By Mario Ballesteros
Instead of underlining the intelligent use of resources, the English word resourcefulness, -from the French resoursse (to recover, to resurface), which in turn, comes from the Latin surgere or to rise-, translates into Spanish as ingenious or inventive: an imaginative ability to create from nothing. This change of direction emphasizes the creative genius, the intellectual effort, the immaterial, yet leaves something out: the process itself, which seems to emerge by magic or by the Holy Spirit. Instead, the word resourcefulness has a lot to do with skill and earthly pragmatism, of producing a lot from very little, here and now.
During the brief but intense career of young but well-seasoned Fabien Cappello, this material inventiveness has been the leitmotif of a personal and professional exploration that led him from his native Paris to a strange personal journey that has touched bases in Lausanne, London and Mexico City.
Fabien arrived in London in 2007, months before the global financial meltdown that took umbrage with the UK, to study at the Royal College of Art (RCA), attracted by Martino Gamper and Jurgen Bay. “I moved to London because of Martino. I was studying at the Ecole Cantonale d’Art de Lausanne (ECAL) in Switzerland and Gamper was scheduled to give a conference. I was so intrigued by his energy, that I approached him after the conference and asked him where he taught. That same night, I decided to enroll in the RCA. “At that moment, Gamper perfectly embodied the spirit of resourcefulness that seduced Fabien from the very beginning. “Martino was still super young; he didn’t have many famous clients or take on large projects with big budgets, like he does now. His thing back then was to be resourceful with what he had... During the conference he spoke of projects that didn’t involve money at all... This idea fascinated me.”
The city was going through a critical time, where resourcefulness was not only a creative tool, but also a survival strategy. “I came to London a year before the crisis. People who graduated a few years before me experienced public institutions or big brands injecting large sums of money into their projects. Suddenly, we realized that once school was over we wouldn’t necessarily have the same opportunities.” During those years, young students, -especially designers or creatives-, had to find other ways of doing things. Sharing work spaces and tools with friends, bartering or exchanging help. (Sharing economy without digital disruption, before it became a euphemism for the generation of precariousness.)
During the summer of 2011, economic difficulties and political and racial tensions escalated to the extent that the looting and riots rocked several areas of the British capital, bringing to mind the images of conflict and urban decay that took place during the seventies. As it happened back then, amid frustration and disaster, London reasserted itself as an epicenter of alternative culture. But instead of Derek Jarman films or songs by the Sex Pistols, creative dissent began to strain the work of the new design promises of London like Max Lamb, Bethan Laura Wood, Tomas Alonso, Philippe Malouin and, of course, Fabien Cappello. “I don’t know if I can compare that time with something I never lived (the London punk scene of the seventies and eighties). What we thought and felt was that it was a time when things were changing. London has always been a city where things can be reinvented: it is a place that lets you be yourself. Perhaps that makes it punk in a sense: that in the face of adversity or political hardness, a beautiful movement where everyone could afford to be anything, and say what they meant was created.”
In terms of design, experimental production focused on the development and enhancement of low cost materials and technologies and hyper-local production. Cappello’s Christmas Tree Project represents this stage of his professional life very well. The project began by asking what truly local raw materials were available. Each January, about 2 million Christmas trees flood the streets of London after the holidays. Fabien decided to convert this waste material into unique pieces of furniture with basic micro-fabrication techniques. “The trees were a resource that could be easily accessed by anyone: people simply tossed them out on the street, hundreds of thousands of trees. I started gathering these trees, drying the wood, demonstrating how I could transform material that was not necessarily beautiful nor had any special qualities about it into something valuable.” The project was wildly successful, and ended up on display in one of London’s most prestigious design galleries: Libby Sellers. But above all, everything was representative of a Fabien’s life and his experience of London at the time: “London was our territory, we wanted to produce design in London for London, the city itself became a project for local radical design.”
