“Centro Histórico is layered with history,” says Carlos Matos of the Mexico City (CDMX) district where he and Lucas Cantú live and work. Together they make up Tezontle, a multidisciplinary practice named after the indigenous volcanic rock used for construction since the Aztec era. He means “layered” quite literally. The neighborhood in the city center—home to pre-Columbian restaurants, buildings of nearly every architectural style, and a dense network of hardware stores (“It’s like a big factory where we can source materials and get special things made”)—is actually built upon the ruins of Tenochtitlán, the ancient capital of the Aztec empire, invaded by Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1519. That architectural patchwork serves up endless inspiration for the studio’s totem-like concrete sculptures and furnishings, which meld pre-Columbian aesthetics with contemporary material culture. As Matos, who grew up in CDMX, explains, “We see Mexico City as an archeological site that is still being unearthed.”
They’re not the only ones excavating inspiration in the Latin capital. In Mexico City, with a population nearing 9 million, a wealth of museums, and an internationally renowned art, food, and music scene, a rich design culture is thriving. (It was deemed the World Design Capital in 2018.) And now, as international design galleries open and creatives from near and far set up shop in the metropolis, the world is watching as the next chapter unfolds in a centuries-old history of making.
“It’s like a volcano that is about to erupt,” says Cecilia León de la Barra, director of ZONAMACO Diseño, the design arm of Mexico City’s contemporary art fair, since 2014. She traces the boom back two decades. When she graduated in 1999, with a degree in industrial design, things were shifting in Mexico City. New restaurants were opening (Pujol, Enrique Olvera’s hotspot, built around indigenous ingredients and often called one of the best restaurants in the world, opened in 2000), boutique hotels were popping up, and all of these new spaces required design. Now famous architects like Tatiana Bilbao and Frida Escobedo were setting up their practices. Pioneers like designer and architect Hector Esrawe were finding ways of making and selling their work that were different from the European model, where big companies commissioned designers and paid them royalties. In Mexico City, it was more D.I.Y. Independent practices proliferated. León de la Barra and some friends opened a shop called Mob, in 2001, that sold furnishings by local makers. “People started to know design, buy design, and also build houses,” she recalls.
By the 2010s a handful of platforms for showcasing design were emerging—ZONAMACO Diseño, Design Week Mexico, Abierto Mexicano de Diseño—and a new crop of young talents was gaining international attention. Their work was different. It didn’t quite mesh with the Eurocentric standards of industrial design, rather, it created a new language rooted in the handmade traditions of the country. The Dutch-Mexican designer Emma Gavaldon van Leeuwen Boomkamp began working with a weaving community in Oaxaca to create modern versions of traditional Mexican wool rugs and braiding sisal pieces, typically used for bags, into large wallhangings. Sisters Phoebe and Annette Stevens of Anndra Neen collaborated with traditional silversmiths from the Taxco region to bring their whimsical jewelry designs—and now, accessories for the home—to life.
“It’s about collaboration,” says León de la Barra, who curated an exhibition about the artisanal turn of the CDMX design world in 2010. She acknowledges the complex and sometimes-colonialist tone these partnerships have taken in the past, saying that today, “It’s essential that designers collaborate with artisans rather than conquering or imposing. It must be an exchange.”
Fernando Laposse, who studied at Central Saint Martins in London and recently moved back to his native Mexico takes that thinking a step further: “I purposely don’t work with artisans using their traditional artisan skills,” he says. “Instead I work with Indigenous people and we create a craft from scratch.” In 2009, he began exploring the materials of his homeland: multicolored heirloom corn husks, the pinkish dye extracted, throughout history, from the cochineal insect, and sisal, used for centuries to make ropes and rugs. The last, a cash crop from the Yucatán, had fallen from favor when plastics and other cheaper, synthetic materials came onto the market. But Laposse reimagined the material as a fluffy textile, (he used it to create whimsical sloths for an installation at Miami’s Design District, last December), working with communities across the country to find a new way to repurpose the age-old material. Similarly, in 2015, he began collaborating with a village of Mixtec farmers and herders in the state of Puebla to reintroduce heirloom corn (many varieties were lost and farmland ruined when chemical additives and pesticides were introduced in the 1990s). Now, they harvest the crops, and use its colorful oft-discarded husks to create Totomoxtle, a decorative veneer made with marquetry which can be applied to walls or furniture.
