The interface of design with traditional forms and craft achieves a particular resonance in cities such as Mexico City and Oaxaca. A number of resident artists and designers have sought to collaborate with folk and artisan communities not only to effect production of their own designs but also to help move traditional craft skills into the future. Such collaborations engender an acute awareness of the challenges and pressures that inexpensive production elsewhere, in countries such as China, can put on local workers. In Mexico, this has led designers and educators to emphasize their commitment to the country’s especially rich craft scene.
Since the moment its founders were led to the site on Lake Texcoco in the fourteenth century, Mexico City has been the economic, social, political, and cultural hub of its eponymous country. Because many of the products sold or promoted throughout the region are collaborative efforts between designers and indigenous/traditional artisans, there is a new examination of the concept of “making” as a process that is intertwined with makers’ lives under the rubric of social production and economic development. This trend in Mexico is representative of a global ethos among designers and artists worldwide who are inspired by a new sense of social engagement on various levels. The recent design and craft scene in Mexico has been catalyzed by events in Mexico City, such as Design Week Mexico and the addition of the design section of Zona MACO (México Arte Contemporaneo). These venues, along with others in the city, have provided exposure for both national and international design and craft promoters who have helped establish contemporary Mexican design, such as Casa Gutiérrez Nájera, Esware Gallery, Studio Roca, Rococo Gallery, Nouvel glass studio, and Design Within Reach in Mexico City.
Meanwhile, Oaxaca has always been an important center for pottery in Mexico. There, several designers have established a working relationship with the inhabitants to create new products made with traditional techniques. Liliana Ovalle, for example, worked with local ceramic artisans from Colectivo 1050o, located in Tlapazola, Oaxaca, to catalogue the repertory of traditional forms and update traditional fare. This collaboration provided a platform for Ovalle to create her series Sinkhole Vessels, black containers of Oaxacan ware that evoke the sinkholes that have appeared in Mexican streets, set within an architectural framing. The vessels’ shapes are composites of familiar forms recombined to demonstrate new approaches to traditional ceramics, while suggesting in title and concept certain physical problems inherent in the infrastructure of Mexico City.
The Venezuelan-born designer Raul Cabra has also located his project Oax-i-fornia in Oaxaca, bringing students from the California College of the Arts, San Francisco—where he teaches design—to Oaxaca to work with local artisans and “broaden creative opportunities” for them “through multidisciplinary and collaborative work with other professionals in visual and creative fields.” Like Colectivo 1050o, Oax-i-fornia moves ancestral traditions into contemporary world markets, searching for “new methodologies for the use of design and creativity as tools for social change and cultural engagement.” The lamps showcased in New Territories, were created by three teams of students in collaboration with artisan families who have worked with carrizo cane for generations. For the Blowfish Lamp, artisan Lander Cruz created the shape by “nverting a typical weave used for ornament. . . .The lamp’s shape emerged from the hands of someone who has never seen the ocean, but imagines the blowfish as a creature that must glow with magic.”
While all of these examples focus on the direct translations of traditional craft skills into contemporary production, back in Mexico City, DFC (Distrito Federal Casa)— a collaboration between Tony Moxham (born in Australia) and Mauricio Paniagua (born in Guatemala)—enlists these skills more obliquely to create signature Postmodern interpretations of iconic Mexican images, objects, and myths. In their words, their work is a combination of “a romanticized vision of pre-Columbian life and design with references to contemporary and modern art, pop culture, sex, science fiction, and modern savagery.” Collaborating with a wide network of artisans (whom they know personally) from the states of Oaxaca, Michoacan, Morelos, and Sonora, they create decorative and functional ceramics and glassware, furniture, décor, and incidental sculptures, adhering to labor practices that include pay above national wage rates and a focus on sourcing production locally whenever possible.
Jorge Lizarazo established Hechizoo, an atelier in Bogotá, Colombia, that has a similar model of collaboration with local craftspeople. Lizarazo brings a contemporary nuance to traditional craft methods by combining organic materials with microfilament and metallic fibers to create hangings, rugs, incidental pieces, and lighting characterized by a distinctive use of color and sheen. As Lizarazo insists on the highest level of craftsmanship, Hechizoo textiles require months of collaborative work and dedication. As a political gesture of reclamation and cultural defiance, Lizarazo and his collaborators produced beaded versions of canoes that, in the past, were used to transport people and goods in the Amazon interior but now are often commandeered by law enforcement and criminals. Hechizoo’s beaded incarnations from the Putumayo region of Colombia reassert the vessel’s relationship to the communities that depend on them, also highlighting the particular local beading techniques and designs.