The idea of the city itself as a design project resonates much in the Streetscape project, carried out with support from Stanley Picker Gallery, for the dreary Kingston district. Cappello decided to create a series of colorful and playful prototypes of street furniture, adaptations that soften and activate (some would say “humanize”) the existing infrastructure: bike racks, bollards, painted stools, small support tables, planters, signage seats, landfills. They are all almost imperceptible, harmless objects, which improve our experience of moving, working and living in the city. These small and innocent adaptations encourage the subtle appropriation of urban space, with the ease and comfort and familiarity of a walk home, occupying the street with a sense of security and belonging.
Over the years, the same reasons that made London a magnet for Cappello, who is still considered a “London designer,” eventually became the reasons that pushed him to leave a decade later. “I think 10 years was enough. My friends here claim I’m one of the first Brexit victims, because I came to Mexico days before. The truth is, I’d already been contemplating leaving London over the last few years, just like many of my designer friends and other creatives. The city has become ridiculously expensive. I’ve never wanted to work to pay for rent, I’ve always needed to work and have free time to learn, take time with my own projects and just have some time to waste in general. All this became an impossible luxury in London.“
He came to Mexico City on vacation for a few weeks, and was hooked. According to him, he had a kind of epiphany walking down Article 123 Street downtown, among hardware and auto parts stores. “Walking down the street I felt a tingling sensation all over. The truth is, that I found a poor reason to move here. Really? You had a vision of living in Mexico City so you’re going to do it? There was nothing I could do about it. Mexico had me conquered.”
It had a lot to do with the material culture of Mexico, the weight of crafts and small industry that persists in the city. Family workshops still running on knowledge passed along from generation to generation, tacit knowledge rather than professional training; where people think more with their hands, less with their head. Where design is intuitive and visceral and less strict or abstract.
Now that he’s lived here for a few months, Fabien realizes that many of his expectations were wrong. But he doesn’t take this the wrong way: on the contrary, he’s grateful to have a more complete and complex perspective of what the city offers, in terms of inspiration and creative learning. “What I never expected of Mexico City was to be surprised every day, but it happens every single time I go out and encounter something that blows my mind: something amazing to eat, shops and fascinating objects, interesting people. There are thousands of interesting things, though perhaps not so many interesting designers.“
This lack of interest in the contemporary local design scene has led him to dig more in the unknown history of tropicalized modernism and in informal and vernacular production. Both have been a discovery for him: “I’m learning a lot. Something I find amazing, is the peculiar version of modernism that exists in Mexico, all these examples of art and architecture that nobody knows in Europe. We know a bit about Barragan and Legorreta… That’s about it. We know nothing about all these decades of production and amazing buildings. This has been one of the best surprises. Designers here are looking in all the wrong places, they are watching and trying to emulate what happened in Europe or New York 10 or 15 years ago. It’s nice to know what happened in the rest of the world, but there are so many interesting things going on here in Mexico, that remain as relevant to practice design in this country. The problem here is that design is still conceived as a way of being cool (or doing business), research is poor, context is lacking sensitivity. There’s a flaw in the vision and the true vocation of a designer: to create a new, significant material environment for the future”.
For the time being, Fabien’s future is in Mexico, where he has already begun to explore new ideas and, after a few months of rest, research and drift, is landing new projects and collaborations. “In London I was dry and Mexico has restored my energy, it relit my inner fire. I’m not sure how much I understand of the country and the city, but I do not worry too much: my job in the end is always very personal... Why Mexico? I don’t know, it’s just so beautiful. I think many people move to strange place or change life because they fall in love with someone. Instead, I fell in love with a place. I’m sure it won’t be forever, –just like a relationship-, but I’m here now, and I’m happy. I’m not too worried about tomorrow, I want to stay here for a couple of years and then we’ll see.”
“All the furniture you can find in the San Cosme market is made by the same blacksmith. Hector M. owns a small shop on Serapio Rendon street, where he has produced all the furniture for the market, along with a variety of other metal works. From gates to air-extraction systems. The furniture has a wonderful almost archetypal language to it, but each piece is adapted precisely to its needs. Although the finished parts can be a bit rough, it is easy to appreciate the extreme beauty of their structure and proportion.”