Takeover Tuesday: Exploring the cultural roots of colour and pattern in everyday Mexico design
The blog explores the influences from ancient civilizations, Spanish colonialism, natural dyes, and contemporary designers, reflecting Mexico's rich and lively cultural heritage.
As well as teaching me a bit of basic Spanish, two weeks in Mexico’s southern state of Oaxaca showed me great food, friendly locals, beautiful architecture and a wealth of colour and pattern. I was enamoured by many elements of everyday life there. I found a visual richness woven through the fabric of daily life, in everything from architecture to textiles, vibrancy was at the heart of so many parts of life and design. I decided to explore the cultural origins of the colours and patterns that define this captivating place.
Mexico is rich in cultures and heritage which can be seen throughout the country. Influence from Ancient Aztec and Mayan cultures is strong, as well as more recent Spanish influences. Fortunately, traditional ancient crafts, colours and patterns were not consumed by these cultures and in some areas external influences even enhanced native Mexican design.
For instance, colonial Spanish buildings would be decorated in the bright colours of Mexican stucco buildings. Stucco is an ancient technique used by Aztecs and Mayans where a limestone-based stucco is mixed with resin extracted from chukum trees. Applied to buildings, this keeps the interiors cool in the heat, as well as creating a smooth natura finish. It has now developed into a building technique still used today, where bright colours are generally painted onto stuccowork buildings. Towns and cities in Mexico, such as Puebla and Oaxaca City, have streets lined with multiple vibrant colours – bright greens, yellows, pinks, oranges – contrasting with the bright blue sky. The vision of Hispanic-style buildings in bright colours creates a stunning intertwining of cultures.
Another interesting element of colour seen in Mexico is the use of natural dyes in textiles and pottery decorating. For traditional craftsmanship, natural dyes are created using a variety of fruits, fruit peels, leaves and even pests! On cacti, a small pest called cochineal can live. Surprisingly, since the pest is white, the cochineal produces a bright red dye. Remarkably, whole cacti farms are grown specifically to infect with the cochineal so they can be reared for the use of natural dyes.
Traditional crafters use natural dyes and hand looms to create beautiful, intricate textile patterns. Textiles in Mexico hold a lot of cultural significance as, in years gone by, patterns could relate to many elements of life, including the community you were part of or even a marker of your social status. Weaving, embroidery, and the making of natural dyes are traditional skills that are passed from generation to generation and the continuation of these skills is incredibly important culturally.
Specific colours also have major symbolism within Mexican culture. For example, one of the strongest and most forthright colours is the yolk yellow/orange of the marigold flower. This colour’s importance in the country has grown from the national holiday Dia de Los Muertos (AKA Day of the Dead). Dia de los Muertos is a celebratory occasion in Mexico running from midnight on the 31st of October to midnight on the 2nd of November. The concept of this time is that lost ones can crossover from the after world to visit their loved ones. Rather than being a morbid and sad occasion, this is a celebratory, festive time to spend with family and friends remembering loved ones at their graves.
The vibrant colour and strong smell of the marigold flower is used to lead the dead back to the living world. Around this celebratory period, marigolds decorate graves, buildings, shops and even food - any surface available! I was visiting for two weeks around this time, and it was hard to turn a corner without coming across buckets of beautiful orange marigolds. The colour is fully symbolic and intertwined with Dia de Los Muertos.
Contemporary designers are also catapulting colour, pattern and tradition into modern Mexican design too. Mural artists bring traditional colours, patterns and icons to street art, creating contemporary local showpieces. Architects are also embracing traditional stucco mix and colour to create stunning contemporary architecture- an example is Heryco Studio, who transformed an existing apartment building with stucco and colour.
In summary, Mexico’s use of colour throughout everyday life and design not only reflects the cultural heritage and traditions of the country, but the lively, fun personality of the country.