Where design thrives

 SUN-DAPPLED The living room of Harry and Claudia Washington. Moris Moreono/ NYT PHOTO Their country, which President Barack Obama visited last week on a tour of Latin America, can now claim to have a stable democracy, albeit one grappling with a stagnant economy and drug-related crime.

It can also claim a fledgling design industry, thanks to the Washingtons and their small community of colleagues. The couple, who met as students at the University of Applied Arts in San Salvador, are the principals of Due Estudio, one of the first Salvadoran design firms to establish a presence outside Central America.Home for the Washingtons and their year-old daughter, Valentina, is a 1,250-square-foot two-bedroom apartment in San Benito, an affluent neighborhood in western San Salvador, the country’s capital. The fifth-floor apartment, which they bought in late 2006 for $165,000, doubles as a home and informal showroom. “We did not have an office when we first moved in,” said Washington, 31.

“So we wanted our home to be a gallery and a laboratory for our work.”Much of that work is for Bernhardt Design, a furniture maker in North Carolina that asked Due to join its Global Editions division in 2008.

The division, which has manufactured pieces by notable designers like Arik Levy and Yves Behar, produces the work of various designers as part of a single annual collection. The timing was fortuitous for the Washingtons, both personally and professionally: The sizable commission allowed them to finish renovating their apartment and showroom, a process that took four years and cost $30,000.About a year ago, after they had moved their design studio into a nearby office building and their manufacturing workshop into a downtown industrial space, they were able to plunge into the final stages of renovation, demolishing a pair of walls to create an open living area where there had been a separate kitchen, dining room and salon.The home’s new “social space,” said Claudia Washington, 34, is anchored by a pine dining table made from a drafting board set on a metal frame. “You can literally see four years of work on its surface.” Just beyond the dining area are some of the couple’s latest designs, including their round Curio table made from coffee-tree wood and a prototype of their Calibra sofa for Bernhardt. “The sofa was part of our first Bernhardt collection,” Harry Washington said, adding that the prototype was a gift from Bernhardt’s creative director, Jerry Helling.The apartment’s most dramatic element is also its newest: a wall stretching from the kitchen to the balcony, covered in planks of light and dark pine.

The Washingtons used a similar element in their design for Steve Madden stores across Central America.

“The wood added character, texture and warmth to the room,” Claudia Washington said, “but also a nice urban quality.”

They designed most of the bedroom furniture as well: the laurel bed, a wheeled closet system, the cedar end tables. And, of course, Valentina’s crib, a cube of laurel strips perched on pivoted legs is a big hit – and not just with Valentina. “Friends are already ordering cribs for themselves,” Claudia Washington said.As the couple prepares for the spring furniture fairs in Milan and New York, their apartment looks and feels complete, and clients stop by regularly to see their designs.

But the Washingtons are equally proud of the role their company is playing in presenting El Salvador in a fresh light: a country where former leftist guerrillas are now democratically elected ministers, and local design talent is gaining international recognition. As Harry Washington said, “Everyone at Due understands we are part of something larger than ourselves.”

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