The mex big thing

The heat is rising in Mexican design, with a buzzing contemporary scene and the hip modernism of its midcentury masters fuelling desire among international collectors. Emma O’Kelly reports

Pirwi birch Centipede bench, $1,856, by Héctor Esrawe
Pirwi birch Centipede bench, $1,856, by Héctor Esrawe | Image: © Jaime Navarro. Image courtesy of Pirwi

In recent decades, Mexico has produced internationally known stars in art and architecture circles, from Gabriel Orozco to the late Ricardo Legorreta, but when it comes to furniture and product designers, it has been disappointingly quiet. It is a prolific furniture manufacturer on a global scale and has an archive bursting with designers, yet its best-travelled piece is still the unsigned 1950s Acapulco chair.

However, changes are afoot. Let’s call it a new Mexican wave. As the nation’s economic fortunes improve, showrooms are springing up in all the big cities, young designers are making inroads into a global market, and galleries and curators are reigniting interest in “forgotten” designers of the 1940s and 1950s.

Ariel Rojo silk and wool Foco Rojo rug, £5,760, from Marion Friedmann
Ariel Rojo silk and wool Foco Rojo rug, £5,760, from Marion Friedmann Gallery | Image: © Felix Friedmann/Courtesy of Marion Friedmann Gallery

Alexander Diaz Andersson is a half-Swedish, half-Mexican designer who, along with British entrepreneur Richard Eagleton, founded Fábrica México earlier this year. Both saw the wealth of opportunities the country presented, so they joined forces to help put Mexico on the world map for contemporary furniture and prove that it can create high-quality pieces. Almost everyone and everything involved in Fábrica México is based in Mexico and, to date, its collection consists of 65 pieces. In March, the duo won a Galería Mexicana de Diseño competition to exhibit at Design Days Dubai, where they sold everything they took with them. “Fábrica México successfully mixes Scandinavian lines and Mexican roots,” says the fair’s director, Cyril Zammit, who invited the Galería to attend. “I recently visited Mexico and I was impressed by how captivating and vibrant the creative scene is. It’s refreshing to see origins that are strongly marked and haven’t been watered down by globalisation.

With its factory and showroom in the capital, Fábrica México joins the ranks of established designers such as Héctor Esrawe, Ezequiel Farca and Emiliano Godoy, all of whom have been weaving contemporary design into Mexican consciousness since the 1990s. Of them, Godoy has gained the most ground in global terms. Last year his Knit chair ($5,000), made from bits of plywood “knitted” together with cotton rope, was added to the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and through his manufacturing company, Pirwi, he has recently opened a showroom in Milan. With more than 190 products to its name, Pirwi produces pieces in sustainably sourced birch and so far has worked with 19 designers, from established names such as Esrawe, Cecilia León de la Barra and Rodolfo Samperio to youngsters including Daniel Romero, Mayela Mujica and Adrián Corrales-Ayala.


While once he was part of a small elite that survived primarily by creating bespoke furniture and interiors for a limited few, Godoy is now at the helm of a movement that is making international headway. “The scene has changed a lot since I started. The educational and storytelling efforts that had to be made to get a project off the ground 10 years ago are something the new generation doesn’t have to worry about. It is pushing collaboration to a completely new level.” Across Mexico, designers from various disciplines are pooling together to promote their talents on the global stage. At this year’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York, Panorámica, a collective of seven Mexico-based designers, and Pentágono Estudio, another group of seven, exhibited collections that pointed a spotlight south of the border.

With viable design networks taking shape in their country, young designers have realised they need look no further than their own backyard for inspiration. Rodrigo Berrondo and Pablo Igartúa run atelier Paul Roco and create handmade furniture in Central and South American woods such as tzalam, guanacaste, machiche and sabino. This year, they kitted out hip new Hotel Downtown in Mexico City, the latest offering from Grupo Habita. The duo crafted tables ($550) in a volcanic stone commonly used to make molcajetes (a traditional pestle and mortar), sofas ($3,950) upholstered in Oaxacan wool rugs, and dining chairs ($650) covered with a thick cowhide normally used on the classic Equipal chair. “It feels like we are now happier to reference our own culture rather than looking at what’s going on abroad, which is great because we have an incredibly rich visual history to draw upon,” says Berrondo.

