This week, homes throughout Mexico have been done up with garishly painted skulls, yellow marigolds, paper banners and tin ornaments to mark the Day of the Dead (on November 1 and 2), a festival that honours the spirits of the deceased. Such vibrant colours and ornamentation have come to epitomise Mexican style, along with antique pine furniture, patterned tiles and woven rugs. Despite the continuing influence of these elements, a new generation of designers are adopting a more contemporary aesthetic and attracting the attention of the international market.
This has been no easy task in a country that Mexican curator, Ana Elena Mallet, describes as a design “desert”, with “no [dedicated] design museum, no design collectors or collections and no books on the history of Mexican design”. These gaps reflect the fact that design is still a relatively new discipline in Mexico: design-based degrees weren’t offered at Mexican universities until the late 1950s.
This is not to say that the country is lacking a history in design. Clara Porset (1932-81), for example, a Cuban-born furniture and interior designer, is well-known for her modern creations inspired by the local traditions of Mexico; Michael Van Beuren, an American architect and designer who trained at the Bauhaus school, moved to Mexico in the 1930s and set up one of the first successful industrialised furniture businesses in Mexico City. And Luis Barragán, winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1980, is famous for modernist buildings like his 1968 Cuadra San Cristóbal equestrian estate in Mexico City, with its angular earthen-toned walls. The problem is that relatively few people are aware of the country’s design heritage.
This looks set to change, however, as both designers and curators are making a concerted effort to put Mexican furniture on the international design map. This spring, Mallet curated the Destination: Mexico exhibition at New York’s MoMA Design Store, spotlighting Mexican-inspired and produced pieces and showcasing work such as Andrés Lhima’s Foldable Chair, made from the fabric of Mexican market bags. It was a great success, and the museum even bought pieces from exhibiting designers for its permanent collection. Mallet describes the MoMA show as “the tip of the iceberg”.
Jorge Diego Etienne, who is based in Monterrey, in north Mexico, is typical of the new generation of Mexican designers. In addition to earning a design degree from Mexican university Tec de Monterrey, Etienne has studied at Parsons in New York City and London’s Central St Martins. Although the Mexican design community is small, he says, many of his contemporaries share a common aim – that of international recognition. “We are a new generation with a very clear goal,” he says. “I think that is what separates the young designers of the day from past generations. Past generations did a lot for design in Mexico but getting international recognition was not their main objective.”
Etienne’s home town of Monterrey is a centre of industry. He says that industrial businesses throughout Mexico have overlooked the commercial value of design: “Industrial design has fallen behind, so what I am trying to do is inject good design into all this industry.” He is currently working with an established office furniture company, Ofimodul, helping them to reinvent their brand, as well as a newer company called Acixs, which specialises in stainless steel products. Etienne believes that good design will help Mexican companies such as Acixs compete in tough global markets, dominated by Chinese firms: “Design is not something that most companies in Mexico will invest in. This is what we are trying to change. Our proposition is that you are not selling less because China is selling more. You are selling less because you don’t have design in your company.”
Despite its progressive international outlook, the new generation also values its heritage. Many designers are working with some of the country’s oldest traditions, such as pottery and weaving, and collaborating with craftsmen to create pieces that combine handicraft with cutting-edge techniques. “Young designers are realising that we have roots,” says Mallet, and that the quality of the traditional craft methods is very high. “We have China to compete with, which is always hard. But I do believe that times are changing and that there is a market for objects that have a connection to history.”
Colectivo 1050, a design collective, work with craftspeople from Oaxaca, in southwest Mexico. The area is renowned for its traditional crafts, especially for pottery made from black clay, and the products of the collaboration include simple fruit bowls and ceramic hanging lamps.
Another pair of designers, Paulina Gonzalez-Ortega and Andres Ocejo, recently collaborated with Mexican craftspeople who make wooden toys to create hand-painted tables that look like wooden spinning toys. And American-born designer, Maggie Galton, works with people in indigenous communities to revive dying craft traditions. She has encouraged artisans to employ old skills in creating new products and her range of textiles, including woven and embroidered throws and cotton sheets with ikat detailing, has also helped promote sustainable growth in local communities.
A major problem facing young Mexican designers is the costs associated with getting their work to the international market. Many have had to self-manufacture their products due to lack of support from larger companies. There is little help for them from the Mexican government, although Pro Mexico, a government institution in charge of strengthening the country’s participation in the international economy, sponsored the MoMA exhibition. Many of Mexico’s young creatives have chosen to work in the US and in the UK, where there is better access to fairs and studios.
Liliana Ovalle, a furniture and product designer from Mexico City, remained in London after graduating with an MA in Design Products at the Royal College of Art three years ago. Her designs include pewter mirrors and geometric wooden tables with blocks of colour.
Ovalle says that Mexican designers have got to continue seizing opportunities, to collaborate with industry and be creative about how they work in order to get recognition. “Many designers are also entrepreneurs,” says Ovalle, “so that has made possible the commercialisation of a new range of products that talk about our identity. These efforts, which have been building up for the past 10 years, have started to put us on the radar. If we manage to make strong alliances, and we focus on good quality, we could use this inertia to have a significant impact on international design.”