Quietly working away to build an industry that supports indigenous Mexican communities, bring back a dying crop from extinction, and create a striking material that turns head at design events, it’s time to shine the spotlight on London-based designer Fernando Laposse. Through his work creating vibrant veneer Totomoxtle, Laposse is revitalizing a small village in southern Mexico, and winning awards along the way.
Sitting down with Laposse, he was eager to share the story of how native corn can capture the imagination, and expressed his optimism in a future with sustainable materials.
Who am I designing for?
Mexican-born entrepreneur Fernando Laposse studied product design in London, at Central Saint Martins. At the time, students were encouraged to design for the new wave of smart technology, gadgets, and packaging. This was the era of the first iPhone. “Sustainability was really at the bottom of the priorities, back when I was studying at least,” explains Laposse. “And for me it always felt a little bit awkward to be forming myself on that model, especially coming from Mexico. I felt like, due to my life experience, I really felt like there was a big dissonance in what we were being taught in Europe versus the reality of a place like Mexico, which is technically a developing country.”
Before completing his degree, he won the chance to showcase his talents at one of Mexico’s design fairs. Thinking to himself that turning up with a portfolio of packaging would fall flat in his home country, he instead designed a room featuring furniture made from loofah. Commonly found in Mexico, loofah is used at home for washing and scrubbing, both in the shower and for cleaning dishes. “I thought that it’s really interesting, because it will speak to the Mexican crowd. But obviously the challenge is how do you take it into a new context? Out of the bathroom, and maybe to the rest of the home?” queried Laposse. “So the challenge was to design a whole series of furniture just concentrating on this material.”
Food has this really powerful ability to dictate identity
Was design something Laposse always wanted to do, growing up in Mexico City? “Well,” he began, “my dad is baker and my mom is a painter. So this kind of thing about looking to food and looking into art has always been a thing of mine. If you look at a lot of my projects they are design-based but they have this preoccupation of ‘how do we consume food?'”
Growing up, there was a man called Delfino who worked at the family bakery. Young Laposse and his sister would spend summer vacations in Delfino’s hometown. “It’s a place called Tonahuixtla in the south west of Mexico in an area called the Mixteca mountains. They’re called that because the ethnicity of this place is Mixteco. So they speak Mixteco, and preserve their traditions until today. For me… it was a really life changing experience,” declares Laposse. One of the historic triumphs of Mexican indigenous populations is, of course, the domestication of corn. It’s here in Tonahuixtla that the designer has now revitalized the agriculture of heirloom corn, ensuring the community holds onto one of its most striking symbols of identity.
NONAGON: How did you begin working with this community on Totomoxtle?
Laposse: Delfino retired from the city and went back to Tonahuixtla, and we reconnected in 2015. We started this project mainly because we’re both interested in the same things; to reverse the damages that arrived [in] this community because of the switch to industrial agriculture. We both have environmental goals that we want to achieve. And they’re doing incredible work within their community. What I’m doing with the project is getting them support, exposure, funding and bringing employment to them, [with] the production of the material.
What are the indicators of success for the project?
We’re doing something that has not been done before. Some people work with corn leaves in certain ways; to make little crafts and little baskets and little dolls and things. But no one has taken it to produce something that really has a potential for industrial amplification, or can be commercialized in a standardized way. What we’re doing is we’re using the natural colors of native corn. But the project really tries to go deeper than that, and this is because we’re trying to stress the fact that we are losing the biodiversity of the endemic species of corn from mexico. At a very alarming rate.
“We’re trying to stress the fact that we are losing the biodiversity of the endemic species of corn from mexico. At a very alarming rate.” — Fernando Laposse
So you’re saying corn will go the way of the banana?
It’s exactly like that and that’s happened to every food crop. It’s been estimated that in the last 100 years we’ve lost about 83% of the crop diversity. But it’s particularly bad in Mexico because that is the place where corn was domesticated! Corn comes from a wild plant called teosinte which is a tiny little thing about this size [Laposse shows a small gap between his finger and thumb]. It was through selective breeding by the Mesoamerican cultures that [over] 9,000 years they created 60 completely genetically distinct species, and thousands and thousands of subspecies. Each of these varieties has been adapted to grow in a particular weather, altitude and soil. […] It is associated that men have always been a destructive force on nature. But the ancient cultures of Mexico created more biodiversity than took biodiversity away. It’s really within the last 40 years that you started to see that reversal — at least in corn. You started to see the market favoring one particular variety.
