The Designer Making High Art Out Of Food Waste
Corn husks in the village of Tonahuixtla, Mexico, June 2017. All photographs by Mr Fernando Laposse
Nature becomes art as designer Mr Fernando Laposse fashions colourful artefacts from Mexico’s heirloom corn.
Seasonality, provenance and nose-to-tail eating are now ingrained in the restaurant lexicon, all part of an overarching theme of sustainability. But sustainability in food isn’t simply about finding a solution to waste or focusing on the produce, it is about understanding the complexity of relationships between people along the food chain. It is about creating sustainable livelihoods as well as a sustainable environment.
London-based Mexican designer Mr Fernando Laposse’s recent design project – titled Totomoxtle – seeks to illustrate this. Using dried corn husks to create a patterned veneer for vases, walls and lights, his work takes in everything from a rural indigenous community to a global seed bank, European museums and the world of fine dining. This project taps into a story that mirrors food and farming communities across the world, where independent communities are fighting to have their voices heard and be economically sustainable. It also showcases the colours of native Mexican corn – deep purples, blush pinks and husky yellows.
“Corn is so important to the culture of Mexico that there are many words in the indigenous languages to describe it. Totomoxtle is the word for the dried husks,” says Mr Laposse.
Left: Mr Laposse working in his studio, Tottenham, London, July 2018. Right: Hanging corn in Mr Laposse’s studio, Tottenham, London, January 2017
Recently, corn farming in Mexico has been affected by global trade agreements, shifting practices and a battle to keep out genetically modified corn. Planting hybrid seeds is the norm in Mexico and with it, biodiversity is being lost. Hybrid corn grows uniformly and has a larger yield but it is less nutritious and its farming is dependent on chemical fertilisers and government subsidies. It was against this backdrop, in 2015, that Mr Laposse began investigating corn as a material to work with while on an art residency in Oaxaca. He trawled through food markets in Mexico to find the native varieties – sparking memories of his childhood – but came up empty-handed.
In 2015, Mr Laposse returned to Tonahuixtla – a community in the Sierra Mixteca mountains where he and his sister spent every summer as children – with Mr Delfino Martinez, a family friend. “The cornfields would be peppered around the mountainsides between cactus and thorny bushes. Everyone lived very traditionally, they would go to the fields on horseback and bring back their harvest on donkeys,” he says. It was the most remote place he knew, and he wanted to find the corn he remembered. However, the village was a ghost town.
But Mr Martinez teamed up with villagers to transform the fields back to their previous health in a bid to revitalise the community. They did this by adopting traditional farming methods such as planting cacti to stop soil erosion and using natural fertiliser and a composting technique called vermiculture, where worms convert organic matter into fertilizer. It was this mindset, of rethinking how they were working and revisiting time-honoured techniques, that prompted Mr Laposse to propose the idea of growing native corns so he could use the husks in his work.
Chevron pattern Totomoxtle vases by Mr Fernando Laposse
Complications arose as the seeds Mr Laposse brought from around Mexico would often fail. “It was hard for them to trust me with the new seeds,” explains Mr Laposse. “There was always a chance that they might not grow [and it was a risk] putting all their eggs in one basket”.
There was a disconnect between farming, food, art and local people, so the idea had to be approached differently. Mr Laposse won funding and was able to clear a communal piece of land that had lain unused for 40 years. As the crop grew Mr Laposse brought in new corn husks, paying locals to prepare them for him to use. Now, the funding for planting and harvesting this land comes from the sales of Mr Laposse’s Totomoxtle work, and the villagers eat the corn that is actually grown.
The project got the attention of the CIMYYT seed bank, which donated seeds that were suited to the soil in the village. The final part of the puzzle was when chef Mr Israel Loyola came on board. His high-end restaurant, Jacinto 1930 in San Miguel de Allende, is committed to buying all the surplus grain from the village so that a stable, sustainable economy can be developed. The families that Mr Laposse works with have now chosen to grow native corn exclusively.
The Beazley Designs of the Year award shortlisted Totomoxtle and the work was exhibited at the London Design Museum