Designers Alexander Díaz Andersson and Julian Mayor on the aesthetic rise of Mexico and the importance of craftsmanship (even in the metaverse)

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When Swedish designer Alexander Díaz Andersson moved to Mexico 14 years ago, he had only planned to live there temporarily. Fast forward to today: Andersson is the Founder and Creative Director of ATRA, a furniture studio based in Mexico City, his adopted home. Over the years he has become an integral part of the country’s emergence on the global design scene, his pieces combining the minimalism of Swedish design with a maximalist Mexican aesthetic.

Andersson calls this the “techno” element of his practice, something he shares with the British designer. Julien the mayor, which usually works with sheet metal. Mayor’s hallmark is the fusion of a highly technical computer design process with convenient soldering and craftsmanship, and his pieces have a certain sparkle. While Mayor has mainly worked in the UK and US, a recent visit to Mexico City inspired him in a new way.

Speaking for the first time, the designers shared with Artnet News their mutual admiration for traditional craftsmanship, how Mexico has inspired their recent projects in collaboration with Maestro Dobel Tequila – for the mayor, an eight foot long bar at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2019; for Díaz Andersson, a Maestro Dobel Artpothecary furniture project at this year’s show Miami design, where ATRA received the award for “best performing” and “a sense of soul,” says Díaz Andersson, who permeates their work.

Alexandre diaz andersson.
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Julien the mayor and Alexander Diaz Andersson.
Courtesy of the designers.

What is the story behind each of your decisions to pursue a creative career?

Julien Maire (JM): I have always liked to create things with my hands. My father was a carpentry teacher. I have two brothers and we spent time doing things [with him] like kids like skateboards and ramps.

Alexander Diaz Andersson (ADA): I was going to study finance, but my girlfriend [at the time] thought it was a bad idea. She really pushed me to study design. My grandparents were in the furniture industry, my mother was in the furniture industry, and then my family started consulting for IKEA in the United States. [this work].

I never thought I was going to be a designer, to be honest. It took me 10 years, but I got a little obsessed with woodworking, metals, and how materials work. And all of a sudden, 10 years have passed. It turned into a real career at the end.

What do you think are the most pressing or interesting aspects of design right now, and how do you approach them in your work?

JM: I have always been interested in the rational, geometric and scientific approach to the creation of an object. Computers are something I use as a digital sketchbook and the starting point to create an object.

But then also, for me, the job of doing things by hand is very important. So my job is [those] two contrasting elements.

And I see that in [your] work, Alexandre. I really like the detail and the patina of [it].

Mayor designed a bar with Maestro Dobel, inspired by Mexican agave.  Courtesy of the designer.

Mayor designed a bar with Maestro Dobel, inspired by Mexican agave. Courtesy of the designer.

ADA: So I think I share this with a little [you]—This combination of 3D design and engineering with traditional methods and know-how. Even if you have this more mathematical approach, you still have … I don’t know if we [can] call it imperfection, but the soul of human hands is implemented in the product.

JM: The element of luck comes into play when doing things by hand.

ADA: I also think that the most urgent – apart from the design aspect -[is] that sense of sustainability. This is something we have to deal with at the end of the day. I use wood; I use stone; I use a lot of things. And my business is not very efficient. But i see [a] quality product or object intended to be transmitted [as] another [type] durability, something that lasts a very, very long time.

In my home in Sweden, I grew up with my grandmother’s furniture and her grandmother’s. It is this idea that something can be learned: the lives of different families, lifestyles and experiences.

JM: I think making things sustainable is difficult, and it is an urgent matter. I don’t do a lot of things, and all the things I do, I do by hand—[which] obviously limits the number of parts I can make.

ADA: We’re at a point right now where I feel like we’re living in a very archaic system. There is so much going on: technology is growing exponentially; you have this whole blockchain thing going on; [everything] with the metaverse. So inside this universe [as] we are becoming more technological, I think the work that we do is becoming scarce. There are a lot less artisans. There are easier ways to make money. I think these objects and this kind of work [are] will become even rarer in the future.

We have this great opportunity to bring these works [into] this kingdom. I think this is the way to become relevant, but also to find more sustainable models to create, build and grow.

One of Díaz Andersson's ATRA designs, the Oberon Mach II sofa.  Courtesy of ATRA.

One of Díaz Andersson’s ATRA designs, the Oberon Mach II sofa. Courtesy of ATRA.

What do you think is the most imperative factor in maintaining a career in the arts?

JM: I think I maintain a passion for your work. This is something that I have.

And then building an audience for your work is very important. Because sometimes when you make coins, you’re not just making coins for yourself. It’s like a collective dream in a way: you’re trying to create something that people are going to react to.

ADA: It took me a long time to acquire a language that I felt belonged to me. It was a lot of work in a bubble for many years before it came out. And I was so focused on woodworking, and I worked in a workshop for so many years, that when I [tried to come] with something attractive, [there] was a big disconnect [between that and] what people wanted or were looking for.

JM: I feel like [that’s something] we have in common. You have a strong design language, and it’s very clear. My experience with your work is that it’s sort of fancy and elegant, but there is also a touch of punk rock to it.

My work is not so elegant; maybe it’s a little more punk rock – y. But you certainly have that element in your job, Alexander, that kind of a rule-breaking challenge.

ADA: That’s great-[funny] that you say that, because when something is too polite or too perfect, like I have to give it [grit and] character.

Maestro Dobel at this year's Design Miami.  Courtesy of Maestro Dobel.

Maestro Dobel at Design Miami. Courtesy of Maestro Dobel.

What attracted each of you to Mexico? Why is this a successful framework for your artistic production?

JM: I recently worked with Dobel. My inspiration for the project was agave – I designed a sculpture based on [the] plant, and he progressed into a bar. I went to Mexico to get the vibe and loved it.

I stayed with a friend who lives there. We [did] the Dobel Tequila experience. It was a kind of virtual tasting, but there [were] also VR glasses and stuff. It was crazy. It was great.

It really opened my eyes.

ADA: I moved to Mexico 14 years ago when my family moved from Sweden to Mexico. And I’m kind of stuck here. I had no intention of staying — he [just] somehow happened.

It is a very generous country. And it is very fertile. Everything is new. When I started in design, there weren’t a lot of players on stage. Everyone was buying the Italian, or German, or Swiss, or Swedish, or Danish designer, but they certainly weren’t buying Mexican designs. It was like 10 years in a non-existent industry.

What was like a desert today becomes a [global] design reference. We are still very far geographically from [other] design [hubs], but I have the impression that the Internet and social networks [us] closer every day. Even so, there’s a very strong value proposition coming from Mexico — very distinct DNA, and it’s very cool to be a part of it.

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