“I like to transform humble materials into something luxurious,” says Laposse, but the material isn’t entirely the point. “It’s about a whole system. Reintroducing heirloom varieties that we’ve lost, working with Indigenous farmers, thinking about land rights, biodiversity, preserving our heritage.”
Mexico City’s particular production possibilities—its specialties range from textiles, ceramics, and glass to stone carving and metalworking, with lots in between—have also attracted a steady stream of foreigners, who praise the city’s slower pace and affordability, in comparison to other international design hubs like New York, L.A., or London. French designer Fabien Cappello had been running a material- and process-forward practice in London. When he relocated to Mexico City, he began collaborating with the local taller oficios, the small-scale producers that made things like the public transit upholstery or the fake plastic fruit he saw in the market, products that hovered somewhere between craft and industry. Meanwhile Adam Caplowe (British) and Mark Grattan (American) of VIDIVIXI both found that the slower pace of Mexico allowed their creativity to thrive. They drank in inspiration from the local architecture, such as an abandoned Art Deco cinema opposite their showroom in Colonia San Rafael, and channeled it into elegant furnishings, some of which debuted in a digital exhibition by The Future Perfect this week.
As the design scene continues to grow, spaces have sprouted up to showcase it. After moving to CDMX almost three years ago, the L.A.-born artist and furniture designer Brian Thoreen created a nomadic gallery project called MASA with designer friends Age Salajõe and Héctor Esrawe. “Collectable design and art were becoming more relevant here, but there weren’t really places to show it,” explains Thoreen. Their roving shows, which tap talents like Su Wu, a curator and writer who recently relocated to CDMX, were some of the first gallery-like design exhibitions to focus on Mexican-made work.
But that hole is closing fast. Last December, Rodman Primack (previously the creative director of Design Miami) and Rudy Weissenberg (they also run the AD100 firm RP Miller) debuted their new CDMX-based design gallery, AGO Projects, at Design Miami. With talents like Laposse, Anndra Neen, and Cappello on their roster, they’re building on the international interest in Mexican design, and, in time, hope to develop the market in Mexico itself (for now, Primack says, most Mexican collectors still prefer imported goods). People couldn’t stop talking about it. The work was colorful, soulful, unexpected, and it highlighted that quality that so many—locals and newcomers, alike—emphasize: the endless possibility of making in Mexico.
“You can make things happen here,” explains Weissenberg. “Magically, you can find someone to help you with glass. Someone to help you with metal. It’s very artisanal. And that’s not just post-colonial; it goes back thousands of years.”
Some version of that appeal has been operating for the last century, bringing a global mix of people to the Latin American metropolis. In the 1930s, Cuban furniture designer Clara Porset settled in the metropolis. German painter and architect Matthias Goertz came a few decades later. Artist couple Anni and Josef Albers made frequent trips between the 1930s and ’60s, visiting with friends like Porset and the Mexican architect Luis Barragán, who collaborated with all of the above.
“I would say it’s happening again,” says León de la Barra. “Right now in Mexico City, it’s not really about who is Mexican and who is not, it’s about doing things, sharing things, having new connections.” She likens the resulting design landscape to the vernacular architecture that permeates the city, from the pre-Columbian ruins in Centro Histórico to Spanish colonial cathedrals, to an Art Deco cinema to the colorful houses that line many streets. “It’s not always pink, always wood, always stone, but when you see it all together, it just makes sense.”
A Sampling of Work From Mexico City’s Top Talents
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest