We don’t design to make “trash and money”: A Mexican design guide

As part of our series exploring countries’ design cultures, we look at how Mexican designers are fusing heritage craft with modern design.

“Design does not only happen in urban areas, and more people are looking to rural communities to understand processes and materials than ever before,” says Ana Elena Mallet, an independent curator of design in Mexico. “Our cultural heritage is very strong.”

The heritage Mallet refers to is an extensive one – the written history of Mexico goes back three millennia, and indigenous civilisations have inhabited the land for some 13,000 years. Present day Mexican culture is influenced by a mix of Mesoamerican traditions and the impact of three centuries of colonial Spanish rule.

All of this can be seen in its design scene. Mexico is a country with a well-forged industrial infrastructure, but is also home to centuries-old craftsmanship. Mallet has made it her business to curate, collect and share this intricate design history.

Olinalá Collection of lights made from pumpkin shells for Museo de Arte Popular, by Ariel Rojo and Obdulia Almazán

“There wasn’t a huge design culture”

The first design courses in Mexico came to universities in the late 1950s. Mallet says this means there are at least two generations of designers working in the country today with formal training in their field.

One of the first institutions to introduce design to the curriculum was Universidad Iberoamericana, a private university in Mexico City. The school is industrial designer

’s alma mater. León de la Barra graduated in 1999, and tells Design Week that “there wasn’t a huge design culture” in Mexico at the time she left education.

“Architecture was beginning to change in Mexico, and there were some design-led buildings appearing, but design itself? Not so much,” she says. Because there were few studios working at the time, and even fewer hiring, León de la Barra and three of her fellow graduates set up their own practice, Mob. She worked with the team designing colourful furniture for five years, before moving into teaching.

Maíz de mar, by Cecilia León de la Barra

“It’s important for people to get to know design in a cultural way”

León de la Barra is now head of industrial design at Centro, another private university in the country’s capital. While Mallet wants designers to understand the history of their craft, similarly León de la Barra says she made the move into education to “promote design in a cultural way”.

“For me, it’s so important for people to get to know design in a cultural way, as well as from an academic or business perspective,” she says. “I want people to know the background behind the work.”

As in the UK, it’s not essential for designers to get a degree to be successful in Mexico. The fact that there is such a rich tradition of craftsmanship and extensive industrial infrastructure in the country means there are other avenues. That said, León de la Barra says the vast majority of designers do opt for the university route.

“It’s not always about the degree, but about learning the processes and techniques you’ll need later in life,” she says, adding that the average BA in design is usually four years.

Radio Vecina 1.0, the product of a series of workshops designed to bring trades and talent together, by Ariel Rojo and collaborators

“We were often only making parts of something for someone else”

Opportunities for designers fresh out of school vary, León de la Barra says. Many go on to establish their own studios or workshops, some travel abroad to broaden their design perspectives and others find work within the country’s vast manufacturing landscape.

But according to Mallet, designers have a complex relationship with Mexico’s industrial infrastructure. Many, she says, are trying to “divorce” themselves from it. Ariel Rojo, designer and founder of his eponymous studio, offers an idea as to why.

“Such a large number of factories means we were often only ever making parts of something for someone else,” he says. “Mexican factories make 70% of Boeing’s airplanes, we have every brand of car manufacturer you could ask for and we even make the parts for trains for places like Canada despite not having a national train system ourselves.”

All of this has historically left few resources for design development for Mexican ends, Rojo says, though this is slowly being addressed by the newer generations of designers.

“The re-valorisation of our own local culture”

The belief that the design scene is changing is a common one. A younger generation of designers is coming into play, and they’re placing more importance on heritage than ever, it seems. Rojo says when he began his career 23 years ago Mexican design was influenced, as with the rest of the world, by the Bauhaus, minimalism and other European trends.

But the growing focus placed on sustainability, eco-design, the circular economy and globalisation in recent years, has “triggered the re-valorisation of our own local culture,” he says. Design has been present in Mexico for millennia, Rojo continues.

“My Aztec ancestors might not have been thinking about form and function as we do today – they thought about the days and nights and how the things they produced connected to the world around them – but they managed to design huge pyramids and civilisations,” he says. “I think we should design with a similar sense of meaning too.