Fábrica México mahogany Ala A bench seat, £1,995
Fábrica México mahogany Ala A bench seat, £1,995 | Image: Frabrica México

Mexican designers abroad are also turning to their homeland for inspiration. José de la O is a graduate of Design Academy Eindhoven and, after four years in the Netherlands, returned to Mexico this year to head up an arts institute in Veracruz. He and London-based industrial designer Valentina González Wohlers collaborated on a foldable piece inspired by the famous rocking chairs from the city of Tlacotalpan. The result is The Chair That Rocks – Urban or City Style, made from cedar with linen (£978), leather (£1,140) or vintage Mexican printed fabric (£1,068). This has led to a full-blown The Chair That Rocks project, which sees Studio José de la O link designers and students with craftsmen in Tlacotalpan to make pieces that can be produced in the area and stimulate its economy. De la O himself has designed the first, The Standard Rocking Chair ($750), in conjunction with cabinetmakers Oscar Prieto and Oscar Montalvo.

“There are so many indigenous communities practising dying crafts,” says González Wohlers. “We need to work with them to keep them alive.” Last year, she commissioned Otomi Indians from Hidalgo to create the fabric for the Tenango de Doria version of her Prickly Pair chairs (from £2,400), which fuse French rococo shapes with those of the nopal cactus. Meanwhile, her Blooming Branches lamps (from £400), based on twigs taken from a forest in Hereford, were cast by ceramicists in Mexico City. “There is so much to explore in Mexico. In the past, it was difficult to succeed unless you went to the right schools and knew the right people. The best stores were filled with Italian design, which the older generation tried to emulate. Now there is a realisation that we can, and should, look to our own traditions and craftsmen and link them to the present.”

Pirwi birch Los screen, $1,740, by Héctor Esrawe
Pirwi birch Los screen, $1,740, by Héctor Esrawe | Image: © Enrique Macias Mart. Image courtesy of Pirwi

Much of this craftsmanship is being incorporated into covetable, limited-edition pieces. Mexican designer Liliana Ovalle is part of London’s Okay Studio, and this year she hooked up with Colectivo 1050º, a Mexican group making high-quality ceramics in Tlapazola, Oaxaca. Their limited-edition Sinkhole vessels (£900), made of black clay and inspired by spontaneously formed geological craters, have already been exhibited at Depot Basel.

London gallerist Marion Friedmann, who specialises in Latin American design art, says, “When I first went to Mexico three years ago I was stunned by the country’s sophistication and talent. There are exceptional designers there and no one in Europe really knows about them,” she says. To date, she has launched Transmutation 1, a chandelier made of recycled bottles by French-Mexican designer Thierry Jeannot (£16,800), who has lived in Mexico for the past 16 years, and Foco Rojo, a rug by Ariel Rojo (£5,760). Rojo is a prolific designer, academic and vocal design activist within his country. “The creative industries contribute significantly more to Mexico’s GDP than the agricultural sector. Ours is an industrialised country, but we have amazing craftsmen,” he says. With this in mind, he collaborated with Mexican rug-maker Obadashian to produce Foco Rojo. Based on aerial photos of Mexico City by night, it forms a limited edition of 20 (plus three artist’s proofs).

Liliana Ovalle and Colectivo
1050º clay and oak Sinkhole No 3 Botita vessel, £900           
Liliana Ovalle and Colectivo 1050º clay and oak Sinkhole No 3 Botita vessel, £900            | Image: Liliana Ovalle

Friedmann is convinced that Mexico – and Latin America more generally – is a creative conquistador in the making: “Designers in Europe, be warned. There is a huge power coming from that area.” Europe may only just be waking up to Mexican designs, but dealers and collectors in the US are tuned in to what’s happening south of their border. Alongside the buzzing contemporary scene, interest in Mexican modernist furniture from the 1930s to the 1960s is snowballing. After the 1910-1920 revolution, Mexico – with its mix of Marxist ideology and mexicanidad (what it means to be Mexican) – was seen as an incubator of modernist thought. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera were at the height of their powers, adored by the surrealists in Europe; bauhaus refugees, including Hannes Meyer, Michael van Beuren, Josef and Anni Albers and Klaus Grabe, immigrated to Mexico as they fled the Nazi regime. In turn, Mexican designers such as Arturo Pani, Pepe Mendoza and Francisco Artigas were inspired by the coolly rational style of Europe’s best and brightest.

