To say that design needs to get closer to the people does not necessarily mean that design must suddenly be transformed into the main driving force for social change that the vulnerable classes in this country have sought for so long in law, political sciences, and even architecture, with no outright success. Bringing design closer to the people here means that the public in Mexico (125 million and counting) gets a better idea of what a designer does and what design can do. In the third Emerge MX edition, called “Intersección” [Intersection], we did a survey with 100 non-designers from areas such as marketing, tourism, law, medicine, real estate, psychology, engineering, and journalism to learn more about their definition of design and to understand how they perceive the profession. It was surprising and discouraging to realise that most of the people surveyed experienced design as something aesthetic and decorative, an activity whose aim it is to make something prettier. This text intends to show design in my country beyond making something pretty, which does not necessarily imply resorting to ugliness, but neither to write about it or show it in excess in order for it to be successful and appreciated.
Before setting off on our walk, we have to make it clear that design in Mexico is not yet a discipline that figures in the social spectrum in the same way that law or engineering do. This is due to a simple historical fact: design is only a recent discipline here. I sense, however, that Mexican designers are now much more interested in changing this situation by evolving the way design interacts with the people (inside their homes or in public space) or in space (whether public or private).
Design and Industry: Still Defining the Relationship
While this may be the most common approach in design, I would nonetheless like to elucidate what it is that Mexican designers are doing in this area to bring design closer to the people by using large-scale manufacturing as the link. Here, characters such as Alberto Villarreal, who is now the creative head of the Google hardware design team and one of the minds behind the new Google Pixel 2 smartphone, are crucial when it comes to understanding the impact of design on the industry. Designers such as Joel Escalona and Jorge Diego Etienne are also key in terms of working with and for the industry; both are really versatile characters that one might easily find exhibiting a project at the Milan furniture fair, while at the same time their impact on the local manufacturing sector is important and close to the people. By way of example, it is now possible to go to a supermarket and buy a set of Cocinova pewter pots designed by Joel Escalona for Cinsa, the biggest kitchenware manufacturer in Mexico with 80 years of experience on the market.
Other design brands, such as Lo Esencial – a leather goods company founded by Adolfo Navarro – are offering new methods of connecting design and manufacturing: in this case, the brand’s configurative design approach looks at improving manufacturing by decreasing elements and at the same time giving the user a large number of configuration and functionality options with few key elements. Their well-known Seamless and the new Interact collections are great examples of this approach.
Another really interesting character here is Cristián Bredée, whose design work consists predominantly of toys for large-scale markets, but who, through other projects such as the DSI Sign System (a smart traffic light that integrates most traffic signals into a single traffic light) also intends to reduce stress levels for drivers in Mexico City. [1: Mexico City has a severe traffic problem. It is estimated that 46 per cent of households in the metropolitan area of Mexico City, which has a total population of 21 million people, own a car. While it may not be possible to solve traffic problems and stress caused by driving via a smart traffic light alone, the multifunctional proposal put forward by Bredée is still highly appreciated.]
Designing for public space in Mexico is – to use the term coined by Dan Hill – a dark matter [2: Dan Hill, Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary, Moskow: Strelka Press, 2015.]. The city is by definition a space of convergence. Mexican cities are characterised by traffic jams and inequality, presenting an interesting spectrum of challenges when it comes to improving the way we experience our cities. In Guadalajara, my hometown, BKT Mobiliario Urbano, led by Rodrigo Vázquez, an industrial designer and cycling enthusiast, has proven that design plays a crucial role in cities: from cycling stations (for example their recent BKT-CP-009) and bus stops to bicycle repair stations and cycle paths. BKT has proven that in order to improve the city, designers first have to consider themselves not just as users but as citizens.
In terms of new typologies of urban furniture and functional dynamics in public space, I find the project Línea, a large installation designed by the French designer Fabien Cappello, who is based in Mexico, remarkable. Línea appears to see the future of design in Mexico in its “amazing wealth of secular solutions, make-do situations and local economy”, through a snake-like public furniture structure with revolving seats, umbrellas, tables, and plant pots that reference the street food situation in Mexico.
