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Not long after graduating from the arts and design college Central Saint Martins in London, Fernando Laposse had an existential crisis. His studies to that point had focused on industrial product design, which meant working with a lot of manmade materials. He caught a glimpse of his future – making a succession of plastic products for big, nameless companies – and it terrified him.

Designer Fernando Laposse.Kat Green/Handout

He broke all the silicon moulds in his London studio, applied for a design residency in his native Mexico, and began a life-changing journey to reconnect with a handmade approach to design. Over the past eight years, he has developed an entirely new artisan craft, making artifacts, wall coverings and furniture from the colourful leaves of heirloom corn grown in Mexico. He calls the vibrant, veneer-like material “Totomoxtle,” named for the small village of Tonahuixtla where he spent his summers as a child.

Corn husks were just the start. Working with Indigenous farmers in Tonahuixtla, he plants thousands of agave plants each year as part of a reforestation program to mitigate damage from climate change. With the villagers’ help, the fibres from the agave are turned into sisal that are used to make benches, sofas and chairs. Those pieces have been showcased at Triennale di Milano, the Victoria and Albert Museum and at Design Miami where his exhibit Pink Beasts stole the show in 2019.

As sustainability becomes more imperative in the design community, Laposse has become one of the voices pushing the conversation. In advance of the Interior Design Show in Toronto where he is a keynote speaker on Jan. 21, Laposse got on the phone from Mexico City to talk about how design attuned to culture, tradition and place can empower the disadvantaged, reinvigorate forgotten communities and make the world a healthier place.

The village of Tonahuixtla is now your creative hub. What drew you back there?

I developed the prototype for ‘Totomoxtle’ while on my art residency in Oaxaca but I had depleted my stock of heirloom corn husks. I remembered the vibrant magenta-hued corn leaves from my summers in Tonahuixtla so I went back looking for them. I was saddened by what I found. The land was barren and the village was basically a ghost town. Following the North American Free Trade Agreement, agriculture in Mexico changed drastically. The government handed out incentives to abandon the traditional way of harvesting corn in favour of more American-style agriculture with lots of chemicals. It broke the balance that the Indigenous people had with their environment. The corn crops failed and the people had no livelihood. The result was mass migration. The village of 1,000 was now down to 200 people.

Aluminum table with Totomoxtle marquetry.Handout

Obviously, you decided to help. What projects have you been working on?

Proceeds raised by the sale of my Totomoxtle furniture and wall coverings are used to support the propagation of these heirloom varieties of corn. I’m working with roughly 20 families, with the support of CIMMYT [the world’s largest corn-seed bank] to slowly reintroduce native seeds in the village and return to traditional agriculture. Funnily enough, the most successful seeds came from old ladies in the village who had stashed some of their old seeds in socks. They prepare the land, use organic fertilizer and I pay them to carefully peel off the husks.

Where does the agave fit into the overall picture?

When I first went back to Tonahuixtla, I saw this massive issue they had with erosion. Climate change had made it so hot and arid that nothing would grow there. Agave is perfect because it doesn’t need water. I saw the agave fibres in their natural state. They look like horse hair and I started to developed all these furniture pieces using the sisal we create by scraping the leaves.

Sisal piece by designer Laposse.Handout

What challenges do you face?

A lot of government programs in Mexico are very corrupt and they are short-sighted. They never want to go beyond political terms. They go and throw tons of money into a project, people chip away at it and the money is gone in a matter of a few years. Our regenerative model uses art and craft to solve community problems at the grassroots level. We are trying to revert migration. It’s incredible how all these things are linked. How the health of our surroundings is a direct reflection of the health of a community. The good news is that my designs are getting attention which, in turn, reflects well on the people who are helping me and their traditional ways of living.

What do you value most about what you do?

One of the greatest gifts I’ve received was when I was invited to the ecological summit at the World Economic Forum in Davos. I was able to bring two guests of honour, my father’s old friend and another farmer and craftsperson who has been instrumental in getting our little cottage industry off the ground. It was so rewarding to be with my friends – who had never been outside Mexico, never seen snow – and travel to Switzerland, and then onto London, where they were held in high esteem by leaders of industry, art and commerce. They came back to the village with such enthusiasm and confidence.

Over all, what changes need to happen in the design world?

I think we have enough mass-consumption designers out there. What we need is more young people to help us create small-scale solutions, such as what we are doing in Tonahuixtla. They say large ships are hard to turn around. That may be true, but real change is going to come from a network of small initiatives. Every year, the school I attended pumps out 100 designers. I’m not saying 100 designers have to do what I’m doing, but maybe one or two from each class could do something similar.

What are you working on next?

My design is about reparation for the community, reparation for the environment and reparation for the artist. Next year, I plan to design a totally sustainable house in the village that will serve as a place for visitors to stay when they come to see the project. For the last eight years we’ve been moving rocks around, using a bull-driven plow, and we finally have a fairly even plot and a huge pile of rocks. My house will be made from those stones, adobe style with a palm roof. The furniture will all be constructed from bio-materials. It is a bit of a social experiment that I see as a lifelong project for me. I’m so excited because we’re just getting started.

This interview has been condensed and edited.