What crisis? Buenos Aires is a world leader by design

Argentina's economic troubles drove its capital to reinvent itself as a major player in creative circles. Ismay Atkins reports

The dynamic revival of Buenos Aires, after the economic crisis of 2001 that brought Argentina to its knees, has been zealously documented in travel circles. As elegant as ever, newly affordable Buenos Aires shot quickly to the upper ranks of travel hot spots. Seven years on, tourists are still pouring in through Ezeiza international airport dreaming of colossal steaks, but style-savvy travellers are getting wind of another reason to explore the city – a flowering contemporary design scene.

As the city's foremost design fair, Feria Puro Diseño, kicks off its eighth edition this week, Argentine design is more engaging than ever. The period of need, introspection and experimentation that followed the currency crisis was to trigger a phenomenal creative impulse in the capital, and an army of restless designers began to manipulate the materials available to them in new and exciting ways.

Not missing a trick, in 2002 the state inaugurated the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Centre of Design, answering a huge demand for commercial grounding among budding designers. The city's two big commercial design fairs (Feria Puro Diseño and Buenos Aires Fashion Week) got off the ground, looking to unite, and sell, the best creative talents – and a torrent of smaller showcases, seminars and festivals design-washed the calendar. In 2005, Unesco declared Buenos Aires its first "City of Design" and "one of the most viable and productive design industries in the South American continent".

By last year, the buzz was out: Harrods threw Argentina Week, dressing up its windows in Argentine couture; ARGdis: Passion from the End of the World in Tokyo introduced Japan to 50 of Argentina's best design pieces; and, in New York, MoMA showed 13 of BA's hottest design talents in its two-month-long Destination: Buenos Aires.

Getting your hands on your very own Argentine limited edition on home turf isn't difficult – nor, for now, is it very expensive. For an erudite introduction to the scene, go to the Malba, the city's leading modern art museum, with a dedicated design agenda and intelligently stocked shop. Otherwise, for browsing, studios, design showrooms and bijou boutiques now line the cobbled streets of the tangibly trendy Palermo Viejo district (divided into "Soho" and "Hollywood" by overexcited property agents).

As designers looked to native materials for inspiration, leather emerged as a protagonist, taking on new structural as well as textile forms. Despite being one of the city's oldest industries – cows were reared for their valuable hide rather than their meat – Argentine leather is mainly exported from the tanneries to be fashioned elsewhere.

Leading the leather renaissance at home is Vaca Valiente, designer Pedro Reissig's "homage to the cow". A hit in the MoMA store in New York last year, and now exporting to more than 25 countries, these witty origami-esque desk accessories are crafted from sheets of colourful reconstituted leather; check out the particularly lovable red kangaroo tidy for AR$92 (£14).

A fellow MoMA star, architect turned bag designer Ingrid Gutman of Humawaca plays with leather, enhancing skins with zesty colours and textures. Her trademark is the hugely successful BKF backpack (AR$519), a homage to Argentina's most famous design of the last century, the 1938 BKF sling chair with a collapsible frame by architects Bonet, Kurchan and Ferrari-Hardoy.

For colourful new takes on this endearingly casual chair, stop at Calma Chicha – where you can pluck the hide or fabric of your choice to accompany the iron frame, from AR$440 – or cutting-edge furniture emporium Manifesto, which in the past few years has also resuscitated another modern Argentine classic, Horacio Baliero's suave Madrid chair (1967).

For a touch more form than function, call on Josefina Ferroni or Mishka for hand-crafted shoes (from AR$350); Min Agostini, one of BA's most talented couturiers, for off-beat elegance; and Marina Massone for intricate necklaces and bracelets made from oversized flexible leather links in turquoise and violet.

A trip to Patricio Lix Klett's Palermo workshop, La Feliz, offers a fascinating glimpse of the Argentine avant-garde at work. Using reels of coloured weather-proof plastic wire and traditional wickerwork techniques, he creates singular and durable lamps, tables and doughnut-shaped seats (from AR$300).

For dashing decor accents, pick up a set of radical placemats made of melted plastic filament in metallic tones (AR$35 each) from design collective Perfectos Dragones; patterned wallpaper and fabrics from Picnic; or a sleek statement in glass by Planas Viau, whose factory in the far south of the city is open for visits.

Inevitably, this focus on design is spawning a blander commercial side, with out-of-town maxi design and decor mall Norcenter just open. But for visitors flying in from lands where Ikea dominates, studio-hopping in Buenos Aires for affordable limited editions is a breath of fresh air.

Further viewing Feria Puro Diseño, 8-13 April, La Rural, at Avenida Sarmiento 2704, Palermo; feriapurodiseno.com.ar. Entrance AR$15

HOW TO GET THERE

British Airways (0844-493 0787; ba.com) offers return fares to Buenos Aires from £847. Iberia (0870-609 0500; iberia.com) offers return fares from £615.

Argentina Tourist Office (00 54 11 4312 2232; turismo.gov.ar).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Vaca Valiente (00 54 11 4857 1502; vacavaliente.com); Buenos Aires Metropolitan Centre of Design (00 54 11 4126 2950; cmd.gov.ar);

Malba (00 54 11 4808 6500; malba.org.ar);

Humawaca (00 54 11 4832 2662; humawaca.com); Calma Chicha (00 54 11 4831 1818; calmachicha.com); Manifesto (00 54 11 4773 1500; manifesto web.com); Josefina Ferroni (00 54 11 4831 4033; josefinaferroni. com.ar); Mishka (00 54 11 4833

5885; mishkashoes.com); Min Agostini (00 54 11 4833

7563; minagostini.com.ar); Marina Massone (marinamassone. com.ar); La Feliz

(00 54 11 4833 6027; lixklett.com.ar); Perfectos Dragones (00 54 11 4782 3086; perfectos dragones.com); Picnic (00 54 11 5197 5115; picnic decor.com); Planas Viau (00 54 11 4282 8981; planasviau.com).

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