Industrialization of agriculture
As agriculture became more large scale, the industry began to favor one style of corn. In seeking to standardize corn, many farmers switched to GMO seeds to ensure you get the same size, height and variety from each crop harvest. “Native corn goes completely against the principle,” describes Laposse. “You can have a whole field of native corn planted and every plant is going to be different,” he laughs. But there are upsides to the native corn too.
After signing the NAFTA trade agreement in 1994, Mexican farmers struggled to compete with the American cornfields of the Midwest. In switching to using more herbicides and expensive single-use hybrid seeds, the traditional method of planting fell by the wayside. Instead of planting along with beans and pumpkins to replenish levels of nitrogen in the soil and boost crop variety, the land began to erode.
“After a while they couldn’t keep that going! Their land was so badly eroded that they couldn’t grow anything else, and that caused a massive migration from the town. It went from being a town of 1,000 to only 200,” describes Laposse. However, native corn was able to adapt to the terrain, was able to survive the heatwaves and droughts. This heirloom corn was the key to the town’s longevity.
Employment in the town
“What we’re trying to do with the project is give them encouragement to plant these native varieties again,” Laposse declares. Working with the seed bank CIMMYT, through the project they have reintroduced six different varieties that were previously extinct. Particularly those that are well suited to the terrain. In addition to employing the men who grow the crops, the women in the village then process the colorful husks. Totomoxtle workers receive five times the national minimum wage.
“We’re creating a source of employment for all of these women [who otherwise] have nothing to do. What’s nice about it as well is that we can offer them flexible work. Because we now trained enough of them, and because we work on a commission basis, they can decide when they want to work and they just sign up! So this gives them really flexible times and hours and this allows them to still be able to take care of their children, do all other things that they want to do.”
It’s thinking about a system that encourages circularity
For now workers send the processed material to Laposse in London, but he plans to have all items made in Tonahuixtla by 2021.
“We’re thinking with a lot of these projects I do, it’s not only the piece of furniture that will come out the other end of it — it’s thinking about a system that encourages circularity. It’s thinking about how can we adapt production and this is a lot of work, by the way. My design time is only a tiny fraction of it. Most of my time is thinking of ways to bring all these opportunities to them rather than taking the raw material somewhere else,” says Laposse.
Back in London
NONAGON: What is your home decor aesthetic?
Laposse: I had a fire in my house last year!
Yeah, I lost everything and I’m living a very minimal lifestyle. I really like to collect craft. I’m kind of obsessed by it. Historically I’ve always lived in my workshop, so my house is invaded by all sorts of material samples and things like that. But I think the idea that I like the most is the ones that have certain modern pieces but a lot of traditional ones as well, which I think reflects as well in the way I design my furniture.
NONAGON: Do you have anything at home that you have a special sentimental attachment to?
Laposse: Ah so many of them. There’s this ceramic I really like. It’s by a couple of brothers in Mexico, in the state of Nichuacan where my grandma’s from. The story is quite cool. They’re indigenous, [and] what’s funny is one of them migrated and ended up working in the States for a really long time picking strawberries or something. But they’re both really really good ceramicists. And he eventually came back from the States because his dad passed and the two brothers decided to start making their own ceramics and they’re amazing these two guys. They almost look like twins; they both have really long black hair. But one of them has it in a braid and has all the traditional garb, and the other one is a complete fan of heavy metal — that he got into in the states — so he’s dressed up as a goth and it’s really funny to see within the same family this really big contrast. But they are wonderful ceramicists, they’re really like artists. Not like artisans. Everything they do is in completely jet black ceramics, so everything they make is black. I have a really nice piece here which is a guardian character that they did. So I really like that piece.
After making sure that the process works and the project has capacity for long term growth, Laposse began to bring Totomoxtle out and share with the world. It’s beginning to receiving awards, including the Future Food Design Award at the Dutch Design Week and shortlisted as one of the 2018 Beazley Designs of the Year. Currently it’s been exhibited in the Vitra Design Museum, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, at the Cooper Hewitt in New York, and even at the Trinali in Milan.
Laposse is pleased with what he has accomplished in the last four years. “I’m proud of that because designers often have this urge to put things out straight away, and often you can make things look very nice and wonderful but it’s hard to back them up. For me it was really important that if I was going to make a project like this, I had to be able to show exactly everything that we’ve been doing. I think it’s my first project where really now I have a group of people that depend on it. We have reached that initial goal of creating employment for them but more importantly: the important goal to bring back native corn.”
Coming up, Laposse is working with weavers to create items out of another Mexican fiber, sisal. This summer he will be teaching how to adapt cactuses into usable materials in Syracuse, Italy, when he’s not planning for the upcoming London Design Festival. It’s exciting to see how exploring the heritage and past has given way to a bright and colorful future.
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