“We should be asking ourselves why we are designing and transforming forests into tables, for example,” he says. “Thankfully, more and more younger designers seem to care about this.”

Sierra Brava by Jorge Diego Etienne

“Motivated to help the younger generation”

The prevalence of quality craftsmanship, from woodwork, to ceramics and textiles, and the abundance of unique materials means Mexican design is “trending” right now around the world, according to industrial designer and founder of Jorge Diego Etienne Studio, Jorge Diego Etienne.

“I think many people from the US and Europe see Mexico as a paradise because of these features,” says Etienne. “Designers come here knowing they can do high-quality, low volume production in our workshops.”

Another element of the scene that has international eyes focused on the country is its events. Etienne says the rising number of design festivals, shows and exhibitions have “pushed Mexican design work to people around the world”.

The country has three major design festivals: Mexico Design Week, Abierto Mexicano de Diseño and Zonamaco Diseño. Beyond this, many smaller cities have their own shows and events – Etienne runs his own in the north-eastern city of Monterrey called Decode.

The attention allows designers to show off their work and form support networks. Etienne says at his own event, he ensures pieces from up and coming designers are mingled with those by design heavyweights.

“I’m very motivated to help the younger generation thrive and have a less hard route into design than I had,” he says. He does this further through his teaching of design at the Tecnológico de Monterrey. Etienne’s own generation of designers, he says, is keen to do the same.

Copper Luminary Collection, by Ariel Rojo

“Designers take their traditions and push them into the 21st century”

One such company to have taken note of the increased attention on Mexico is CDMX. Run by Mexico-based Cheryl Murano-Suess, the company works with young designers and craftspeople in the country and helps them sell their pieces to retailers in the US.

“I think there has previously been a stigma associated with Mexico with issues of quality and little design sensibility but that is changing,” she says, adding that Mexico City was actually awarded the title of World Design Capital in 2018.

Murano-Suess echoes the words of Mallet and Rojo, saying: “Mexican design is all about Mexican culture and tradition – what I love seeing is how these designers take their traditions and push them into the 21st century.”

So what does this fusion of old and new look like? Rojo offers a past project done for Starbucks as an example (pictured above). Briefed to create a set of lights for the coffee giant’s Seattle offices. The lights are formed from copper using a traditional technique from Santa Clara de Cobre, a mid-western town in Mexico, but take a modern geometric form.

Colección Magna Quadro by Jorge Diego Etienne

“IKEA in Mexico has left a few designers shaking”

An interesting development to come in the Mexican design scene will be the arrival of IKEA. The Swedish furniture giant has been producing and selling its goods in Europe and elsewhere in the world for decades, but it will only open its first Mexican store next year.

“I think the announcement of IKEA in Mexico has left a few designers shaking,” says Etienne. “I hope it pushes us to continue to do better work.”

The fact that IKEA had previously not considered opening a store in the country comes down to how many young  Mexicans previously lived within family units but now live as more independent people, León de la Barra says.

“A lot of people often used to stay with their parents until they moved out and start families of their own – there wasn’t as much travelling around apartments as is in other countries,” she says. As a result, the demand for furniture was relatively low. Now, as with so many other aspects of the scene, that is changing, she says.

Calakmul Collaborative Workshop, by Ariel Rojo (fourth from left)

“Design will have to go beyond the object”

Besides the influence of the incoming arrival of IKEA to the country’s capital, what else do designers predict for the scene in the coming years? There is no doubt that the climate crisis and questions around sustainability will continue to affect the industry. León de la Barra says designers are already changing their outlook.

“Designers are conscious now and I don’t think there are many out there that are just doing design to make trash and money,” she says.

Mallet believes the future will see an expansion beyond the traditional focus on graphics, industrial and textiles disciplines.

“I do believe design will have to go beyond the object – [we will see people] designing systems, solutions and strategies,” she says. As the country begins to imagine life post-pandemic, Mallet says designers will be instrumental in these next steps. “I want to see professional teams always having a designer on side.”

Meanwhile Rojo sees this as a watershed moment for Mexican designers: “COVID-19 and the ecological crisis have visualised the inequality of our system, in terms of poverty and the social gap and shown the problem the way we design and consume represents.

“I can only wish that our generation, and the next one, can design a more social and regenerative future. At the end of the day, that’s what designers do: we design the future.”

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