Fernando Laposse is a Mexican product designer based in London. His experimental work fuses sustainability with craft and he’s drawn to creating colour using natural sources. He captured particular attention with his project Totomoxtle – a surface veneer for interiors and furniture that is made from naturally colourful native Mexican corn husks. The aim is for the material to eventually function as a new income stream for farmers whose livelihoods have been threatened by genetically modified corn.
Laposse also likes to stimulate questions surrounding the politics of food and last year Totomoxtle earned him the Future Food Design Award, which highlights innovative designs for sustainable food. We spoke to him about his ethos and approach while he was back in Mexico both for the winter corn harvest and to research a new project using cochineal. Cochineal is an insect that grows in prickly pear cactus and produces the most intense natural red dye in the world. Here’s what he said.
Can you sum up your driving forces as a designer?
“I would say the driving force of a designer is to give myself the challenge of elevating humble materials to something of more perceived value. I guess this statement could sound a bit cliché but let’s just say you will never catch me using marble, brass and exotic woods!
I think it is much more satisfying to take waste and make it undergo a true transformation. This often requires a lot of manual labour and repetition and therefore I sometimes identify more as a craftsman than a designer. I believe it is through hands-on experimentation and observation that you find new uses for waste materials. Sadly in the design business we are riding the wave of the fairs and seasons and this often limits the research time. I sometimes wish we could relieve ourselves from those pressures and simply follow the pace of craftsmen.”
Is Mexico itself and its landscape a big influence for you?
“Yes definitely. I feel very fortunate to have grown up in a country where a significant percentage of the population has preserved their indigenous cultural heritage almost intact for thousands of years. This incredible wealth of traditions, music, food and colour keeps giving me inspiration as it has to many artists and designers in the past. I think it is important to celebrate my heritage in a time where Mexico is portrayed in such negative light. It is a country with a very complicated history which has had a lot of trouble overcoming the traumas of colonization and as a result we have a very divided and unequal society. I therefore think that making projects that shine a new light to the traditions that unite us all as Mexican is crucial for breaking these divisions that we have.”
What switched you on to using corn husks to create your material in the first place – was there a Eureka moment?
“Totomoxtle was born out of a three month residence I made in CASA back in 2015, which is a cultural centre in Oaxaca in the south of Mexico. CASA is an initiative of Francisco Toledo, one of Mexico’s biggest living artists and also a very accomplished activist. One of the topics that he has been very involved with in the last 20 years is the disappearance of the native species of Mexican corn and it was impossible to not be influenced by this while being there.
The topic is very hot especially in the state of Oaxaca which is famous for militant activists and artists who often stage protests and boycotts. What I realised though was that the problem was not only political but also had to do with economics. Native corn grown and harvested with traditional methods can no longer compete with industrially produced genetically modified corn. I therefore thought of looking for ways to create an additional income for farmers planting native corn which was not necessarily attached to the grain itself. I guess the Eureka moment was when I realised that all the wonderful colour variations of the grains also translate to the husks. I used to work for Bethan Wood who uses a lot of synthetic laminate marquetry in her work and I therefore started to look for ways of using the techniques that I learned under her tutelage but using a veneer made out of the husks.”
Did you have any connection to farmers whose work is threatened by genetically modified corn – or did you have to start from scratch creating relationships with them to begin your project?
“I have a very special relationship with a man called Delfino Martinez because he worked for my father for 25 years. My parents trusted Delfino so much that they would let me and my sister go and spend a good part of our summer vacations in his village in the mountains and we made great childhood friendships there. It is because of this that from a very young age I was very aware of the life and struggles of poor indigenous farmers. I think without the trust and respect that we have for each other this project wouldn’t exist.”
How did they respond to the idea?
“When I went to their village after my residency Delfino and a group of local farmers were already working on a very ambitious project to reforest their land with cacti to stop erosion and recover the fertility of the soil. They were aware of the damages that abandoning their traditional methods and switching to industrial methods to increase yield had caused to their land and were eager to go back to planting native corn. So when I approached them with the proposal of creating extra income and employment from making Tototmoxtle they were very receptive to the idea.”
Do you plan on continuing to expand Totomoxtle?
“Definitely! I won a competition back in November in Holland which gave me a good amount of funding to expand the project. I am actually writing to you in Mexico at the moment because I am here to invest that money and we have been very busy training people in Delfino’s town after the first winter harvest of native corn since we started the project.
So far we have a team of eight, mostly comprised of young women and we hope to start getting bigger orders of the material this year to make it a stable income.”
Did the lovely variety of colour in the material play a part in its appeal to you, did you know if would be like this in completed material form?
“Yes of course, that’s what makes native Mexican corn so special and it’s no coincidence, it took thousands of years of selective breeding to create this wonderful variety of hues. I was fairly confident that the colours would remain in its completed material form as we don’t don’t add any additives or varnishes that could discolour it.”
How about your application of the material as a designer – what do you like to do with it and how important is pattern?
“I am limited by the size of every leaf so this constraint forced me to look for techniques that could allow me to create bigger surfaces. This is why I started to do marquetry as the sum of individual small pieces make a bigger design. I think pattern is important but not absolutely crucial because the colour and texture pallet is so incredibly varied that sometimes the pattern gets lost because although the individual pieces repeat in shape they never do in colour.”
You are communicating with us from Mexico where you mentioned you are now researching cochineal dye. Can you tell me more about the dye?
“Cochineal dye, also called carmine, is made with a tiny insect that grows as a pest in the Opuntia ficus-indica, more commonly known as prickly pear cactus. The cochineal are scraped from the pads of the plant and let in the sun to dry. Then they are ground into a powder using a mortar and pestle. This powder then produces a very intense red also known in Mexico as sangre de tuna or tuna blood (tuna is the name of the prickly pear in Spanish).”
What are your plans for using the dye, what sort of applications can you imagine it working for?
“I am currently doing a lot of research into the traditional methods of making Pre-Hispanic Stuccos using cochineal, quicklime, and cactus juice, but cochineal has a lot of applications. It is often used in dyeing textiles and as a food colouring, and cosmetics because it’s not toxic.”
Can you tell me any more about it – has it been used in art or design before?
“It is the strongest natural red dye and has been used for thousands of years by the Mayan and Aztecs. After the Spanish conquest its production dramatically increased and became the most valuable export of Mexico (New Spain at the time) after silver. Cochineal was always very expensive and was therefore used for dying clothes for nobility and clergy. Many of the paintings of the late renaissance used cochineal and because it was exported as far as India and the Middle East it was also employed for making oriental rugs. It is also a very versatile dye as it can change colour to pinks, and purples if its exposed to acids like lemon juice or bases like quicklime or salts.
An interesting fact to mention is that cochineal is very delicate and can only grow in very precise conditions and strictly on the prickly pear cactus of Mexico. The dye was such a precious good that in their obsession to break the Spanish monopoly, the French and English smuggled the cactus and spread it as far as Southern Italy, North Africa and Australia. This is why we now find this particular cactus in so many countries, but the cochineal can only survive in Mexico and Peru.”
All images from Fernando Laposse