You might have heard it before: we are living in a golden age of design. What you probably haven’t heard before is that Mexico City (now officially Ciudad de México, or CDMX for short) is one of the most unique and dynamic global design hotspots out there right now. Say that again?
For the past few years, our beloved (and occasionally loathed, let’s be honest) monster of a megacity – typically in the headlines for being a smog-clogged, traffic-ridden, unmanageable mess – has been showing the world a more unique, complex, and seductive side, slowly but surely establishing itself as a top destination for design buffs from near and far. Mexico City has had its contemporary art explosion moment, its culinary renaissance moment… and now its design moment has apparently arrived.
Most of our major problems (inequality, corruption, poor infrastructure, environmental hazards) are still as bad and widespread as ever, but there seems to be a change in attitude and focus as to how these issues can be dealt with, occasionally by way of design. For example, micro-infrastructures like the popular bike sharing program Ecobici or the Metrobus BRT have positively impacted hundreds of thousands of users who now have cheap, efficient alternatives to move around central parts of the city.
On a less ambitious scale, the wave of pop-up design initiatives like La Lonja MX or Caravana Americana and permanent design bazaars like Barrio Alameda or Mercado del Carmen have finally convinced well-heeled chilangos that it’s perfectly acceptable, even appealing, to buy hecho en México: locally-produced furniture, accessories and clothes. (Till recently, folks with money wouldn’t be caught dead furnishing their homes or wearing anything that wasn’t imported – a sad and ridiculous but still very widespread symptom of malinchismo, or the conviction that everything foreign is better.).
Design exhibitions are no longer much of a rarity anymore, and a few have actually drawn in dozens of thousands of visitors. Year after year, Zona MACO, one of the major contemporary art fairs in Latin America, makes room for design within its prize booths, and the Abierto Mexicano de Diseño, an open-source design festival, gathers hundreds of proposals by students and professionals alike. These are some of the changes that have helped to push Mexico City to win the bid for World Design Capital in 2018, through the joint efforts of Design Week Mexico – one of the major annual design events in the city – and various local government agencies.
In short, the table is pretty much set, but how tasty and juicy a design carnita can Mexico City really serve?
One of our most valuable and underappreciated assets in terms of design is our deep, rich and diverse modern design tradition, which spans a good hundred years. Many are aware that Mexico City is a modernist architectural mecca, with important buildings by Luis Barragán, Félix Candela, Mario Pani, and Juan O’Gorman.
But fewer people realize we have a comparably fascinating yet mostly overlooked history of modern product and furniture design, led throughout the 20th century by figures like Clara Porset, Eugenio Escudero, Arturo Pani, Don Shoemaker or Diego Matthai. Today we are rediscovering their work and starting to value it as we should.
An entire generation of young creative talents in the city is also embracing traditional crafts and ways of making things by hand, with reverence for the past and a strong, contemporary sensibility, injecting design intelligence into the tried and tested tacit knowledge of handicrafts – from improvements in quality control and manufacturing to marketing and branding savvy – producing timeless objects that are rooted in tradition yet incredibly fresh. This nueva artesanía isn’t afraid of injecting technical innovations or pushing sleeker aesthetics, while recognizing the value of locally-sourced materials and generations of skilled, small-scale manufacturing from family-run trade workshops that still abound in the city.
Many people in the design community typically lament Mexico’s lack of industrial capacity when it comes to local production. But today we have a chance to leap forward, and unabashedly embrace a post-industrial reality, with a new set of means for production, distribution and exchange. That is probably why some of the most interesting creative developments in the city are actually happening at the margins of traditional product design. Beyond the numerous design/research studios that are incorporating digital fabrication and rapid prototyping into small-batch manufacturing, one of the most unique forces in design as practiced in Mexico City is an informal, DIY culture, akin to the maker culture, that moves between piracy and playful appropriation of everything from typologies to brands, processes, technologies and identities.
Informality and innovation go hand in hand in CDMX, as basic resources for survival in many cases, yes, but also as tools for urban prototyping and creating with bare minimums. Parallel to our aspirational traditions of modernism and modernization, we have had a reactive tradition of making that has flourished into an exotic cast of creative characters and approaches to design: digital craftsmanship, favela electronics, full-cycle adaptors, self-construction experts, barrio fixers, and informal vendor-inventors. Many of these non-professional designers merge sophisticated technologies and commercial know-how with the frugal intelligence of making use of whichever limited resources are at hand.
Why shouldn’t the gigantic informal market of the city be accepted and understood as a market for design? Why are our glossy magazines and galleries so afraid of precariousness? Why don’t design students analyze the makeshift hair salons that pop up next to food stalls in markets or the masterful design skills behind custom-built boombox backpacks of subway vendors?
Why don’t design schools carry courses in putting together computers from scrap materials or cultural theory classes on identity and pirated merchandise graphics? Why are designers so reluctant (or oblivious) to accept the power of anonymous makers and the wealth of informal design, which are part of what a ‘creative class’ actually looks like in a city like ours? This is the kind of muscle Mexico City needs to be flexing in this precise, strange, inflection point for the local design community.
Italian designers might somehow relate to this unique circumstance from a similarly defining moment in their own history: the Radical Design movement of the 1960s, when design became less about specific objects or finishes and more of a tool for sociopolitical imagination and critique, an alternative for imagining and producing sweeping change in modes of living and points of view. Design as a resource for sparking serious thinking, serious debate, serious and relevant questions. This is something that the sizzling design scene in Mexico City is still missing.
A design that is not just critical of conditions and circumstances, but also self-critical. A creative community that thrives despite its fragmentation and its uneasy conditions, that pushes ahead without the stuffy constraints of institutional or stylistic coherence to bear it down. A profession that is open, generous and sharp instead of elitist, superficial and complacent. That’s my wishlist for 2018.
In the photo gallery, a selection of prototypes, trials and molds presented by the Archivo de Diseño y Arquitectura of Mexico City during the exhibition “Diseño en proceso”: products not yet finished, interpreted through the process of their making.
Text by Mario Ballesteros – Photos by Diego Padilla and Agustín Paredes (courtesy of Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura)