The trend for Mexican-inspired interiors is exploding
With a nod to Frida Kahlo and distinctive embroidery, interiors just got hot, strong and spicy
'We do not mess with the Mexican women!" says Kate Clark emphatically. "They're quite stern and they set their own prices. We do what they tell us to." She's one half of Montes & Clark, an English producer of homeware made from handcrafted Mexican textiles. The other half is her school friend, Lucy Montes de Oca. Their business is based on a shared passion for Mexican textiles and embroidery, and all their homeware sold online is made in Mexico by co-operatives led by women.
Unsurprisingly, the first things that strike you about these textiles are the colours. They're fresh, bright, vibrant and combined in a way that an Irish designer wouldn't do in a month of Sundays. But then, we wouldn't cook chicken with chocolate and chilli either.
"There's something in them that allows them to work in many colours," Clark explains. "They can do it in a way that we couldn't do. I thought that people here would be too conservative to buy such bright colours, but they're actually very popular."
Once you get beyond the brightness, the craftsmanship of the pieces is superb. It's also highly culturally specific. An Otomi embroidery cushion (from around €50 to €179) has been made by a collective of indigenous Otomi women living in the mountains in central Mexico. The designs are lively - mythical creatures romping amid symbolic flowers - but it's a labour-intensive technique. A single throw could take three months to make.
Otomi is an old technique that was revived and commercialised in the 1960s after a devastating drought. "The women adapted their traditional embroidery techniques into a design that could be produced relatively quickly and taken to market," says Clark, explaining that the making process is shared between the women who draw the designs and those who embroider the cloth.
"When we visited Pahuatlan del Valle to meet some of these embroidery women, we were told of a local cave which inspired the designs. The caves feature paintings of mythical creatures." Mexican artisans naturally gravitate towards hot, strong, spicy colours but some of the textiles at Montes & Clark are in the paler, subtler colours that these islands seem to prefer. "The Mexican women are very clever. They don't understand why we want greys and creams and golds, but they understand that work made in these colours will sell. Normally, they want to work in multicolours."
As well as the distinctive Otomi embroidery, Montes & Clark also sell woven products, made on a back-strap loom by women living around San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas. The portable loom is tied around a weaver's waist and then around a tree to achieve tension. It's not a million miles away from the Irish tradition of críos weaving, but the motifs are based on the symbols of Mayan culture. A back-strap woven table cloth would cost between €145 and €245, depending on the level of decorative detail.
So far, so niche. Then, over the past year, the trend for Mexican-inspired interiors exploded in a kind of design tsunami. Most people blame Frida Kahlo.
Kahlo (1907-1954) was a Mexican artist, painter of powerful, fantastical, autobiographical paintings. Her work is amazing but she's probably more famous for superficial things, like making a unibrow and a moustache look cool. Now, an exhibition of her clothing and belongings - Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up - is showing at the V&A in London. It's inspired a massive amount of homeware.
"What would Frida Kahlo's kitchen look like?" muses Helen James, designer of the Considered range of homeware for Dunnes. "Soft tones of rose pink and deep yellows with wooden utensils, striped kitchen textiles and baskets hanging on the walls." In real life, Helen James' seagrass baskets with Mexican-inspired patterns cost between €15 and €100; wooden utensils between €5 and 12; and a striped apron or oven glove costs €10.
Meanwhile, DFS is using Frida Kahlo to sell sofas. "We are all a little in love with Frida Kahlo and Mexico at the moment," runs the strapline to the Salsa sofa (€1,079), a characterful piece of furniture upholstered in red with back, sides, and front trim in a Mexican inspired pattern. The range also includes an accent chair (€499) and an oval footstool (€249).
There are also any number of cushions embroidered with Frida Kahlo's beautiful face, most notably the Jan Constantine's tropical Frida Kahlo Cushion (€174 from Amara). I'm not going off on a feminist rant here, but did you ever see a cushion with Picasso's face on it? You can buy Picasso cushions in The Conran Shop (€111), but their designs are based on his paintings, not his face. On the other hand, Kahlo did a lot of self-portraits and most of her paintings have so much detail they wouldn't work on a cushion.
In the world of wallpaper and upholstery fabrics, Andrew Martin's Hacienda collection is "inspired by patterns from the Mayan heritage, animal motifs, like the myriad birds you can see in the Chiapas jungle region, and greens from the agave plants used to make mescal." Hacienda fabric starts around €45 per metre; wallpaper from €65 per roll. And Hannah Bowen, designer for Scion, describes her new Nuevo collection of wallpaper and fabric as "heavily influenced by Mexican and South American designs". Mexican-inspired design is everywhere. Lovely stuff, most of it. But it's worth making a distinction between homeware with a Mexican flavour, and companies like Montes & Clarke whose produce is actually made in Mexico. Because, what with Trump's border wall and all, the Mexicans could use a bit of solidarity. Even if they did beat us in show jumping.
See: montesandclark.co.uk; dunnesstores.com, dfs.ie, amara.com. For stockists see Andrew Martin stockists see andrewmartin.co.uk and stylelibrary.com for Scion.