Brutal beauty: Mexico's leading creative couple cement their passion for concrete
This is a dwelling for the caveman of the future; the ruins of a civilization, now extinct, which was more advanced than the one we’re living in now,’ explains Mexican artist Pedro Reyes. He’s referring to the house he’s built with his wife, fashion designer Carla Fernández, in Coyoacán, in the south of Mexico City.
Ancient Aztecs meet The Martian Chronicles in the form of hammered concrete walls, chunky furniture hewn from volcanic stone and an abundance of rich, overblown greenery. A ‘pyramid’ at one end is Carla’s studio, a yard behind it will be Pedro’s. It’s currently a ramshackle plot occupied by the team of artisans that is helping finish the house.
The couple is in good company in Coyoacán. Fellow artists Damián Ortega and Gabriel Orozco are nearby, Frida Kahlo was born locally, and it’s where her pal, the exiled Leon Trotsky, was murdered in 1940. Those in Mexico’s creative circles joke that Carla and Pedro are the modern-day Frida and Diego (Rivera, Kahlo’s artist husband). Like their predecessors they are bon vivants – 600 guests came to their housewarming – and like their communist forebears, they are politically engaged.
In 2008, Reyes set up Palas por Pistolas ('guns for shovels') in the city of Culiacán, a project that resulted in the military collecting 1,527 guns in exchange for coupons for domestic appliances. The weapons were melted down and turned into 1,527 shovels used to plant trees across the city and beyond. In subsequent projects, Imagine (2012) and Disarm (2013), he turned destroyed weapons into musical instruments. Lisson Gallery founder Nicholas Logsdail, who represents Reyes, says: ‘His work is both symbolically and actually transformative, evidenced particularly in monumental and far-reaching projects such as Disarm and Sanatorium.’ (The latter is a transient ‘clinic’ first set up at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2011 to provide therapies and placebos for 21st-century ailments.)
Before becoming an artist, Reyes trained as an architect at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City. His plan in designing the house was to transform his 1,000 sq m home from a ‘1980s monstrosity with an indoor pool and various eccentricities’ into a modern space that ‘includes hints of all of Mexico’s many modernities’. A stone floor is inspired by the nearby Anahuacalli Museum, the ‘temple’ designed by Rivera in 1957 as a depository for his collection of 60,000 pre-Hispanic artifacts. Elsewhere, hammered concrete floors and walls were inspired by the Mexican brutalists, in particular 89-year-old Teodoro González de León, who built many landmarks across the capital.
‘The use of concrete is very canonical, very clichéd, but it has many possibilities,’ says Reyes, pointing out the handmade bricks covered with a wax-like concrete paste, which he developed with his men. ‘There’s a palette of finishes still waiting to be recovered from brutalism.’
The couple also designed much of the furniture. The lava-stone master bath and basin and the concrete kitchen table are artworks in themselves. A ceiling light, made of copper tubes threaded through electrical wire, is inspired by Buckminster Fuller, as is a 4m-high geodesic dome being completed in the living room. It’s for a show this autumn at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan.
Reyes’ sign language-inspired ‘Mano-Sillas’ chairs appear alongside international and Mexican midcentury classics from the likes of Charles and Ray Eames and Clara Porset, and simple rural pieces such as milking stools, leather butaque chairs and seats woven from palm fronds. ‘The technique was used by the Aztecs and has been recovered by the design-conscious, but not in any official way,’ says Reyes. ‘It would be great to make them on a large scale in other raw materials.’
Revisiting ancient indigenous skills and developing a modern Mexican language lies at the heart of Fernández’s work, in particular. For 15 years she has built her label on high-fashion interpretations of traditional Mexican garments. Both her boutiques in Mexico City sell her ready-to-wear dresses, shawls, scarves and rebozos, and her mobile fashion laboratory Taller Flora rolls from one indigenous people to another and results in a demi-couture line. In 2013 she published her book, The Barefoot Designer: a passion for Radical Design and Community, in which she declares the future is handmade. It’s accompanied by an exhibition on the process of making, which has recently travelled to museums in LA and Asia.
Between them, the couple has an impressive collection of textiles and art. Fernández is drawn to fine cottons from the town of Xochistlahuaca in Guerrero that are dyed with mud, cochineal, indigo and snails and loves the thick, rough wools from the highlands of Chiapas, Puebla and Tlaxcala. Her tablecloths are embroidered with fantastical animals by shamans from Hidalgo. Reyes swaps works with contemporaries such as Spanish artist Santiago Sierra while collecting Mexican works from the likes of Ernesto Mallard and the late Mathias Goeritz.
Between the master bedroom and the two children’s bedrooms is space for one of ‘the best hammocks in Mexico’. These are woven by women from cooperatives in Izamal in Yucatán and Calkiní in Campeche, take two months to make and can sleep a family of four. So hectic are the couple’s schedules that finding the time to curl up in their hammock is a fantasy rather than a reality. Time for that later. Right now, their unique version of mexicanidad is in hot demand, and it’s their mission to provide it.
As originally featured in the December 2015 issue of Wallpaper* (W*201)