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4 lessons Mexican designers can teach the world

Design Week Mexico and its surrounding events hold lessons for practitioners everywhere

From October 10 to 14, Design Week Mexico discussed and exhibited contemporary design. At the Tamayo Museum, it presented Inedito, an assortment of innovative pieces from emerging and established practitioners.
From October 10 to 14, Design Week Mexico discussed and exhibited contemporary design. At the Tamayo Museum, it presented Inedito, an assortment of innovative pieces from emerging and established practitioners.
Courtesy Design Week Mexico

Over the past few years, the Silicon Valley motto of “move fast and break things”—meaning rapidly prototyping and iterating—has shaped the design world at large. But now, the reality is setting in that this approach does little to solve real-world problems we face and may actually do more damage than good.

During Design Week Mexico, which ran from October 10 to 14, as well as other exhibitions running concurrently with the 10-year-old festival, a different design approach was at the forefront: It was contextual, rooted in history and culture, forward thinking, and results oriented. By working with, and reworking, what’s already there, many of the designers showed it’s possible to create exciting things that benefit the people while pushing design forward. The rest of the world take note: Below are four standout lessons from Mexican and Mexico-based designers.

Focus on unsung brilliant design—and the experience around it

As part of Abierto Mexicano de Diseño—a festival whose “objective is to show how design can become a tool that responds to the cultural, social, environmental, economic, and political issues that concern us all”—the independent online fashion platform Archivo Moda Mexicana curated an exhibition of contemporary independent labels.

Anna Gomez, one of the site’s cofounders, said that Mexican clothing is typically understood as either an artisanal article or fast fashion. “There’s no conception of what a designer is,” she told Curbed.

Archivo Moda Mexicana exhibited work from emerging fashion designers like Paloma Lira, Angela Reyna, and Maison Manila.
Archivo Moda Mexicana

To showcase what’s happening right now in the independent fashion scene and make Mexican fashion more accessible and inclusive, Archivo Moda Mexicana brought together designers who derive inspiration from contemporary Mexican culture, like the knitwear brand Pay’s; people who are experimenting with materials, like Paloma Lira, Angela Reyna, and Maison Manila; studios focused on pattern making and the construction of garments, like 1/8 Takamura; and those who are repurposing familiar objects and recontextualizing them in fashion.

Gomez and her business partner, Elina Corona, wanted to get people excited about the garments on view and worked with Mexico City-based interior and furniture designer Fabien Cappello on the installation design, which used unexpected materials, colors, and objects, much like the actual fashion on view.

“We needed to make it a whole experience and to do a statement,” Gomez says. “We didn’t want things to be, ‘Oh, that’s nice’; we wanted it to be, ‘Wow what is this?!’ It makes people open to the things they’ll see ...[The exhibition design] is weird, but also fun and makes fashion a little less classic and aspirational and more down to earth.”

Think about the future—near and far

Archivo Diseno y Arquitectura—a gallery and Mexican design archive—presented MXCOD03, third in a series of exhibitions about the past, present, and future of design in Mexico City. For “This is CDMX Tomorrow,” Archivo paired 14 people working in design, architecture, urbanism, branding, and visual culture and invited them to speculate about the future of design in the city. It was up to the seven teams to envision the future scenario for which they were designing and then produce something in response.

The teams addressed mobility, housing, public health, resource conservation and scarcity, capitalism, sustainability in designs that spanned from the ultra-conceptual to the pragmatic.

Güerxs—a modeling agency that casts people who fall outside traditional standards of beauty—and NAAFI—cultural producers of parties, records, apparel, and more—created a public service advertising campaign about sexual health for a future where Mexico’s government is more open about public health.
Courtesy Archivo

Güerxs—a modeling agency that casts people who fall outside traditional standards of beauty—and NAAFI—cultural producers of parties, records, apparel, and more—collaborated on a public service advertising campaign about sexual health for a future “perhaps just around the corner.”

Conservative values in Mexico have stigmatized prescriptions for HIV prevention and treatment, abortions, and hormone replacement therapy for sex changes. Güerxs and NAAFI proposed posters with positive language and imagery for PrEP, Misoprostal, and antiretroviral therapy. Intended to be displayed in the metro system, on billboards, and in other public venues that make these treatments feel normal and ordinary, these posters augur a more progressive health system that prioritizes sexual well-being.

Imagining a post-oil future, Fabien Cappello and Basica created vehicles made from found materials and intended to be propelled by pedestrians.

