Something to Rethink

Something to Rethink

Folk Meets Function at Mexican Cultural Institute

Enter the four-story 1910 mansion on 16th Street that houses the Mexican Cultural Institute and you are first struck by the opulent foyer, the grand staircase, and (during a hot Washington summer) the calming cool and quiet. Visitors to the institute — currently celebrating its 20th anniversary in the building that was formerly the Mexican Embassy — also have until mid-October to savor a colorful, insightful exhibition on how Mexican designers are fusing tradition with innovation.

MexicoDesign“Rethinking Tradition: Contemporary Design from Mexico” showcases more than 200 pieces of functional art — including furniture, pottery, glassware, clothing and jewelry — produced by some of Mexico’s leading design talents. While the materials and functionality of the objects differ, they share “a common appeal to their national cultural heritage,” according to curator Ana Elena Mallet.

Globalization and the now-generic, ubiquitous designs of IKEA or H&M notwithstanding, the works featured in this exhibit reflect instead on Mexican-ness — what color combinations, forms and functions evoke the country’s unique cultural identity. But rather than merely recreating the historical, they take it as a starting point for fanciful creations that meld folk elements with humor, playfulness and modern, urban influences.

Take the “Chac Muelas” piece by Andres Amaya. What at first appears to be a peculiar, recumbent pink plastic man with dental floss emerging from his navel is revealed, with the aid of an explanatory placard, to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to an age-old design form.

The Chac Mool was a pre-Columbian Mesoamerican stone statue of a reclining human figure with its head turned to the side, holding a tray or vessel on its stomach. Examples have been discovered by archeologists in centers of Mayan civilization such as Chichen Itza on the Yucatan Peninsula.

Amaya’s smiling pink plastic man — indeed functioning as a dental floss dispenser — offers a modern interpretation, and use, to this indigenous design archetype. Its title, meaning “chac molar,” plays with words just as the object does with historical associations of the form.

Another such pun, verbal and visual, is found in Ariel Rojo’s delightful piggy bank-lamps titled “Cerdo Ahorrador,” or “Saving Pig.” The lamps combine stylized black-and-white piggy bank forms with the new, curlicue energy-saving light bulbs as tails.

In Mexican villages, pigs have long represented saving, which stems from the tradition of fattening them up over time to later sell or give as a gift. Rojo’s “Saving Pig” is a whimsical nod to this tradition, as well as the modern imperative of energy-efficient technology. Like many of the pieces in the exhibition, it combines past and present, tradition with modernity, and rural with urban, mixed with a dose of levity.

In re-evaluating Mexican design, curator Mallet highlights the social concerns of many of the artisans, echoed in their materials, working practices, and forms they choose. As she writes in the exhibition’s introductory panel, designers in Mexico today ask the question of how modern design can “generate solutions to daily problems, and how can the product reflect the materials used, the process of production and the object’s symbolic meaning?”

“Good design,” in this exhibition, means not only that the pieces are solidly constructed and aesthetically pleasing — it also refers to their higher purpose, of fostering local communities, promoting fair trade and environmental awareness.

An example of this ethic in action is the “Silla Maya” chair designed by Oscar Hagerman. At first glance, it appears as a relatively straightforward, unadorned wood and wicker chair. In fact, we learn from reading the accompanying placard, its materials and mode of production are an integral part of the design.

Hagerman, born in 1936, has been creating sustainable design networks, teaching everything from design to marketing, in rural and indigenous communities for decades — as part of his belief that design should be first of all about helping people. The “Silla Maya” chair, more than just a chair, is one embodiment of the notion, shared by Hagerman and other designers in this exhibit, of “good design” as socially and environmentally responsible art.

A true highlight of the show is the vibrant, circular motif of the “Mesa Pirueta,” or “Pirueta Tables,” which brighten each room. Mallet chose this motif, she said, “because it gathers most of the spirit of the show. It is playful, it is the result of combined effort between designers and craftsmen, and it appeals to memory and past.”

Designed by Paulina Gonzalez-Ortega and Andres Ocejo of the Piey studio and produced by artisans in the Mexican town of San Antonio La Isla, famous for lacquered wooden toys, the tables exude a Mexican essence, yet have universal appeal. In viewing the “Mesa Pirueta,” as with the other objects in the show, visitors experience a self-confident and joyous modern Mexican design culture that creates art for practical as well as higher purposes.

“Visitors will see how contemporary Mexican designers often learn from, work with, and employ traditional artisans in the products they design while helping these communities find markets for their goods that promote fair trade and sustainable policies,” said Alejandra de la Paz, the Mexican Cultural Institute’s executive director. “This is beneficial to all parties involved, and it shows how design in a globalized world can offer those living at the periphery of a global network the ability to increase their economic opportunities, express their cultures, and improve their quality of life.”

“Rethinking Tradition: Contemporary Design from Mexico” runs through Oct. 15 at the Mexican Cultural Institute, 2829 16th St., NW. For more information, please call (202) 728-1628 or visit

About the Author

Jacob Comenetz is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.