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

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

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

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

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