in particular, I think we've spent the majority of our careers helping to promote the products of other people, but there's nothing keeping us from creating the products ourselves.

CA: What's your favourite media to work with?

MH: My ideal is working with graphite on book paper. It's unfortunate that with the volume of projects we have that require two-day turnarounds, it becomes very difficult to work by hand all the time. You know, my drawings are really laboured - I really do feel they are a labour of love. It's been very difficult as of late, especially because we do a lot of projects for music and, frequently, musicians can be quite finicky and stuff like that. There are definitely challenges to working by hand in the commercial sphere.

CA: Your online portfolio only includes works that you say 'talk to each other'. What do you mean by that?

MH: Frequently I will take a small element from a drawing and then extrapolate that element to create an entirely new piece. I think that, if you actually take a look at my work in sequence, you can see what I mean by the pieces that talk to one another - there are these elements that carry, and small tangents of thought that you can see throughout multiple works. Even if the aesthetic is quite different, there are always these kinds of elements of consistency.

CA: How does it feel to be a design icon?

MH: I've never been asked that - I feel totally flattered by it, and it never really registered in my head that people would feel that way. By that same token, I have all my heroes and icons and people who really inspire me, so it is familiar to think about other designers that way. In addition to contemporary designers like Anna Giertz, Benbo George and Cecilia Carlstedt, I'm really interested in design history - William Morris, Bruno Munari, Paul Klee, Josef and Anni Albers all the way through to Barney Bubbles and Alan Aldridge.

CA: Real physical qualities are important to you, so do you worry about the death of print and things like that?

MH: I have worked on the internet for a long time, but I truly believe in the beauty of tactile things. The only thing I can hope is that other people believe in that kind of beauty too. I still think that there's some kind of inherent romance in things made by hand and in things that you can pick up and hold and smell. Even in my drawings I tend to work on found paper; I scavenge the used bookstores for paper and I tear out the flysheets in the front and back of the books. For me it's a ritual, working by hand. It feels very honest. I just hope that there's a certain number of people in our culture that also crave that particular quality - that tactility, that tangibility.