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A French Designer Who Celebrates Mexico’s Popular-Design Aesthetic

5 min read

EVERY AFTERNOON, YOLANDA González Murillo passes by the open front door of the French industrial designer Fabien Cappello’s studio in the Mexican city of Guadalajara selling icy paletas that she pulls from frost-slicked molds. The flavors change with the seasons: walnut and vanilla in the winter, mango in the spring and prickly pear in the summer, all made from produce that González purchases from a market in the working-class neighborhood of Alcalde Barranquitas. The ice pops are delicious, Cappello says, but he’s more drawn to their molds: long, tapered wands of stainless steel made for decades by a family of metalworkers in the lakeside town of Chapala, an hour 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 riotous collection of mismatched objects that crowd his 900-square-foot studio. Some are his own creations — candlesticks fashioned from corrugated metal tubing in fluorescent shades of pink and gold; decorative plates made from off-cuts of opaque, candy-colored glass — and others, like plastic jugs and metal bird cages, he’s picked up at markets and neighborhood shops since moving to Mexico in 2016.

Cappello had previously lived in London, first while earning a graduate degree at the Royal College of Art, then as the director of his namesake design studio, which he founded in 2010. But his move to Mexico was inspired in no small part by these quotidian objects, basic necessities like broomsticks and tortilla presses made in urban workshops and suspended halfway between craft and industry — items so ordinary, Cappello says, that most people don’t consider them designed at all. Still, each one represents part of Mexico’s vast lexicon of diseño popular, or “popular design,” a concept as central to Cappello’s practice as it is to the country’s cultural, economic and political universe.

The word itself — “popular” — is difficult to translate: It’s not entirely like its English homograph, in the sense of “well liked,” and bears only a passing resemblance to “folk,” often used as its stand-in (as in “artes populares,” or “folk arts”). Closer to the Latin root “popularis,” meaning “of the people,” Mexico’s “popular” can describe the music, food and neighborhoods — like Alcalde Barranquitas — that the aspirational middle and upper classes typically shun. Used from within the communities to which it applies, the word carries a whiff of the English “proletariat,” with its proudly political implications; spoken by outsiders, it displays traces of the classism that organizes Mexican society.

Born and raised in the Le Pierrier housing development in the Parisian banlieue, or suburb, of Plessis-Robinson, Cappello is a product of his city’s own barrios populares. He describes the items that fill his studio as “objetos de resistencia,” or “objects of resistance” — the title of his current exhibition at Zaventem Ateliers outside Brussels, consisting of 340 pieces gathered from around central Mexico. Like the areas that tend to produce them, these objects, Cappello says, “resist the material homogenization that’s accelerated through the beginning of this century.”

A creator and collector of objects, Cappello gathers these artifacts (along with short videos of how they’re made) as an informal catalog of techniques and solutions to draw upon as design challenges present themselves. Some of those ideas will yield goods for the home; others may eventually scale up into public furniture and lighting design. Taken together, they form a map of central Mexico’s complex microeconomies. “I don’t look at these things as archaic or cute,” he says. “I see them as prototypes for the future.”

CAPPELLO HAS BEEN interested in urban resourcefulness since the beginning of his career. During his time in London, he worked with small-scale manufacturers across Europe, creating, among other projects, a fountain of glass watering cans in Venice, desks that conjure the Memphis Group made from colorful sheets of perforated metal in Paris and, in London, a series of stools from discarded Christmas trees.

By late 2015, Cappello had decided to leave London (“the most constraining place imaginable,” he says), but other opportunities on the European continent seemed similarly stultifying, in part because the region’s great artisans were now virtually inaccessible to anyone but the big luxury conglomerates. Unsure of where to go next, he visited Mexico City at the invitation of a friend from design school who’d moved there several years before. He spent days perusing the historic center’s hangarlike markets and countless workshops, many of them tucked into crumbling colonial houses and crooked functionalist apartment blocks. The next year, he moved to Mexico City, though he found himself increasingly drawn north to Guadalajara. In 2020, he relocated there to join his partner, Andrés Treviño, 28, who advances trans and queer rights as the director of sexual diversity for the state government of Jalisco.

Cappello had long admired Guadalajara, a burgeoning design capital filled with workshops dedicated to trades like carpentry and metalwork. And then there was the studio itself: a modest corner building, its concrete facade painted pear green, its corrugated metal doors the color of turmeric, owned by the Treviños since the 1970s but left unoccupied for nearly two decades after the family’s tannery-supply business moved elsewhere.

Over the last year, Cappello and his boyfriend have made modest adjustments to the space. They transformed a pair of mildewed offices into a receiving gallery for clients and collaborators, decorating it with delirious planes of contrasting color — a constant in much of Cappello’s work, despite his colorblindness. An electric blue shelf, originally designed as a book display for an art fair, backs up against a canary yellow wall. Round resin door handles in pink, orange, white and blue crowd its upper shelf, gathered around the base of a table lamp fashioned from a jicara, the dried gourd used for millenniums across Mesoamerica to collect water and serve drinks. A small patio lush with hanging succulents connects the front office to a warehouselike workshop where Cappello plans to install a folding glass door in order to bring his own artes y oficios — his “art and vocation” — back into the street.

“I’m not a designer who works with craft,” Cappello says. It’s a defiant remark in a country replete with makers, both local and foreign, who collaborate with artisans in an effort to preserve (or simply capitalize on) ancient traditions before they disappear, often treating clay casseroles and wooden spoons, early iterations of diseño popular, as holy relics rather than household wares. 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 want to speak to a more diverse understanding of a place’s material culture.”

His own work is no less informed by place; it just happens that the regions animating his practice are not picturesque villages nestled among cactus-studded hills but the city itself. The pieces that emerge from Cappello’s studio — steampunk flower vases made in workshops that specialize in folding sheets of tin into cake molds; geometric wall sconces that resemble TV antennas fashioned from broomsticks — translate the vitality of those barrios populares into products that are themselves objects of resistance against uniformity and pious good taste: each one a prototype for an uncertain future.