Making Do before Making New: Fabien Cappello Rethinks Design’s Social Values

by Robert J. Kett, PhD

This Spring, the Jacobs Institute hosts the inaugural installation of On View at Jacobs Hall, an exhibition program featuring designs engaging cultural life and emerging technology. Fabien Cappello: Sillas Callejeras/Street Chairs will be installed across Jacobs Hall from March 22-May 18.

The streets of Mexico City’s historic center near Fabien Cappello’s studio. Photo by author.

The Mexico City studio of Fabien Cappello is part workshop and part collection, an intimate, cloistered space that is nevertheless an immediate reflection of its surrounds. Located in the city’s historic center — a district where colonial buildings sit atop Aztec Tenochtitlan and often lean precariously toward their more modern neighbors, Cappello’s operation is closer to the Centro’s market life than the tourist sites to the north. The shops and stands that draw the area’s crowds are not places to buy traditional crafts or collectables. Instead, they stock the necessities of daily life, from plastic buckets and stools to dried loofahs and straw brooms. Walk down a street full of papelerías and turn right at another full of rolls of vinyl plastics and you’ll find the modernist apartment building where Cappello reflects on this world of material goods and daily routines.

“We don’t need more brands, rather I feel the urgency to redefine our role as designers, not as generators of capital but as catalysts of cultural and social values.”

Cappello is part of a new generation of designers in Mexico interested less in aspiring to the standards of modernism or today’s “cutting edge” than in marrying local fabrication knowledges with a respect for quotidian practice and vernacular forms. Born in France, he trained at London’s Royal College of Art with Martino Gamper and Jurgen Bey. Shortly thereafter, he began a series of explorations of local materials and manufacturing traditions, repurposing London’s discarded Christmas trees or bricks from the glass kilns of Murano in his own furniture and product designs and working in collaboration with craftspeople and local communities. It was this interest in materiality and craft that inspired him to relocate to Mexico City in 2015.

A view of Fabien Cappello’s Mexico City studio. Photo by author.

In his studio, it’s clear that Mexico offers consistent inspiration. The space’s shelves are stocked with a mismatched assortment of artifacts drawn from across the country. Yet, unlike previous designers who flocked to Mexico City to “discover” the country’s traditions, Cappello’s collection speaks to a more nuanced reading of contemporary life in this global metropolis. Though green ceramics from Santa María Atzompa and folkloric masks may evoke romantic interest in traditional craft, the loving display of plastic gas cans and stepping stools alongside them creates a juxtaposition that is jarring but truthful. Cappello’s collection refuses any desire for a return to an “authentic” past or the developmentalist aspiration that Mexico “find its place” in the modern world, both common tropes (or traps) in thinking about the course of design in the country. The resulting disposition is contemporary in the fullest sense—dissonant, unresolved, and freely composed of what we often call the traditional and the modern.

Instagram documentation of a “silla callejera.” Courtesy the designer.
Cappello’s installation at the 2018 Material Art Fair. Courtesy the designer.

Like this collection, Sillas Callejeras (Street Chairs, 2018) seems to distill the ecumenical, contextual attitude that Cappello brings to his design. The project originated as a commission to develop the interiors for the 2018 Material Art Fair. Tasked with providing seating for the event’s visitors, Cappello returned to a longstanding fascination with the improvised seating solutions that populate the streets of Mexico City, objects he had been documenting through Instagram photos, conversation, and reflections in his notebooks. The resulting project is an amalgam of design research, installation, and studio photography. Chairs borrowed from shop owners and street vendors from across the city were temporarily installed at the fair and subsequently photographed in collaboration with Sergio López before being returned to their owners.

Sillas Callejeras foregrounds not only the needs but the knowledges and skills of those living in conditions of precarity.

Sillas Callejeras trains attention on a design genre so banal as to go unnoticed, yet one that manifests uncommon variety, ingenuity, and resourcefulness. Set against a backdrop of accumulating day-glo marks, Cappello’s still lives witness a great range of solutions developed in dialogue with situated needs and available materials and techniques — chairs sometimes double as ladders, include convenient hiding places for personal items, or are built up from assembled scraps of wood, metal, and plastic. As Cappello describes, “I like to imagine how they arise almost naturally from a specific need and a given resource of material, without being engineered, without designers. How can we learn from this process?” While ripe for dismissal from those in search of the “authentic” or the “new,” for Cappello the chairs are a guide for a broader rethinking of design as a process that arises from and is embedded in practices of everyday life.

An image from Sillas Callejeras. Courtesy the designer.

Sillas Callejeras offers a valuable critique of the proliferation of new product designs driving contemporary consumption, reminding us of the importance of “making do” rather than “making new.” More fundamentally, the project centers not only the needs but the knowledges and skills of those living in conditions of precarity, rethinking the authority of the designer in the process. The reflexive quality of the project slows down design to observe the worlds in which it seeks to intervene, holding open the possibility that existing practices may conform to a given community better than any external proposal could. As the project reminds us, people have always and continue to devise their own resourceful solutions to daily needs, grounded in an intimate understanding of locale. Sillas Callejeras productively asks what relation these knowledges and practices bear to what we call “design” and how they might reframe our understanding of the term.

As Cappello argues, “We don’t need more brands, rather I feel the urgency to redefine our role as designers, not as generators of capital but as catalysts of cultural and social values.” As demonstrated in Sillas Callejeras, design’s search for these new values might begin with an emphasis on humility, observation, and respect for existing cultures of making and making do.

A spread from the book Sillas Callejeras: Un Proyecto de Fabien Cappello. Courtesy the designer.