How Fernando Laposse Uses the Power of Design to Highlight Issues Faced by Indigenous Communities.

We recently had the pleasure of talking with London-based Mexican designer, Fernando Laposse. We find Fernando’s work fascinating because it explores topics such as sustainability, biodiversity and agriculture not purely through the lens of symbolism or aesthetics, but rather he opts for a more holistic and community-minded approach. Central to his projects is a production process that incorporates indigenous populations in Latin America. These projects seek to offer long-term support to indigenous communities whilst using the “transformative power of design” to highlight to a broader audience the issues these communities face.

Rather than sourcing traditionally beautiful or beloved materials, Fernando is much more drawn to materials than many would consider mundane, or as he characterises them “overlooked”. These materials are often just simple plant fibres such as sisal, loofah or corn leaves.

“I am not interested in working with materials that already have a high perceived value, say marble or brass or crystal because I think at its core design is about adding value, making something more desirable. Working with natural materials that are not considered valuable and infusing them with a sense of preciousness is therefore more of a challenge. It pushes you to be more creative and I think this is where the work of a designer shines the most.”

The selection of “humble, natural” materials is fundamental to Fernando’s work. By highlighting the versatility of everyday plants that may usually be ignored, he breaks down misconceptions of these plants and the perceived limits of their potential.

“[The plants] aren't rare, especially in Latin America. They are all around us but for some reason they are not considered as usable materials for anything beyond their obvious uses. We often see those cheap IKEA sisal carpets but almost no one knows they come from agave leaves and when you think of corn you often think of the yellow sweet variety that you find in a supermarket.”

But Fernando's material-driven projects look further than the traditional aspirations of sustainability.

“I think the core of my work is about regeneration. My projects try to look beyond the conventional models of sustainability and instead make projects that increase our natural wealth by using the power of design. I believe in shining a light on indigenous communities who are a demographic that has been completely abused and forgotten despite the fact they can potentially show us ways of solving some of the environmental challenges of the future.”

The respectful inclusion of community is of huge importance to Fernando’s process. First, he experiences and interacts with the agricultural community in a physical sense, talking with them and listening to them. Then, the fruits of his learnings are transformed into experiments with natural materials that entangle both the theoretical research with the practical.”

The in-depth, holistic nature of Fernando’s research process results in work created that transcends symbolism and aesthetics in a physically disconnected sense. His projects and resulting design pieces are inextricably intertwined with the geographical and cultural contexts from which he reared them. This is something he calls “endemic design”. Fernando has a useful analogy to illustrate what he means by this.

“When describing wines we talk about the "terroir" meaning the environmental and geographical factors that make a wine taste a certain way and is therefore identified as being unique to a particular region. When I talk about endemic design I am thinking of something similar; what are the material and manufacturing techniques that give that design piece a sense of geography and identity? This is something that I always strive to do with my projects and the big challenge is to do so by giving a sense of the location and context of the material without falling into aesthetic cliches.”

In working with agricultural and indigenous communities, Fernando expresses his consciousness of the idea of “extraction” and his efforts to avoid it. Extraction in this context might be described as capitalising on the cultural richness of indigenous communities without offering anything in return.

“Collaborating with an indigenous community without perpetuating a model of extraction is a process that takes years and it requires building a relationship of trust and empathy before even starting to engage in a financial transaction. For example, Totomoxtle, my work with corn leaves which I developed with a community of Mixteco indigenous farmers started five years ago but it took us two years to start selling pieces. Those first two years were about working with them to repair their land and to reintroduce their ancestral seeds that had been lost because of pressures from the government to switch to GMO seeds.”

And for Fernando, the work with these communities is structured as a joint learning experience above all. As he describes, “Instead of following the model of ‘designer collaborates with artisans’ we all focused on recovering traditional agriculture first and then we all collectively started to create a new craft from scratch”. And these projects can develop into long-lasting and meaningful contributions for these communities.

“We have created a community owned workshop that employs more than thirty people and we created a solid base to make sure that this project can carry on existing for many years to come.”

For those who may be interested in the work and ideas that shaped Fernando’s vision, he also offered us some of his personal inspirations: “I like the writing of Victor Papenek, the work of Annie and Joseph Albers in Mexico bringing a fresh eye to traditional textiles. And perhaps more contemporary, I really like the way Formafantasma presents their research.”

Thank you to Fernando for your illuminating work and thoughtful insights. You can find him at the links below.

Website - Instagram

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Words by Ewan Waddell.