A French designer who celebrates the popular aesthetic of Mexico

EVERY AFTERNOON, YOLANDA González Murillo walks past the open front door of French industrial designer Fabien Cappello’s studio in the Mexican city of Guadalajara, selling frozen paletas that she pulls out of frozen mussels. The flavors change with the seasons: walnuts and vanilla in winter, mango in spring, and prickly pear in summer, all made from produce that González buys at a market in the working-class neighborhood of Alcalde Barranquitas. Popsicles are delicious, Cappello says, but he’s more drawn to their molds: long, tapered stainless steel chopsticks made for decades by a family of steelworkers in the lakeside town of Chapala, an hour’s drive away.

“We’re always talking about the product rather than the tool, but the guys who make these molds allow these other businesses to thrive,” says Cappello, 37, standing among a raging collection of mismatched items that clutter his 900 square feet. . studio. Some are his own designs – candlesticks made from corrugated metal tubes in fluorescent shades of pink and gold; decorative plates made from scraps of opaque, candy-colored glass – and others, like plastic jugs and metal bird cages, which he has picked up in markets and neighborhood stores since arriving at the Mexico in 2016.

Cappello had previously lived in London, first when he graduated from the Royal College of Art, then as director of his eponymous design studio, which he founded in 2010. But his move in Mexico was largely inspired by these dailies. essentials like brooms and tortilla presses made in urban workshops and hanging halfway between craft and industry – items so ordinary, Cappello says, that most people don’t consider them designed at all. Yet each represents a part of the vast Mexican lexicon of popular design, or “popular design”, a concept as central in the practice of Cappello as in the cultural, economic and political universe of the country.

The word itself – “popular”- is difficult to translate: it is not quite like its English homograph, in the sense of“ beloved ”, and has only a fleeting resemblance to“ folk ”, often used as a substitute (as in“folk artOr “popular arts”). Closer to the Latin root “popularisWhich means “of the people,” Mexico’s word “popular” can describe the music, the food, and the neighborhoods – like Alcalde Barranquitas – that the aspiring middle and upper classes typically shy away from. Used within the communities to which it applies, the word smells of English “proletariat” with its proudly political implications; spoken by foreigners, it displays traces of the classism that organizes Mexican society.

Born and raised in the Le Pierrier housing estate in Paris suburb, or suburb of Plessis-Robinson, Cappello is a product of its own town working-class neighborhoods. He describes the objects that fill his studio as “resistance objects, “or” objects of resistance “- the title of his current exhibition at the Zaventem Workshops outside Brussels, consisting of 340 pieces collected from central Mexico. Like the areas that tend to produce them, these objects, says Cappello,” resist to the material homogenization which accelerated at the beginning of this century ”.

Creator and collector of objects, Cappello brings together these artifacts (along with short videos of how they are made) into an informal catalog of techniques and solutions to draw upon when design challenges arise. Some of these ideas will produce goods for the home; others could eventually extend to public furniture and lighting design. Together they form a map of the complex microeconomies of central Mexico. “I don’t consider these things archaic or cute,” he says. “I see them as prototypes for the future.”

CAPPELLO has been interested in urban resourcefulness since the start of his career. While in London he worked with small manufacturers across Europe, creating, among other projects, a glass watering fountain in Venice, desks reminiscent of the Memphis group made from colored sheets of metal. perforated in Paris and, in London, a series of stools from abandoned Christmas trees.

At the end of 2015, Cappello had decided to leave London (“the most restrictive place imaginable”, he says), but other opportunities on the European continent seemed just as mind-numbing, in part because the great craftsmen of the region were now virtually inaccessible to anyone except the large luxury conglomerates. Not knowing where to go next, he traveled to Mexico City at the invitation of a friend from a design school who had settled there several years earlier. He spent days browsing the historic center’s hangar-like markets and countless workshops, many of which are tucked away in crumbling colonial houses and twisted functionalist apartment buildings. The following year he moved to Mexico City, although he found himself increasingly drawn north to Guadalajara. In 2020, he moved there to join his partner, Andrés Treviño, 28, who advances trans and gay rights as director of sexual diversity for the Jalisco state government.

Cappello had long admired Guadalajara, a booming design capital teeming with workshops dedicated to trades such as carpentry and metalwork. And then there was the workshop itself: a modest corner building, its pear-green painted concrete facade, its turmeric-colored corrugated iron doors, owned by the Treviños since the 1970s but left unoccupied for nearly two decades after the family tannery supply business. moved elsewhere.

Over the past year, Cappello and her boyfriend have made modest adjustments to the space. They transformed a pair of moldy desks into a reception gallery for clients and collaborators, decorating it with wacky plans of contrasting colors – a constant in much of Cappello’s work, despite his color blindness. An electric blue shelf, originally designed as a book display for an art fair, leans against a canary yellow wall. Round door handles in pink, orange, white, and blue resin wrap around its top shelf, gathered around the base of a table lamp fashioned from a jicara, the dried gourd used for millennia in Mesoamerica to collect water and serve drinks. A small lush patio with hanging succulents connects the reception to a warehouse-like workshop where Cappello plans to install a folding glass door to bring his own. artes y oficios – his “art and vocation” – back in the streets.

“I’m not a designer who works with crafts,” Cappello says. That’s a provocative remark in a country filled with manufacturers, local and foreign, who collaborate with artisans in an effort to preserve (or simply capitalize on) ancient traditions before they fade away, often dealing with clay pans. and wooden spoons, the earliest iterations of popular design, as holy relics rather than household items. But Cappello is “more interested in looking at objects from the side of production or function rather than aesthetic or symbolic value,” he says. “I mean a more diverse understanding of the material culture of a place. “

His own work is no less informed by the place; it turns out that the regions that animate its practice are not picturesque villages nestled in the middle of hills dotted with cacti but the city itself. The pieces that come out of Cappello’s workshop – steampunk flower vases made in workshops specializing in folding pewter leaves into cake molds; geometric wall lights that resemble television antennas fashioned from brooms – translate the vitality of these barrios populares into products that are themselves objects of resistance against uniformity and pious good taste: each a prototype for a uncertain future.

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