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These days, Mexico City’s drive to clad itself in layer upon layer of beautiful design never stops, not even when the city’s residents leave on vacation. “Gaby and I were at a beach near Puerto Vallarta and we met this designer from San Francisco,” says Eduardo Garcia, currently the hottest chef in this vast capital city of 20 million people. “We told him we were opening a new restaurant, and he said he’d come design the interior if we bought him a plane ticket.”
At its core, design – diseno here in Mexico’s D.F., or Distrito Federal – is the practice of making decisions about how something will look or feel or work. And any lover of good design visiting this city will spot, with each new step, clever street-level choices – triangular concrete planters, puzzle-like wooden sunscreens, curvy pink façades – seemingly everywhere.
That includes the interior of Maximo Bistrot Local, the small, unpretentious restaurant that Le Bernardin-trained Garcia and his wife, Gabriela, opened in November 2011. The designer on the beach, Charles de Lisle, converted a former wheelchair-supply shop in the Colonia Roma neighbourhood into a handsome, inviting room – “very Barragan,” Eduardo says, referencing Luis Barragan, a master of space and light and the only Mexican architect to win the Pritzker Prize.
At Maximo, simple white walls are lit by 1950s Lightolier fixtures sourced by local mid-century-modern dealer Claudia Fernandez. A tangle of white plaster “branches” juts out from the side wall: The Tree of Life, as the patrons call it, was crafted by young plaster artisan David Rodrigo Mendez Nava. The week I visited, the Garcias opened a small bar directly upstairs – once again decked out by de Lisle, Fernandez and David Nava – where the crowds awaiting a coveted table can linger with a cocktail.
In this room, it’s easy to grasp the cross-pollination of disciplines – design, art, architecture, food, fashion – that has recently made Mexico City one of the globe’s hottest cultural scenes. “In the last five years, a lot more creative Mexicans have come to this city and hopped aboard this train,” says the artist Pablo Vargas Lugo, with whom I’m enjoying a leisurely late-afternoon lunch of roasted duck breast with cauliflower purée, given a Meso-American lift by Garcia’s addition of a vanilla gastrique. “People are diversifying, so now you wonder, Is this guy doing design? Is he selling clothes? Is he making art? What’s his angle?”
Our conversation turns to architecture – specifically, the stunning new Museo Jumex, a contemporary-art museum by British architect David Chipperfield. “Other than perhaps Renzo Piano, Chipperfield’s the best around when it comes to art museums,” says Vargas Lugo. “He gets what it means to design a building for displaying art.”
The structure, which opened in November just north of the posh Polanco district in Plaza Carso, sticks to a simple material palette: creamy travertine from Veracruz, warm chechen wood from Yucatan, white concrete, matte-black painted steel lining the central staircase. The tall spaces of its five floors – main galleries on the top two, an open-air café on the ground floor, a bookstore in the basement – flow smoothly, feeling capacious without swallowing you up.
Drawing from the nearly 3,000-piece collection of the Fundacion Jumex, the museum has no permanent exhibitions (unless you count the stunning basement floor, striped with some two dozen varieties of marble, by the British artist Martin Creed). Instead, a team of curators crafts three– to fourmonth shows that feature Mexican and international artists and are then turned over; temporary walls built in the spaces according to the particular needs of each exhibition get demolished for the next one.
“Chipperfield understood the context of our city right away,” says the museum’s director, Patrick Charpenel. “Our climate, all the open spaces that exist in what can seem like a very busy city – he built a museum that feels right for Mexico City.”
Just beyond a train track is the Jumex’s flashy neighbour, the Museo Soumaya. Built and named for the late wife of billionaire Carlos Slim and opened in 2011, the structure by Mexican architect Fernando Romero is a curving plinth covered in 16,000 hexagonal aluminum tiles. It looks like a magnificent reptilian torso cinched elegantly at the waist.
Unlike the Jumex next door, the architecture here is not always in service of the art it contains. The building itself is the showpiece – the best way to experience the Soumaya is to begin on its sixth floor and walk the sloping corkscrew pathway all the way to the bottom, appreciating every perfect curve and ignoring the art altogether. Six-and-a-half minutes later, convening with a cast of Rodin’s The Thinker !in the main foyer, you’ll feel like you’ve experienced a sort of artistic miracle.
Romero, the architect of Museo Soumaya, plays his own role in the city’s intersection of creative disciplines via Archivo, a design collection he opened in 2012. Archivo occupies a lovingly retouched home in the Daniel Garza neighbourhood; the house was originally designed by the architect Arturo Chavez Paz, a contemporary of Barragan (whose own home is open to tours just up the street). Right across the road, incidentally, is the azure façade of Labor, Pamela Echeverria’s influential gallery (she represents my Maximo lunch date, Pablo Vargas Lugo), which she relocated in 2012 to this house designed by the mid-century architect Enrique del Morel.
Archivo aims to demystify what design is and why it matters. Articles in its collection include a Jean Prouvé chair and several models of William Gruber and Harold Graves’s View-Master stereoscopes. The house, stylishly impenetrable when viewed from its porthole-pierced concrete façade, opens onto a lush back garden that hosts a strange sort of amphitheatre: Local architecture firm Pedro&Juana won an international competition to install their pavilion, a grouping of 765 clay pots traditionally used in the distillation of tequila.
“Design is having a real moment right now all around the globe, and it’s important that Mexican designers use this opportunity to articulate to the world what our design is all about,” says Regina Puzo, who was just 23 when Romero tapped her to direct his gallery. “The primary place where we exchange ideas in the D.F. isn’t in salons; it’s in the streets. Our buildings and sidewalks are full of all this food for us to eat up visually.”
That visual conversation comes in many forms, from the tight hedge of red steel bars that forms the façade of the Universidad de Las Americas to the silent movies projected nightly from the rooftop bar of my hotel in Polanco, the Habita, onto a windowless tower across the street. The chaotic mix of Spanish tile that covers the floor (and walls) of the café where I drink each morning’s cortado exemplifies this city’s well-styled playfulness: If Seattle is the sombre green and grey of Starbucks, Mexico City is the explosion of blue and yellow and pink inside Cielito Querido.
“We have this long cultural past that we can revisit in Mexico, and we do,” says Hector Esrawe, a prominent furniture and industrial designer who, with Ignacio Cadena, created Cielito in 2010 and now counts 35 locations in the D.F., with four more on the way. “But what I’m interested in is taking these references and transitioning them to new techniques, to new expressions of Mexican design.”
On my last day in Mexico City, I eat lunch at Rosetta, an Italian restaurant in Roma Norte, housed in an old belle époque mansion. The chef, Elena Reygadas, sends out what I decide, three bites in, is the greatest beet dish I’ve ever eaten: hickory-smoked beets with a beet sorbet, arranged with Mexican goat cheese atop a bed of young beet greens.
I look around the room – a glorious double-height space with hanging spherical fixtures and a massive skylight, obscured by hanging vines – and smile. It should come as no surprise that the husband of the chef who conceived of this food, and this place, is an architect. One creative style marrying another: That’s Mexico City.
Mexico City’s must-see art and design spots
MUSEO JUMEX, the Fundacion Jumex’s contemporary-art museum featuring rotating exhibitions in a striking David Chipperfield building (www.museojumex.org).
An artwork in itself, MUSEO SOUMAYA, built and named for the late wife of billionaire Carlos Slim (www.soumaya.com.mx).
ARCHIVO, Museo Soumaya architect Fernando Romero’s modern-design gallery offering curated exhibitions and a lush rear garden (www.archivoonline.org).