Mexico City of 2048 was the focus of Basica Studio, a custom bike maker, and interior and furniture designer Fabien Cappello. They imagined a future that ran out of gasoline and created vehicles, called “Tapacios,” propelled by pedestrians. To produce the Mad Max-esque Tapacios, Cappello wandered the streets of the Doctores neighborhood, an area now known for its auto repair shops, for scrap materials then brought them to a local welder, who created vehicles out of them. Basica and Cappello designed the process by which their vehicles would be made, but left the finished product up to the welder. By working with people who wouldn’t normally engage with Design Week Mexico, Basica and Cappello expanded the cultural program’s reach.

EWE’s installation was staged in an old mint and featured studies, prototypes, and past collections.
Diego Padilla

Tap into local intel, fabricators, and makers

At the Museo Numismatico—a coin museum that occupies a former mint dating from the 1600s—design studio EWE presented “Mas Critica,” an exhibition of previous collections along with its product development process, which included material studies, scale models, prototypes, and finished pieces.

EWE’s material studies look to found objects from the Mexican landscape.
Pilar de Ario

EWE uses artisanal craftsmanship in its furniture, lighting, and accessories—think lamps made from dark-amber blown glass, vessels carved from black marble, and steel tables counterbalanced in rugged rock—and regularly looks to Mexico’s natural landscape for formal inspiration. It also works with local makers, often located no more than a 45-minute drive away from the studio’s Mexico City office.

“It’s about this dialogue on how to create new meanings and advance languages and evolve craft, which allows more people to be involved with it in the future,” founder Hector Esrawe says about why he works with artisans.

Two of Esrawe’s designers moved to Mexico City to work with him within the past few years. Aga Sallajöe, who is originally from Estonia, and Manuel Bañó, from Spain, both relocated because of the ability to collaborate with makers.

“I came here like all the things I couldn’t find in Spain: artisans; small production [studios]; materials like stone, wood, and metal,” Bañó says. “Whatever you want to find, you can find it here. And they are open to you and open to collaborate. In my experience that was impossible in Spain and Europe.”

The result is strikingly unexpected forms and textures that hearken to Mexico’s past and future.

Designer Julie Richoz collaborated with Nouvel Studio on glass vases that update artisanal techniques with contemporary aesthetics.

In a similar vein, the Swiss designer Julie Richoz collaborated with Nouvel Studio, an artisanal glassmaker that’s also worked with EWE, on a series of prismatic vases. Each one is unique and reflects the hand of the craftsmen.

At Museo Nacional de Arte, Laboratorio para la CiudadMexico City’s urban innovation lab—presented one of its recent initiatives: a furniture design and fabrication project in Tepito, a barrio known for its open-air markets and informal economy. In the past, Tepito used to have a vibrant and diverse manufacturing economy but it’s nearly disappeared. La Lenguilla, a market in the area, used to make and sell furniture but today it mostly only retails.

Laboratorio para la Ciudad and Fab City worked with the few remaining manufacturers in Mexico City’s Tepito barrio on an affordable chair design.
Courtesy Laboratorio para la Ciudad

Laboratorio and Fab City, an organization that promotes local manufacturing, worked with the few existing fabricators there today to help them improve their operations to fulfill demand for affordable furniture. The organizations collaborated with local furniture makers on a set of chair patterns riffing on Clara Porset’s interpretation of a classic butaque chair. The idea is anyone anywhere in the world can download these patterns and cut them using CNC machines and local makers thereby decentralizing manufacturing.

Champion how design can make a difference

At the Tamayo Museum, Design Week Mexico staged Inédito, an exhibition of work from emerging practitioners and established studios. Spanning fashion, textiles, furniture, industrial design, innovative concepts, and more the installation included over 80 pieces.

Alejandro Martínez Jaime created a building product made from construction waste, which was exhibited at Design Week Mexico’s Inedito exhibition.
Courtesy Design Week Mexico

Mecate Studio showed how a funfetti-like material made from recycled HDPE plastic could be used in furniture. Also exploring material reuse, Frame Design Studio created a workstation from recycled metal, reclaimed wood, and paper pulp.

Mecate Studio’s MOLI chair is made from recycled HDPE plastic.
Courtesy Design Week Mexico

The waste-not theme continued with Alejandro Martínez Jaime’s Recybloq, a diamond-shaped concrete masonry product made from construction waste. Design Week Mexico awarded Jaime with Inedito’s grand prize.

Comité de Proyectos designed this shelf out of concrete, wood, and metal.
Courtesy Design Week Mexico

Mexico City was named a World Design Capital in 2018 and while the metropolis’s architecture still remains more renown than its design, the designation reflects an ambition—long held in the design community but now also by shared by the government—to become bolder and more boundary pushing.

Designers I spoke to while visiting installations and studios recognized the challenges in building a stronger scene but were optimistic that it will happen in the years to come. Based on 2018’s presentations, Mexico City’s design trajectory should reveal even more exciting work in the near future.