The work of José de la O mirrors any number of examples of designer-artisan collaborations in Latin America. In 2010, the Mexican designer founded his creative agency in the Dutch city of Eindhoven, and later relocated to Mexico City in 2014. He initiated a collaborative project that brought together artisans of Tlacotalpan, Mexico, and contemporary designers, producing the rocking chair Sillón Tlacotalpeño. The goals of this project were familiar and paradigmatic: to rescue and preserve local crafts and techniques, to reactivate the local economy, and to foster “designer tourism” in Tlacotalpan, where “creative professionals can learn a new craft, produce new work, and exchange knowledge with local craftsmen.”
This notion of new production out of traditional craft skills also motivated Mattias Rask and Tor Palm of the Swedish design team Glimpt to establish a working relationship with the artisans of the venerable organization Artesanos Don Bosco in Peru. Founded in the 1960s by the Italian priest Father Ugo, this nonprofit organization is dedicated to training people and creating economic opportunities in woodworking, masonry, glass making, textiles, and metalwork. The result was the series of furniture dubbed Prehistoric Aliens, which features the fine handcarved faceting and detailing that characterized Artesanos Don Bosco’s more traditional products. The cast of players in this production demonstrates how the concept of what is specifically “Latin American” increasingly is being called into question.
When choosing groups of skilled artisans as collaborators, many designers and artists single out indigenous communities on the periphery of society to work with. Many designers, such as Natalia Yañez Guzman, a professor in the design department at Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago, Chile, have focused their practice on working with rural indigenous and other marginalized groups, such as prisoners. The Chilean-born, Los Angeles–based artist Guillermo Bert has been working on a series of tapestries encoded with computer symbols and prompts in collaboration with members of the Mapuche community of southern Chile. He incorporates themes from their traditional stories, poems, and self-narratives using software that translates this information into QR codes. The resulting imagery is developed into a prototype that Bert created with Mapuche weaver Anita Pailamil, and the tapestry is then woven by the Chol-Chol Weavers Cooperative.
In 2010, Brazilian designer Marcelo Rosenbaum launched the ambitious program A Gente Transforma, which takes groups of designers to communities such as Parque Santo Antônio (a favela in São Paulo) and Várzea Queimada, in the town of Jaicós in northeastern Brazil. Rosenbaum and the program participants worked with community members and artisans to create products from local materials such as straw and rubber. André Bastos e Guilherme Leite of Nada Se Leva joined the group that worked with the Yawanawá people in the villages of Nova Esperança and Amparo in the Brazilian state of Acre, and made lamps reflecting the tribe’s myths and ideas about the Amazon environment. The Yawanawá artisans embellished the designer-conceived lamps with beading typical of the region.
In a parallel project, designer Pedro Barrail in Asunción, Paraguay, works with the Pai Tavytera people who live in the country’s Amambay Department. Barrail is dedicated to preserving the tribal artisans’ pyrogravure techniques by commissioning them to “tattoo” pieces of furniture he designs and builds in his studio with patterns chronicling both traditional mythology and contemporary motifs. This type of primary relationship with the symbols and signs of indigenous culture also exists in the work of Sheroanawë Hakihiiwë, who records the life and beliefs of the Yanomami people of Venezuela in his drawings and books.
In Caracas, designers Mária Antonia Godigna and Anabella Georgi, working under the brand MáximaDuda, have conceived furniture and apparel designs with the Warao people. Their now-signature chair Miss Delta Amacuro is draped with a weaving of moriche palm fibers that is typically woven by Warao women. Another Caraqueño, Pepe López, works with groups such as the Guahibo, Ye’kuana, and Yanomami. In his Guapísimas series, he grouped baskets known as guapas and manares, which are customarily given to women by their suitors, and substituted symbols from the traditional myths with logos from contemporary fashion, consumer society, and Japanese anime cartoon figures known to these communities through television, reflecting the global transmission and exchange of cultural values and signifiers.
