We met at Boticario, that trendy bar in Palermo themed around the idea of an apothecary from yesteryear. The setting could not be more ideal: she sits in a chair she crafted, with a backdrop of a wallpaper she designed; to her right, a giant armoire with dozens of drawers she pieced together; to her left, bartenders whose uniforms she created and concocted. It’s safe to say everything that meets the eye (and all other senses) inside of this place has the Eme Carranza signature in some way or the other. The same could be said about half a dozen places all around the city and beyond, including Niño Gordo, Divisadero Parador, and Gintonería Rosario. But how exactly did she become the talk of the town in just over two years in the business?
It’s hard to say what exactly Eme Carranza does for a living. She started out as a designer, getting a degree from UBA several years back, but to label her as just that hardly does her craft justice. “Sometimes people call me and say: ‘Hey, I love what you do even though I don’t know exactly what it is you do,'” says Eme amidst laughter. “I mean, are you an architect, a designer, a decorator? I don’t really know but I know I want to start my restaurant with you!”
After she graduated from design, she got into filmmaking, eager to expand her horizons a bit more. “There was something about designing in two dimensions that I found restraining. I quickly realized that what I enjoyed the most was the creative process, developing ideas that could be translated into designs, videos, sounds, whatever.”
She began to put all this into practice by staging scenes with her friends. It was all fun and games back then, but Eme had somehow stumbled into the essence of what would later become her line of work. “I would write stories that would come from a smell, a particular climate, a garment. We would go someplace for the weekend and my friends would sort of act it out and I would take picture. I would dress them up, decorate the frame. It was quite fun and that’s how I discovered how much I enjoyed composing a scene and finding a way to touch the viewer somehow.”
With these ideas in mind, she began to gravitate toward the culinary world, driven as much for her love of food and drinks as by the overall dining experience. “When I travel, I usually go to a lot of restaurants. But I’ve gone to a lot of places that had amazing food but I would get tired of being inside of them very quickly, because of the lighting or the noise. I’m a fan of places in which once you enter, you feel it’s the perfect moment to be there and it feels exactly right. Those are the ones that truly stick in your head. I like spaces that have personality and can transport you like that.”
Her first steps in the world of bars and restaurants came thanks to a trio of heavyweights in the field: bartender extraordinaire Tato Giovannoni, and chefs Pedro Peña and Germán Sitz. With Giovannoni she worked on the showcase window of Florería Atlántico, the only Argentine bar in the top 15 of the World’s 50 Best bars; for Peña and Sitz it was for the first Chori locale, a space she designed with her boyfriend and business associate Alan Berry Rhys.
But her first real break came by way of Juan José Ortiz, who dialed her up to work on Boticario. And even though he had approached her only for the place’s graphic identity, Eme had other things in mind: “As soon as I stepped into this place under construction, I knew I wanted to do more than the graphics. I’d see the space and imagine it all. To me it went beyond a logo or a color palette, it had to do with everything, the chair you sat in, if it was made of wood or leather, the columns, the plants, the light that would hit your face…”
What ensued was an intense creative process, one that brought to mind the days of her storymaking with her friends. Between Ortiz and Eme, they created a character called Salvador Cortés, one that had inherited his family’s drugstore but who decided to turn it into a cocktail bar instead, by experimenting with medicinal plants. This origin story gave way to an entire universe filled with all sorts of possibilities, from the collectibles and expedition memorabilia used to decorate to the map-themed wallpaper plastered across most of the space and a gigantic drug store sign hanging in the inner patio. “We almost grew to believe that the character existed and when we came up with a certain idea we would say to ourselves: ‘I don’t know if Salvador would like that.’ It’s great when that happens.”
Trust is key in what Eme does, and a lot of her work is based on the relationships she can build with the owners of these places. “If somebody wants me to work with them, he or she cannot be on top of me watching everything I do. If you can’t understand that, then things can’t work.” Maybe this is the reason why she has developed strong, lasting associations with those that have hired her in the past. With the aforementioned Peña and Sitz, Eme has now worked on pretty much every enterprise the duo has undertaken: Niño Gordo, churro shop Juan Pedro Caballero, the highly successful Donut Therapy, and the new shops for the ever-expanding Chori universe (not to mention several other projects on the horizon).
