“when you looked at Japan, it was exploding with new architecture”

Fernando Iglesias

Striking designs

Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photo by Kageaki Smith

“Uruguay is a unique country,” says Fernando Iglesias, president of Clestra Hauserman Japan. “It’s one of the smallest in South America. The population is only 3.4 million — some neighbourhoods in Tokyo have more people than that.”


Iglesias was born and raised in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, on the Atlantic Ocean. The cultural diversity of the country is one of its many remarkable characteristics.

“I had a very multicultural upbringing,” he recalls. “It’s a country where we are all immigrants. I’d say 90% are of European origin — Italian, Spanish, French, British, German. All those different cultures and ways of life get mixed together.”

On indices comparing South American countries, Uruguay ranks very high in areas such as democracy, prosperity, lack of corruption and freedom of the press.

“It’s a country with very advanced social laws,” Iglesias observes. “There are a lot of regulations on the protection of workers’ rights. And education is free; they have made it a pivotal point of society.”

Iglesias studied fine arts in Uruguay with a focus on sculpture and design, but his father was worried about how he could make a living as an artist.

“He suggested a good compromise,” Iglesias explains. “He told me architecture would allow me to use my abilities in spatial design, so that’s what I did.”

In 1995, Iglesias came to Japan on a Monbusho scholarship to study building design. He was mentored by Minoru Takeyama, a renowned architect who designed iconic landmarks such as the 109 building in Shibuya, and the Ichiban-kan and Niban-kan buildings in Shinjuku.

“In the 1990s, Western architecture, from my point of view, was stagnant,” Iglesias says. “But when you looked at Japan, it was exploding with new architecture. Designers and architects were doing radical things everywhere and developing strong philosophies around architecture.”

Some of Iglesias’ influences include post-modern Japanese architects and sculptors such as Kisho Kurokawa, Arata Isozaki, Isamu Noguchi and Yoshio Taniguchi, whose work he describes as “very bare and exposed.”

After he finished a PhD on urban planning policies, Iglesias started working in Japan as an architect.

“I worked through my junior years in Japan at some very interesting firms,” he relates. “There were a lot of challenging and innovative projects, and I learned so much. I miss sitting at the design table with a bunch of sketches and working on bringing them to life.”

For the last five years he has been CEO of Clestra Hauserman. The company was founded in 1913 in the US, but has been French-owned since the early 1960s. It designs, manufactures and installs glass and steel partitions, and has done projects for many of the world’s Fortune 500 companies.

“I believe we are the only global company in this niche industry,” Iglesias notes. “Since our mounted partitions can be reutilised — even from one building to another — the lifespan of the product is very long.”

Clestra Hauserman has been in Japan for 25 years, and Iglesias believes that his company’s innovative designs have helped shape the Japanese office design market.

“After we came, Japanese companies started imitating us,” he states. “Double-glazed partitions, for example, didn’t exist here until we introduced them.”

Iglesias is also a collector of cultural artefacts, an interest closely related to his appreciation of sculpture and good design. In addition to vintage motorcycles and Japanese antiques, such as hanga prints and kakejiku hanging scrolls, he collects tribal masks.

“I started when I was 17 or so,” Iglesias says. “I have several dozen now. And they’re from all over the world — Papua New Guinea, Borneo, western Africa.”

Instead of buying masks from a shop, he prefers to get them directly from the craftspeople who make them.

“I like to start a conversation, see how they sculpt it, learn what they represent,” he explains. “Then there’s real value in it for me.”

Unlike many of the people in countries where they are used in rituals, Iglesias doesn’t believe that there are supernatural powers in his masks. However, he does feel that they are visually and culturally compelling.

“Sometimes they are not elaborate, they have no colour,” Iglesias says. “But their simplicity actually makes them more striking.” 

Time spent working in Japan:  20 years, 16 of those working.

Career regret (if any):  To not have made more time to mentor people.

Favourite saying:  It can be done, we just need energy and to put our heads together.

Favourite book:  One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’ve read it at least 10 times.

Cannot live without:  Good sushi, good wine and good cheese.

Lesson learned in Japan:  Listen first to all opinions, even if you don’t agree with them. Learn to bite your tongue. And look at things from different angles.

Secret of success in business:  First, something is impossible, then it’s difficult, and in the end it’s doable. Do the impossible — and don’t accept no for an answer.

Favourite place to dine:  CICADA in Omotesando. They serve Mediterranean food.

Do you like natto?:  No, I don’t. My wife and my son like it, and that’s enough for one family.

“After we came, Japanese companies started imitating us. Double-glazed partitions, for example, didn’t exist here until we introduced them.”