Indigenous basketry and weaving techniques are also featured in the works by Rio de Janeiro–based artist Maria Nepomuceno, who developed her technique alongside artisans from the northeastern region of Brazil. In the summer of 2013, she began working with weaver Dona Dalva and, using traditional methods of rope weaving and straw braiding as well as techniques of her own design, she creates sculptural installations that usually consist of abstracted elements referencing baskets, mats, and other forms, collaged together—or, occasionally, evoking the prototypical form of the hammock. Venezuelan designer Anabella Giorgi also draws inspiration from this form in her Silla Fuga Kids Policromatica, as does Brazilian designer Rodrigo Almeida, whose hammock converts into a garment that, conceptually, is meant to function as a “transcendental cocoon vestment” that reflects “atavism/transcendence/protection/rituals.”
There is no doubt that textiles are a preeminent expression in Latin American design. Over the last four centuries, contacts among indigenous, African, and European cultures have resulted in a rich legacy in various media, including natural fibers, feathers, and grasses. Perhaps the most prominent practitioner is the Colombian artist Olga de Amaral. Over the last six decades, she has explored the possibilities of traditional techniques within a contemporary practice, working with women whom she has described as contributing their spirit as much as their skill to each of her pieces.
Silk, which has a surprisingly robust cultivation in Latin America, is the medium of María Eugenia Dávila and Eduardo Portillo, working under the label Taller Morera in partnership with an Andean community in Mérida, in the Venezuelan Andes. Their story demonstrates personal passion, determination, and entrepreneurship. They traveled to India, China, and Japan to learn about silk cultivation and production, then audaciously smuggled a seminal group of worms back into Venezuela to start their industry. Today, Dávila and Portillo raise and harvest silkworms to produce their fabrics and tapestries within an art context. Their locally based shop features yard lengths of silk patterns through which they explore local resources such as indigo dyes. As a new experiment, the couple has recently begun to experiment with casting weavings in bronze to extend the expressive potential of their work.
What is patently clear in various investigations throughout Latin America is their focus on women. Carla Fernández has worked for more than a decade as a designer, researcher, and social activist with local textile weavers to create contemporary interpretations of traditional Mexican clothing, adapting the “elaborate system of pleats, folds, and seams that construct a vast array of garments using squares and rectangles only for a modern fashion market.” With her traveling studio and virtual laboratory Taller Flora, Fernández has researched, collected, and catalogued garment designs that “were at risk of extinction.” She pays the weavers not only for their manual labor but also, commendably, for “the intellectual property of their designs.” Her social commitment to these communities helped bring their craft into the international marketplace.
In Latin America, other domestic needlework techniques—knitting, crocheting, hooking, quilting, and piece work such as fuxico are present in the design and art spheres. Fuxico (fashioning circles from squares of fabric) found new life in Fuxico Design, created by women of Santa Luiza do Itanhy, Brazil, for the São Paulo–based design studio Nada Se Leva. Such techniques also trace patterns of immigration into Latin America: vibrant manifestations of European lace-making traditions, for example, can be found all over Bahia. Irish lace maintains a strong presence in Rio de Janeiro, in the form of bulbous light fixtures, the signature product of Cooperativa de Trabalho Artesanal e de Costura da Rocinha Ltda. (Coopa-Roca), a women’s collaborative founded by Maria Teresa Leal in the Rocinha favela (slum). Leal has fostered projects with world-renowned designers such as Tord Boontje (who conceived of Chandelier for Los Angeles–based Artecnica, the Campana Brothers, and Carlos Miele, among others. These collaborations have cemented Coopa-Roca’s international reputation and, in 2012, they opened a retail store at the prestigious Fashion Mall in Rio de Janeiro.
The modalities of “women’s work” also provide an interesting context for Ciudad Frondosa, a large-scale hand-embroidered wall hanging by Buenos Aires–based Leo Chiachio and Daniel Giannone. Over the last decade, they have created autobiographical and topical compositions, often depicting themselves in various guises as indigenous people among outsized panoplies of flora and fauna native to Latin America. While destabilizing the gendered associations of embroidery (see Antonio Sánchez Gómez’s essay in the exhibition catalogue), their choice of method allows them to transcend the tempo of contemporary life for a more meditative approach to their work.
In sum, all of these different strategies practiced throughout Latin America by young and socially concerned designers and artists effectively provide labor for production, encourage and engage artisan skills, and help to celebrate and preserve traditional techniques while, at the same time, moving them into the future.
Mattias Rask & Tor Palm
in collaboration with Taller Flora and Pascuala Sánchez
Mária Antonia Godigna & Anabella Georgi
Design with Conscience Campaign
Tony Moxham & Mauricio Paniagua
Directed by Raul Cabra
in collaboration with Colectivo 1050º
André Bastos & Guilherme Leite Ribeiro
Great Things to People