In 1985, the year the guerrilla group M-19 stormed Colombia’s Supreme Court, killing over 90 people, Benjamín Villegas launched a risky business venture. At a time when the country was wracked with internal conflict and overrun by powerful drug cartels, Villegas created a publishing company dedicated to promoting a positive image of his country. Amidst the strife, when many had stopped believing change was pos- sible, he bet on Colombia’s resilience.
“A lot of people at some point told me that Colombia wasn’t like that,” Villegas remembers, referring to the high-resolution photographs featured in his books. “So I said that what we were presenting were photographs, that Colombia is like that, it’s also like that.”
Now, nearly thirty years later, Villegas’s bet has paid off. His company has produced close to 300 large format books showcasing everything from Colombia’s diverse ecosystems and traditional foods to photographs of the nation’s cultural luminaries. Over the past three decades, Villegas has worked with some of the nation’s best photographers and historians, chronicling hundreds of years of visual history.
In his office in the Zona Rosa, above his company’s flagship store on the Calle 82, Villegas proudly presents his twelve newest books. Dressed in a gray sweater and pinstripe pants, he brought out the volumes one by one and set them on the table in front of him until only his thick graying moustache and sharp blue eyes were visible behind the stack.
Among the selection was a visual account of Colombia’s aviation history, a book on Bogotá’s urban design featuring aerial photographs, portraits of prominent Colombians by Mauricio Vélez, chronicles from Frenchmen who visited Colombia in the 1800s, and a book of art history depicting the relatively unknown Iglesia de San Ignacio in Bogotá.
“The objective of Villegas Editores is to document the country in all of its aspects, above all the positive image of Colombia in all of its themes,” Villegas explained. “There are books this year for everyone’s tastes.”
For Villegas, books are not only instruments for learning or written records, they’re pieces of art in themselves. An architect turned graphic designer, Villegas is a master of space and color. Every font, photograph, and text in his volumes is the result of careful consideration; every blank space is purposeful. Villegas’s work is widely recognized for its impeccable quality and expert graphic design, both in Colombia and abroad. His high standards and keen eye have led his company to win more than 100 international prizes.
In spite of the awards, Villegas is most proud of sharing his country’s beauty and diversity with readers. “If we have any merit, it’s maintaining our persistence in the presentation of a positive image of Colombia in moments in which it wasn’t believable and when it was most needed,” Villegas said.
“What I had to do and what I keep doing is a crusade for the positive image because it has been difficult for the country to recover from a traditionally negative image that was created in the 1980s and 1990s.”
In addition to the line of stunning coffee table books for which they’re known, Villegas Editores now publishes children’s books and a series of novels by up-and-coming Colombian writers. They have a distributor in the United States and a presence on Amazon.com, as well as a steady stream of requests from companies seeking to commission a publication.
Asked about the future of physical books in a digital world, Villegas said he’s not worried about losing business. Although he foresees a future in which more and more books will be read on tablets, he believes that large format books will endure as long as they can compete with the quality of images on digital screens.
Part of the appeal of Villegas’s books, and what tablets lack, is physicality. His volumes are heavy, durable objects that can rest on a lap, a coffee table, or a desk, their sturdy exterior belying the delicacy and beauty of the photographs within.
“There’s nothing like a book to leave a record,” Villegas explained. “I question the stability of digital records because of technological changes.” He gave the example of his Betamax cassettes and floppy disks, which are now obsolete. “At a certain point, you can’t keep easily transferring your archives to every new technology that appears,” he added. “A lot of information gets lost along the way.”
After all, Villegas should know. He has been designing publications since he was in high school and has adapted to the many developments in print and graphic design over the last 50 years. While he has seen new technologies emerge and fall by the wayside, his first books are still well preserved and easily accessible.
This is part of the reason Villegas has dedicated his life to creating books – they remain some of the most effective mediums for preserving visual history. “ is where I felt that I definitely had the possibility of leaving a legacy, of leaving a footprint, of leaving a series of documents about the country not only from a written point of view, but also from a visual point of view,” he explained.
Villegas also attributes his love of books to his parents, who were both avid readers while ample libraries. They instilled in him the habit of reading and an appreciation for all things literary from an early age. His love of literature and affinity for design drew him to publishing in high school, where he worked on both his school’s magazine and a magazine for Colombia’s national radio. Villegas showed promise early on; by age 15 he had founded his first magazine and by age 17 he was the director of his school’s publication.
Although Villegas studied architecture at the Universidad de los Andes, he continued to design and edit magazines. By the time he finished his studies, he had been working for the petroleum company Esso’s magazine for five years. “When I graduated I had an office set up in the area of graphic design more than the area of architecture,” Villegas remembered. “Architecture in some ways is form, is space, is light. Books are two dimensional instead of three, but even so they are an equivalent aesthetic experience.”
As his graphic design business grew, Villegas took on a variety of projects including publications, posters, and corporate logos. He even dabbled in television, founding and co-directing a journalism program for young people and producing two documentaries.
Villegas began designing books for companies and government entities in the early 1970s, but it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that he made the decision to dedicate himself full-time to publishing books. In addition to designing volumes commissioned by private organizations, Villegas created books on areas of Colombian culture he felt had been overlooked by other editors. Over the years he slowly and carefully filled the void, documenting Colombia’s unknown natural wonders, underappreciated artists, and insufficiently documented artesanías. He estimates that his company has preserved close to 60,000 images of everything from tropical birds to Botero paintings.
In a sign of better times, Colombians living abroad – some of whom left during the tumultuous 1980s – now represent a significant portion of Villegas’s customers, eager to show the rest of the world what their country has to offer. Tourists are also frequent buyers, taking books of Colombian birds and recipes home as souvenirs or gifts. But Villegas’s best customers are the Colombians who still live here, the ones who, like him, never lost faith.