Chew on this
Long Reads 19.08.2018
Words Jim Butler
Photographs Andy Donohoe
Fernando Laposse has worked with many materials in the name of design – from sugar and rubber to corn. But it’s not just about aesthetics, he insists: welcome to the brave new world of food activism…
Supposing such a game existed, Fernando Laposse would be the star card in a Top Trumps version of Dinner Party Guests. The charismatic 29-year-old Mexican is an authentic 21st-century renaissance man. His work – nominally design – touches upon… deep breath now: art, gastronomy, science, economics, politics, history, alchemy, mixology, entrepreneurialism and activism.
He unapologetically describes himself as a polymath, stating that ‘more people should strive to be so’. If he wasn’t so humble and so interesting – his long and exacting diatribes on food production, global economics, neo-imperialism and notions of national identity are delivered with the dexterity of a skilled raconteur – it would be tempting to dismiss him as a too-good-to-be-true braggart.
Pleasingly, however, he is the real deal. Since graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2012, Laposse has embarked on a sinuous journey around the nuanced world of food design. Initially, he was playful. His first project was sugar glassware that you could eat. He followed that with a series of furniture pieces made out of loofah, the fruit of a vine from the cucumber family that, once past its edible stage, many people use as an exfoliating sponge.
Latterly, his work has taken on a more serious bent. One of his latest endeavours, entitled Totomoxtle, is ostensibly a range of products made from native Mexican corn. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and this project uncovers the troubling relationship between genetically modified corn and the destruction of much of the traditional farmland in his home country. The consequences of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994 – the widespread migration from villages and towns to Mexican cities and into the United States and the inability of many of the poorer sectors of society to feed themselves – have influenced this venture. Subsequently, his designs and objects are not only aesthetic; they are statements of intent, both on a highly charged political and moral level, but also an educational one too.
Sitting at a table in his north London home-cum-studio-cum-workplace, Laposse insists that this is deliberate. It is, he says, one of the advantages of working within design, because it’s not only a discipline of aesthetics, but it can be a discipline of communication.
‘Design is a point of entry to an idea that might be a lot more complicated,’ he avows. ‘And it can simplify things that might seem super boring and complicated, particularly when talking about world politics and economics. It has the power to simplify things and create an object that is representative of all these ideas.’
His corn project is indicative of this. He wants people to look at the objects he’s made from indigenous Mexican corn husks – all 64 different types of them, with their rich array of hues – and wonder why the wood on a cabinet or the marquetry on a vase looks peculiar, or how they came to get those colours. ‘And then you discover that, no, it’s not wood, it’s corn. And it’s not painted, that’s how it grows. And let me tell you everything behind it…’
That Laposse uses the raw material of various foodstuffs to make his art and illustrate his points should come as no surprise given his family history. His dad is one of four generations of bakers, while his mother is a painter who studied at one of the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts schools in France. As a child, he spent hours in the kitchen helping his parents cook and bake. Moreover, as a product of migration and globalisation (his paternal great-grandfather was a confectioner from Italy, who emigrated to Mexico and got work in a French bakery where he was schooled in the classic French techniques of baking), he understands why food is so emblematic of identity. ‘Whenever you go travelling,’ he points out, ‘one of the first things people ask is, “What did you eat?” In that sense, food has a power that conventional objects don’t have.’
Outside the kitchen, his childhood informed his character in other ways. Laposse recalls a man his parents employed named Delfino Martinez – aka Don Fino – when they lived in Mexico City. Fino had spent years working in construction and, being fascinated by baseball, would make his own baseball bats. ‘I remember being quite young and going to cut a branch from a tree and him teaching me how to turn it into a baseball bat,’ he recalls. ‘They were giving me a machete at six years old to go and chop down a branch. But he taught me how to chop down wood and how to make my own slingshots.’ He laughs. ‘Maybe, looking back, it was a bit irresponsible!’
This urge to create – encouraged by the fatherly figure of Fino and his parents’ skillsets – was evident when he enrolled at London’s Central Saint Martins. After a hands-on foundation course, he found his BA in Product Design underwhelming, as it focused on packaging, user interface and technology design, leaving little time to make things. Laposse wanted to work with glass, but Saint Martins didn’t have the workshops. He began to look for a substitute, and he stumbled upon sugar. ‘I think I read somewhere that, back in the day, whenever they wanted to show breaking glass in films they would use sugar.’
After teaching himself the basics of glass blowing with sugar via a few YouTube instructional videos, he began applying some industrial techniques from his course to design rotational mouldings to make glasses. ‘The idea was to make glassware that you could eat,’ he explains. ‘But they would be so well made you couldn’t tell it was sugar. I played with the marbling and added food dyes while the machine was spinning so that would give a range of patterns.’
His irreverent designs were a hit at gallery launches, drinks events and private parties. Drinks companies also came calling (he’s currently designing a version for Bombay Sapphire), seduced by his ingenious method of using sugar capsules injected with absinthe that were then placed in a glass of champagne. It was his take on Ernest Hemingway’s notorious Death in the Afternoon hangover cure.
‘The moment you put liquid into sugar the clock starts ticking, so I normally do it in front of the guests,’ he says. ‘This gives it a performance aspect. Within two minutes things are happening. You start off with a regular glass of champagne and it then becomes sweeter and more boozy.’
A feature of this debut outing was the manner in which Laposse would marry a multitude of disciplines into one finished product. His capsules were 3D printed, referring back to his design training; it also brought in science, food design and theatrics. It was – and remains – a mixture of high-tech and traditional crafts.