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The same kind of trust can be found in her relationship with Tato Giovannoni, with whom she has already done the taberna-themed Las Patriotas and one of her personal favorites: La Gintonería, a 50s inspired gin and tonic spot in downtown Rosario. This place is a prime example of what Eme can do with a place when given complete freedom. The idea was to position Apóstoles, Tato’s own brand of gin, through a bar that conveyed the look and feel of a club de barrio from way back when, but with a decidedly contemporary feel at the same time.
“It had to be Argentine, with the same style as the beer shops of today in which you had to consume at the bar, aimed at people who would grab a drink after work and then go home. It had to reflect the 1950s, a time when men would leave their office and head to the club to talk about politics or any other issue thad bonded them. This sense of belonging was key. We had an era, a country, it was a clear, original idea.”
The result pretty much speaks for itself. It seems new and perfectly crafted but at once very familiar. The concept pretty much took over the decision making in a way. La Gintonería responded to an industrial era in the country, one in which man-made materials supplanted natural ones in the interior decorating industry, so Eme used formica and melanin and ignored all possibilities of working with wood.
“The place calls out for things that I wouldn’t necessarily like in other contexts,” she explains. The result? Customers would often say that they felt a 1950s YPF vibe once they walked in, something she had never thought of but that somehow made perfect sense. “We did everything right,” she says with a smile on her face.
So what makes Eme so good at her job? Well, it can pretty much be summed up into two reasons: one has to do with research, the other has to do with craftsmanship. Research-wise, she is as thorough as they come. Most of her new clients receive an all-encompassing questionnaire that begins with a couple of inquiries that pretty much determine if she’s interested or not: what do they serve and at what time do they plan on serving it. After that comes a parade of questions that cover everything from the basics (location, square footage, what kind of competition is there in the field) to the downright weird (define your place with a feeling, a person, what kind of food is it, what clothes does it wear, what color does it like, books, songs, movies…)
“If you can’t answer these questions, it means you don’t have it clear and you want me to make magic, and then add dishes to my concept, but it doesn’t work that way,” she explains. “I’m not a need, I’m something that accompanies something else. People come to these places to eat and drink, not to see the place. That’s just a plus, but the cocktails and the food are the most important things. I just think about what context to give it all. If the first part isn’t clear, there’s not much I can do.” This is the main reason why Eme has yet to work with a beer bar in Buenos Aires. “If there were one cervecería with these ideas thought through, I would work with it but I still haven’t found one. It’s not enough to work with craft beer anymore.”
The craftsmanship part of her job has to do a lot with materials and, as she likes to put it, “getting her hands dirty.” It’s not a rare occurrence to walk into one of her spots while under construction and find her on top of a ladder hammering at a wall or putting together a lamp or a chair. “It’s industrial design, mixed in with architecture and graphic design with a splash of illustration as well,” she explains. She’s also a class-A antique scavenger hunt specialist, constantly exploring Buenos Aires for priceless objects at affordable prices and storing a lot of them for future projects. “I have this GIANT tapestry of a group of horses running through a field that I bought for AR $500 and I just know I’m gonna use one day.”
As you might expect, Eme is not the kind of person to stay calm for too long and has been on a binge of late, creating spaces like Bilbo in Villa Crespo and the newest NOLA at Paseo La Infanta near the Rosedal. She currently has over ten projects on her agenda, including Tora, an Asian restaurant in Recoleta headed by Aldo Graziani and Lucila Zeballos of Aldo’s and Birkin fame.
She’s also in talks to work on her first project abroad, an enterprise on the Spanish island of Mallorca. But all in all, through all the success to date, Eme Carranza still approaches her work as if she were planning a scene with here friends back in the day. “It’s the same thing as when I began, the same modus operandi for both. I’ve learned a lot of crafts, how to use materials, and the projects and the budgets have gotten bigger, but it’s still the same essence that moves me. To me, it all comes down to what moves you…”