In 2006, the industrial designer Laura Noriega left her hometown of Guadalajara to study in Milan, intending never to come back. The art scene in Mexico’s second-largest metropolitan area had been growing for a decade, but Noriega found the design community stagnant, disconnected from the rich artisanal traditions still practiced throughout the region. Two years later, though, she changed her mind. “I started visiting markets and workshops and realized I didn’t know Mexico,” she says. Noriega ended up forging a new professional path by approaching her culture with a curiosity and desire for knowledge she didn’t have when she left.
Noriega is one of many artists and architects, designers and illustrators, who returned home around that time after leaving to pursue their trades elsewhere, tapping into the wealth of craft they had, for years, overlooked. Today, she and her brand Tributo, which produces housewares with craftspeople scattered throughout central Mexico, is part of an expanding community of makers transforming Guadalajara into a hub for design.
Throughout the 20th century, Guadalajara produced some of the leading lights of Mexican art, from the muralist José Clemente Orozco, whose fiery work makes Rivera look mannered, to Luís Barragán, whose architectural style became shorthand for the country’s modernist aesthetic. But most left Guadalajara to advance their careers. In the early 2000s, many of the city’s young creatives did the same, though there were exceptions: The sisters Julia and Renata Franco started their fashion line, Julia y Renata, out of their parents’ garage in 1993, around the same time that José Noe Suro started to produce work for contemporary artists at his family’s ceramic studio, Cerámica Suro. Still, says the designer and artist Aldo Álvarez Tostado, who moved to Guadalajara in 2005, “the boom you see now, that didn’t exist 15 years ago.”
In 2013, Álvarez Tostado created a cooperative called Occidente to bring together the homegrown talent. That year, the cooperative’s 12 design firms mounted a stall at the first Abierto Mexicano de Diseño design fair in Mexico City, challenging perceptions of Guadalajara as a provincial place. Yet it’s precisely that small-town atmosphere—despite a metro-area population pushing six million—that’s made Guadalajara so attractive to creatives who have returned. Within a few hours of the city, Álvarez Tostado works with stonemasons to carve bold, graphic skull pots for his brand Piedrafuego, products he sells from a workshop in the city’s historic center. Noriega, who keeps an elegant showroom in the leafy Colonia Lafayette, works with the ceramist Ángel Santos in the village of Tonalá to produce burnished-clay mezcaleros, while Luis Cárdenas and Melissa Aldrete create experimental ceramics for their brand Popdots using techniques they’ve learned in traditional workshops.
“What interested us about being here was doing instead of just designing,” says Cárdenas. Guadalajara, he says, “lets you live at the pace the materials demand.” Access to traditions and the time to understand them, says the graphic artist Rocca Luis César, “opens a space for experimentation.”
Ultimately, it’s collaboration that sets Guadalajara’s design scene apart. Many creatives open their workspaces to visitors who contact them via Instagram. Frequent pop-ups bring together curated collections from the city’s best designers. And shops like Viento México and Chamu Hecho a Mano blur the lines between craft, design, and art, disciplines that have been artificially siloed for too long. “At the end of the day, these boundaries are porous,” says Álvarez Tostado. “We’re the same community.”
This article appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler