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Gloria Cortina, a Mexican interior designer, has a telling anecdote about the development of the industry in her native country. Asked to decorate a home in the Baja California resort of Cabo San Lucas in 2008, she drafted a proposal suggesting furniture by the renowned French designer Christian Liaigre.
The approach was tried-and-tested: well-to-do Mexicans have long favoured European design, partly out of cultural snobbery, partly because “made in Mexico” was considered synonymous with shoddy. Her client heard her out, then replied simply: “If I had wanted Christian Liaigre to do my house, I’d have hired him.”
So Cortina, 41, went with her own vision. She sees the experience as indicative of the moment when homegrown design, reflecting Mexico’s multiple cultural and artistic influences, began to take root.
“You take your heritage and express it,” she says of designers’ increasing confidence to fuse their country’s colours, woods, stone and artisan traditions with a minimalist European aesthetic, often incorporating motifs from pre-Hispanic cultures.
“We are in the process of constructing a culture of design, which didn’t exist before,” says Ana Elena Mallet, a curator who worked on the Destination: Mexico project at the New York Museum of Modern Art design store in April last year.
As Mexico has developed from an economy that was largely closed until the 1990s into a $1tn export-oriented market, its upper and middle classes have begun to invest in their homes. Wealthy Mexicans are now spending as much as 50,000 pesos ($3,750) per square metre on home improvements. “Interiors are a product in which people are willing to invest. Before it was cars. Now, it’s houses,” says Jorge Medina, a member of architecture and interiors company Muro Rojo.
Contemporary Mexican design is not an entirely new phenomenon: it was long the preserve of architects such as Luis Barragán (1902-1988) and Ricardo Legorreta Vilchis (1931-2011). Both adapted the clean lines and simple forms championed by European architects such as Le Corbusier, but only recently achieved widespread recognition overseas. Barragán won the Pritzker Prize in 1980, relatively late in life.
Barragán is celebrated for creating his own version of modernism via bright colour schemes and the play of light and texture. He left an indelible imprint on Mexico City, including the Jardines del Pedregal south of the city and five imposing triangular towers in Ciudad Satélite. His own house, a concrete building with a small garden in the west of the city, is a Unesco heritage site.
The work of Barragán and Legorreta informs that of the new generation of Mexican designers, who are similarly combining European and Mexican aesthetics, including Cortina who began her career working for Legoretta in 2001. He designed the Camino Real hotel in Mexico City, whose bold colours and use of light are shielded from a busy avenue by a pink latticed wall. “With Legorreta, I fell in love with my country, with a refined Mexico with many influences – both Meso-American and European fusion,” says Cortina.
Emmanuel Picault, of the interior design company Chic by Accident, enjoys the “visual surprises” when international and Mexican style meet.
“Take, for example, Scandinavian style: Mexicans will topicalise it, so instead of white wood it will be mahogany, and instead of wicker they’ll use palm. It isn’t at the dictatorship of an international style, but a game, a creation, and a refusal to be limited,” he says.
Mexican vintage furniture has also become more coveted, from the chunky wooden chairs of Barragán and Cuban-born Clara Porset to the glitzier designs of Arturo Pani.
Manuel Herrera, a French-Guatemalan property designer who lives in the exclusive Bosque de las Lomas district of Mexico City, took inspiration from a mixture of design styles. In his home there is a mahogany and copper Pani screen, items of Italian furniture and some Barragán “butaca” chairs.
“I chose very eclectic things and focused on 20th-century Mexican designs, which weren’t well known in 2004 when I did the house,” he says. “I love the feel of all this history.”
Similarly, when Cortina overhauled her grandparents’ house in the Las Lomas district, where she now lives, she integrated the couple’s marble-topped Pani tables and slender chairs into her blue-toned sitting rooms, and incorporated native wood such as ziricote and Mexican-crafted rugs.
“There is a resurgence of national pride,” says Richard Eagleton, an Englishman who set up furniture shop Fábrica México last November to put local design on the international map. “It’s not all about donkeys, sombreros and cacti.”
But in spite of Mexico’s flourishing design scene, locals have not completely turned their back on European brands. Even as Mexican design begins to enjoy international acclaim, the capital’s upscale shopping malls have yet to get behind homegrown products, and the proliferation of local interiors magazines helps to champion European labels.
“The way I get Mexicans to buy is by saying I’m selling in New York or Dubai,” says Eagleton. He believes wealthy Mexicans traditionally buy foreign furniture “because foreigners must know” what good design is.
Such blinkered preference for all things foreign is such a fact of life in Mexico that there is even a word for it – “malinchismo” – deriving from La Malinche, the name of the mistress to Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, whose betrayal of her native Indians helped him to bring down the Aztec Empire.
To outside eyes, it might seem bewildering that while visitors are attracted to Mexico’s pyramids, palaces and food, Mexicans themselves are more reluctant to embrace a national style.
Eagleton and a host of local designers want to change this. He is set to launch a campaign in 2014 called “Just One Piece”, which will urge people to incorporate one piece of Mexican design into their homes on the basis that “you might like it and it will make a difference”. It is a sentiment echoed by Daniel Braverman, winner of last year’s Mexican Association of Interior Designers award. “Bit by bit, we’re sowing the seeds so that Mexico will make headlines not for [drugs] violence but for nicer things,” he says.
Mexico City Design Week runs from October 16-24; www.designweekmexico.com
Jude Webber is the FT’s Mexico correspondent