The project sent him off on a circuitous path trying to ascertain the link between the worlds of food and design, without straying too far into catering. ‘I think that is the trap with a lot of food designers,’ he argues. ‘When people ask for a definition of food design, the truth of the matter is that most people don’t really know. My vision is based upon remaining a designer.’
Since then, he’s worked with a number of materials that are natural and edible such as the loofah project; devised a homage to the pantry for the Italian design collective Arabeschi di Latti by exploring saponification (the process of making soap) and collaborated with Tom Dixon, Pirelli and Arabeschi di Latti again in designing edible rubber: in other words, traditional chewing gum.
These projects have involved Laposse fixating on one material – loofah, lard, wood and rubber, among others – and exploiting all its traits, leaving minimal waste. His soap series harks back to memories of his grandmother making soap from animal fat. Here he draws a link between the abundant food waste of today and being disconnected from the processes that result in food reaching our plates. ‘There used to be a time where a family would buy a whole pig and it would last for weeks, if not months.
They would use everything from the fat to the bones. They’d make glue, soap – and you’d eat the marrow and all sorts of things.’
Manipulating materials in a practical and aesthetic sense to then make a political statement has reached its apex in Totomoxtle. The chance to exhibit in the state of Oaxaca gave Laposse a chance to work with the diverse strains of native corn. Corn has a symbiotic relationship with Mexico. A man-made plant – perhaps the only one that is the result of human handling and selective breeding over 9,000 years, starting with the Mesoamericans, he explains – corn is dependent upon man …and Mexico is dependent on corn. But in the 23 years since NAFTA, the gene pool of native strands has been decimated. Laposse suggests that since 1994, production of native corn has reduced by 80 per cent, as GM corn has been introduced. So, while globalisation has manifold positives (what Laposse describes as ‘the migration of people yielding a diversity’ that leads to the creation of new cultural traditions translating into music, dance and food) – the problem with corporate globalisation is that it creates the opposite.
‘Corporations strive for homogenous standardisation – and diversity is precisely what they go against,’ he despairs. As a result, Fino’s village, Tonahuixtla, has become a ghost town comprised primarily of women. Unable to work or feed their families, the men have migrated to America in search of work, or worse. Laposse states that many of Mexico’s problems – crime and poverty chief among them – are the consequence of this de-rooting of people.
‘If you take away the ability to feed themselves, if you take away the ability for them to take care of themselves and to progress in society, to aspire, the only way for them to fight back is to migrate or to join a gang or a cartel.’
That’s why Toxmoxtle goes beyond the mere aesthetical. But the visual appeal is paramount too. The corn husks, with their dazzling array of colours, are peeled, flattened and then pressed onto a paper or MDF backing tile, to give strength and durability. Laposse laser cuts these tiles, mixes all the different colours together, then reassembles the laminated pieces like a jigsaw puzzle. These can then be used to cover furniture, walls, lamps or vases. The effect is stunning. Next year, Laposse will present the latest iteration of his corn work – sculptures – in a show at the Valerie Traan gallery in Antwerp.
To date, Laposse has done everything himself. But with the assistance of Fino – and a seed bank specialising in native corn varieties – he is looking for the inhabitants of Tonahuixtla to come on board. This is the second step of a project that will be years in coming to fruition. The process of selecting, cutting, ironing and glueing the husks is the most labour intensive – and these are the processes he wants them to adopt initially. Later he wants to teach them more advanced carpentry techniques and get funding to buy a laser cutter so they can take over the more skilled aspects of transforming the material. ‘Hopefully, it will help take some of these economic pressures away and not force them to give up their corn,’ he says. ‘They already have an efficient system of sharing and combining efforts.’
As his man on the ground, Fino is key in encouraging his neighbours to come on board. ‘He’s more educated than the average person in his town,’ explains Laposse. ‘He can read and write. He’s a smart guy. He sees a future in this. He’s been helping me convince people to join in.’
His re-engagement with Mexico, its culture and his identity as a Mexican of European descent, has been absolute. He rails against what he perceives to be the bastardisation of Mexican cuisine (‘I’ve never eaten a burrito in Mexico. They don’t exist. It’s not Mexican food, it’s an invention from Texas’) and pushes a version of Mexican design that is bold, colourful and spirited.
‘As a Latin American I can’t be minimal,’ he says. ‘I have to have patterns. I have to use colours. It’s our cultural heritage. What I’m trying to say is the future is in material development. There are so many materials that we take for granted that were gifts or discoveries from the New World. Corn is the most sold grain in the world – even more than wheat and rice. It’s eaten all over the world. But very few people know the story behind it. Imagine a world without rubber. The Mayans used rubber for many, many years. They used to play their religious equivalent of football, which was hitting a rubber ball through a hoop with their thighs and legs. I have also tried to make many of the projects educational and go beyond the aesthetics. I think the aesthetics aren’t so important any more.’
And as contemporary politics turns in on itself, and a new insularity begins to reign in the wake of Trump and Brexit, it appears that Laposse’s 10-year love affair with Britain could be coming to an end. Despite living in Europe for half his life, he doesn’t have a European passport and his visa runs out in March. ‘There’s a very good chance I might have to leave,’ he reflects poignantly. ‘I was very, very scared and this is why I’ve held so tightly to be here all these years, but I think now the corn project is really putting a new passion in me – particularly going back [to Mexico] and trying to concentrate on things that are happening there. There are a lot of exciting things that can be done over there that makes food design activism. Which is the new route my job is taking. So, we’ll see.’ Britain’s potential loss is Mexico’s – and the world’s – gain. If anyone can raise food design to the level of social activism, you sense Fernando Laposse is the individual to do it.