New Visions and New Practices
It is important to mention Cappello and Mexican street food in order to make a link with new practices in design. Cappello is always looking for structures, situations, and materials in popular neighbourhoods to provide the kind of inspiration that can be enjoyed during day-to-day life in Mexico (like the Reading Room for the Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura).
Another example of new practices in design in Mexico is the work of the C 37 design studio founded by Carolina Cantú and Valeria Loera. They define C 37 as a “material development studio”, a fresh statement that Mexican design desperately needed, to present design that goes beyond furniture design. The first material that C 37 designed is called Magma 04, a liquid composite which, once hardened, looks and feels like basalt. Now, they are focusing on the development of new materials from industrial waste.
Also of note in material experimentation is the latest ceramics work by Popdots (led by Melisa Aldrete and Luis Cárdenas), called Siniestros (meaning “sinister” or “accident”). This ceramic vase has a latex interior that makes it unbreakable.
Another interesting case is the work of José de la O. His practice ranges from product design to future design methodologies and speculative design works such as Nueva Qwerty, a simplified alphabet that questions the rules of the Spanish language by combining letters and reducing the number of rules; for instance, he merges the letters V and B or K, C and Q, which have similar uses in Spanish.
José de la O also runs The Chair that Rocks, an initiative whereby designers can take a week-long workshop at Tlacotalpan – a town in Veracruz that was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1998 – with local craftsmen celebrated on account of the Sillón Tlacotalpeño rocking chair. The project is aimed at rescuing traditional craftsmanship (woodworkers, luthiers, ceramics and more) and at the same time reactivating the local economy and turning Tlacotalpan into a destination for design tourism.
One can observe an honest and socially engaged approach in many Mexican designer practices, but Bi Yuu, a rug and textile design brand led by Marisol Centeno, is one of the more mature examples of a socially-engaged design company. Bi Yuu works with artisans from Teotitlán del Valle (Oaxaca) and Huixtán (Chiapas), fully respecting the traditions of the artisans and creating respectful, long-term relationships. They use natural pigments such as tarragon and cochineal, that can be admired in their rugs Norte 61 and Bacaanda, the former being inspired by El Chepe (a train that has run through the Copper Canyon in Chihuahua since 1961) and the second referring to a huipil – one of the most characteristic garments worn by indigenous women in Mexico. According to the social impact evaluation report published by the company on their five-year anniversary, Bi Yuu generates 28 full-time jobs and 13 part-time jobs, directly benefiting 39 artisans (23 women and 16 men).
Another great socially-engaged design project is the one led by Moisés Hernández. Diario travels around Mexico rediscovering objects, textures, and places from everyday life but within different communities. The way Diario puts a face on every story of an object is a great example for new generations, a design statement that values people over everything else. All Diario products find inspiration in everyday aesthetics and actions, such as in the Felipe and José project, a set of tablecloths and placemats inspired by the two-coloured facades of Oaxaca, or in Mario, a set of traditional toys that were simplified by Hernández to improve the woodworkers’ production process.
No Limits Mindset
As one can easily see, Mexican design is pretty diverse but, in addition, as with local street food, design expressions are strongly interconnected, and this is the most important aspect. There is still great potential for growth in Mexican design, as society and institutions currently have a rather narrow view of design and are not working outside the box, as might be the case in a country where design is already a well-developed field. This limited vision of design of people is what has motivated Mexican designers to generate bonds and relations through a no-limit mindset, a mindset to produce our own work and get design closer to the people. I find that contemporary Mexican design is characterised in particular by independence, social responsibility, exploration, and, above all, diversity. We do not see design merely as something in the service of the industry, nor as something that only works for the elites. We do not think of design as an object, nor do we see it as a totally intangible process; we do not see design as the new saviour of the world – but we do not disassociate it from its social impact, either. Mexican design is like Mexico, for it contains the full gamut of opportunities, options, and stimuli.
Kassim Vera is a design critic and professor born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico. He runs Emerge MX, a project based on design education and criticism, where he edits the first printed publication in Mexico specialising in design criticism. He teaches experience design and strategic design at Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education. Furthermore, Kassim writes about design and its intersections for various art and design publications. He has spoken at universities both in Mexico and further afield, including the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design.