Paulo Peña Salcedo, co-owner of Mexico City’s ADN gallery, explains, “The modernist movement in Mexico happened in a way that was unlike anywhere else. It was deeply rooted in tradition – which sounds like a contradiction – but designers of the time incorporated very traditional colours, shapes, materials and techniques into their work. The result was a rich, sensuous and expressive form of modernism.”

Pirwi paper Doce wall clock, $139, by Adrián Corrales-Ayala
Pirwi paper Doce wall clock, $139, by Adrián Corrales-Ayala | Image: Pirwi

Relatively little was known of this golden age until 2003, when academic and curator Ana Elena Mallet was invited to explore the archive of Clara Porset, a Cuban-born designer who settled in Mexico in the 1930s. Porset found inspiration in the country’s crafts and ancient Mesoamerican sculpture, as did Americans Don Shoemaker and Michael van Beuren. Today, they are seen as pioneers of the movement, and Porset’s Butaque chair usually sells for at least $5,000.

In LA, galleries such as Blackman Cruz are fuelling a desire for Mexican modernism all along the West Coast. “Pani is supremely hip right now,” says Blackman Cruz co-founder David Cruz. “His pieces are quite beefy and work well in generously proportioned Californian houses. He lived abroad and was heavily influenced by 1940s France, but he changed styles regularly, so his works are very versatile.” Cruz grew up in northern Mexico and travels back to his homeland regularly to seek out pieces from the likes of Porset, Pani and Mito Block, mainly from private estates. “They can be hard to find. With designers such as Luis Barragán and Porset, I have to be very clear about the provenance, since there are few authentic works left.”

José de la O cedar and wicker Standard Rocking Chair, $750
José de la O cedar and wicker Standard Rocking Chair, $750 | Image: Studio José de la O

“Most pieces have either disappeared or are abroad,” agrees Javier Carral, owner of Trouvé gallery in Mexico City. ADN recently sold Porset’s Sala Totonaca – her iconic lounge suite – to a foreign collector for a sum that, although undisclosed, broke a Mexican-design price record in the process. Salcedo reckons that “Mexican modernism is definitely more popular beyond our borders. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it is rewarding to see beautiful pieces in important collections worldwide, but it makes me sad not to see collectors in my country buying Mexican design.”

“We still lack a strong design culture. There is no tradition of design in our museums, and it is still divorced from government and business,” says Mallet. She is one of a smattering of individuals trying to encourage Mexicans to buy Mexican and build bridges with industry. Their efforts are paying off. Fábrica México recently secured exclusive rights to reproduce furniture from the archive of modernist architect Pedro Ramirez Vázquez, who died in April. He was one of the nation’s great architects, designing museums, expo pavilions and the Equipal chair. The collection launches this winter, with enthusiastic government support.

Clara Porset’s iconic 1959 Sala Totonaca sofa, recently sold by
Clara Porset’s iconic 1959 Sala Totonaca sofa, recently sold by ADN

Inspiring home-grown enthusiasm is also the aim of Archivo, a design space owned by architect Fernando Romero and his wife, Soumaya Slim, daughter of business mogul Carlos Slim. For the past five years they have been building a collection of 20th-century design, displayed to the public in a 1950s house in Mexico City. To date, this consists of around 1,500 objects, almost a third of which are Mexican. Shoemaker’s Sling chair is there, along with the iconic but unattributed Midwife chair. Archivo director Regina Pozo says, “Our aim is to profile the 1950s as one of the most exciting moments in Mexico – but through our more everyday objects we want to highlight contemporary design as something worth investing in.”

Godoy speaks for many when he says, “I used to know all there was to know about design in Mexico. In the past five years, I’ve realised I’m completely ignorant. Every week I discover a new, amazing designer, project or studio. The amount of talent in Mexico right now, among every age group and discipline, is really humbling.”


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