Design Destination: Mexico: From rural villas to collectible furniture, Mexican designers add a contemporary spin while using traditional materials
One hundred miles southwest of Mexico City, a cluster of rustic, board-formed boxes are nestled in the landscape at varying angles. Treated with concrete specially mixed with a black pigment, the structures create the visual effect of an ancient ruin or abandoned village. "We wanted a natural feel, so that no one would know if the house had been there for one year or 10 years," explains architect Fernanda Canales.
The idea of camouflage guided the choice of adding black pigment, Canales adds, as the dark colour makes the houses retreat into the shadows. Four shaggy green roofs and two planted roof terraces further enforce the impression that the architecture is an extension of nature.
Canales designed the residence, Casa Bruma, in collaboration with architect Claudia Rodrigues as a weekend retreat for a wealthy attorney and his family. It takes its name from the mist that often shrouds the surrounding landscape. The architects describe the configuration of nine, two-storey volumes as an 'exploded' house. The isolated volumes were placed to maximise the views with each one tweaked according to its orientation and the existing vegetation. This arrangement allowed them to create an inner courtyard building based on a long history of such spaces in Mexican architecture. "It is a typology I'm always rethinking," Canales says.Canales spends a lot of her time on construction sites, adapting her projects through constant observation and feedback. "Instead of relying on formal, definite solutions, I try to give informal, indeterminate strategies," she says. And she avoids complex new materials, preferring concrete for its durability, affordability and ease of use. "I go for what workers know how to do. It's the most practical solution."
Based in Mexico City, Canales is one of a number of local designers forging distinctive approaches to the built environment, creating a new version of modernism – the influence of Luis Barragán is ever-present – and combining raw materials with a sense of tropicality and treading lightly on the earth.
In Mexico City's affluent suburbs, architect José Juan Rivera Río's villas appear to f loat above the verdant gardens. His recently completed Casa Vertientes was designed in response to the client's brief for a home that would allow interaction in spaces that blended interior volumes with sun-soaked exteriors. The villa features a weightless balance of steel cross-beams that grip the retaining walls, amplifying the porosity of the layout and adding "transparency and harmony between interior and exterior", according to JJRR Arquitectura.
Permeability also features strongly in the work of Frida Escobedo, the Mexico City-based architect, known for her sensitive renovation of the Octavio Paz library in Guadalajara and the Boca Chica Hotel in Acapulco. In 2018, she became the youngest architect to participate in the London Serpentine Pavilion commission.
Escobedo's pavilion featured roof tiles stacked to form a celosia, a type of wall common to Mexican architecture, which is permeable, allowing ventilation and views to the other side. A shallow pool, with a thin film of water, added a layer of reflectivity, as did the slightly curved ceiling in mirror-polished stainless steel. Escobedo says her approach is not about the look of the architectural object, but "how you feel inside the space, how you go about it in the moment".Escobedo was also among a number of contemporary designers who recently showed work at MASA, a new design, art and architecture platform that debuted in February. Entitled Collective/Collectible, the exhibition was curated by Su Wu and Constanza Garza and took place in an abandoned 1970's mansion in Mexico City's leafy Paseo de las Palmas neighbourhood.
"We decided to establish MASA as we had an urge to do things differently and not to follow the standard white-box gallery formula," says co-founder Age Salajõe. Despite Mexico's profusion of design talents, its Zona Maco art fair, and even Design Week Mexico, Salajõe says the country has lacked an internationally recognised platform for collectible, limited-edition design. MASA aims to change this and "put Mexican design to a global level".
It's easy to associate Mexico with its rich tradition of local handicrafts – the boldly coloured blankets, lace, ceramics and embroidery – but today's design studios are also putting a cosmopolitan spin on Mexican materiality. MASA highlights included marble-topped tables by artist Jose Dávila, new rubber furniture by Los Angeles- and Mexico City-based designer Brian Thoreen, and chairs by architect and sculptor Pedro Reyes made of onyx terrazzo, commonly seen lining the country's floors.
The nomadic exhibition hasn't yet announced its next location, though its global ambitions seem clear, and given Mexico's wealth of design talent and robust artisan culture, its success appears inevitable.