INSIDE THE MAGICAL ARTIST RETREAT OF MÉRIDA WITH DESIGNER LAURA KIRAR

May 15, 2019

In Mérida, Mexico it seems everyone has a story about how they first arrived in the ancient, sun-soaked Yucatan capital, famous for its crumbly Mayan ruins and airy colonial haciendas. For designer Laura Kirar it was a friend’s birthday party that first made the introduction. “After that experience I became enchanted with the culture, the history, and the old architecture,” she says, “including its exciting potential for restoration and redesign.”

Although she hadn’t necessarily been looking for an artists’ retreat, Kirar, a New Yorker, immediately saw the potential in Mérida. Having spent the past three decades developing product for powerhouse brands like McGuire, Baker, and Arteriors, Kirar saw Mérida as a place where she could unplug and focus on her own personal creative endeavors for a change.

Not long after committing to the idea of Mérida, she and husband Richard Frazier purchased a 17th Century hacienda there. “Engulfed in jungle, there was no roof, no floor, no windows. It was a big beautiful, romantic Moorish ruin with trees growing in the middle of derelict rooms. No truly sane person would have taken this on!” she says. Simultaneously, Kirar began partnering with local Mexican artisans to create her own personal line of goods. The products, which include everything from hand-poured candles to copper sculpture, fuse the craft traditions of Mexico with modern American design. “The idea is simple,” she says, “Make a product that has a great story and real history.”

To learn more about Kirar’s ongoing endeavors, we recently sat down with the awarded designer to discuss how Mérida is inspiring her these days, including its increasing pull as a design destination, and the fascinating hand-crafts she’s working one-on-one with the Mexican people to resurrect.

Laura Kirar in Mérida.

Can you tell us a bit about what’s happening creatively in Merida right now?
Merida is having a creative renaissance at the moment. While there have been “artists” living and in retirement here for a long time, I do think there is a new international wave. There’s a growing mix of visual artists and musicians and a handful of gallerists who I consider cutting-edge, who now have outposts here as well as in Mexico City and Europe. Yet, much of the “scene” still feels very underground, and I think that understated aspect is appealing to people who have traveled all over the world and are not easily impressed. Those of us who are here, are looking for quietness and escape, and this uniquely-filtered Yucatecan bubble allows us the ability to work, think, and exchange ideas with people who are doing the same.

A few years ago you embarked on a personal project in which you toured Mexico to learn from regional craftspeople. What inspired this?
What motivated me initially was working on the development of my licensed collections in different countries and seeing the skills and techniques that were being lost. My experiences in workshops in India, Italy, Portugal and China made me realize I was probably watching the last generation of a treasured craft being made. I realized the next generation wasn’t interested in apprenticing and that, as the older generation passed on, no one would be carrying on the techniques. This sat heavily in my mind. 

In Mexico, I see this same condition and I want to see if there is a way I can make new design here. I wanted to utilize those traditional techniques, but with a modern sensibility. The idea was simple: make good design in order to encourage the younger generation to take up traditional arts and crafts, while creating a new product for a new generation of consumers. Luckily, it’s not just me doing this kind of work! There’s a movement out there that I’m pleased to be a part of!

Kirar’s Mérida hacienda.

What’s been one of your favorite materials to work with?  
I have most loved working natural fibers here, including henequen (sisal), sansevieria and jipijapa. I use these materials in combination with glass, metal, leather and wood to create conceptual and functional pieces of lighting, furniture and fashion accessories. The use of these hand-spun, handwoven fabrics and threads in combination with other material techniques adds such a layer of authenticity, I think. It’s a tactile connection to the artisan that you can both see and feel in the objects.

Can you tell us more about what henequen is, exactly?
The henequen or sisal plant matures around the time it is seven years old. Even then, only a small percentage of the arms can be harvested. The arms are hand cut, the inner fibers removed, dried and combed. Next, the henequen material is gathered and evaluated. Artisans select only the longest unbroken strands to dye and weave using the ancient blackstrap loom method. This is how the textile—the front-face—of the LK bag is created.

The henequen plant (left); Harvested, dried, and combed henequen (right)

Speaking of natural fiber art, can you tell us more about how the idea for the totem bag cam about?
In 2013 I was working towards the launch of my third (and Mexico-inspired) collection for Baker Furniture. I wanted to develop a special gift, made in Mexico, for press and clients to celebrate my launch. Through the recommendation of a friend who had worked with artisans making product for Aman Resorts, I was introduced to a group managing indigenous Mayan weavers, who were, for many generations, working in traditional back-strap loom techniques using henequen.

I designed and commissioned a very simple, multi-purpose, bag for men and women. It features my specific thin black/brown stripe and a leather panel back with gold zipper and signature gold-plated elements. It took many tests and samples—over a year—to create my exact weave pattern and establish the quality of the sewing I wanted. During the Baker launch, these special LK bags were as much a hit with the press as my furniture! Since then, Laura Kirar Design has continued to work directly with the weavers and other Mexican workshops to create our new designs by combining this centuries-old sisal weaving technique with our proprietary design details.

Close up of Kirar’s Totem Bag being assembled (left); Kirar with a complete Totem Bag (right)

Beyond henequen, copper is a material that makes frequent appearances in your work. What drew you to copper?
I’ve always worked in metal as a sculptor, but it wasn’t until I began exploring techniques and materials in Mexico that I started making pieces in copper. Copper from Michoacan has such deep history. The way it can be manipulated from a raw ball of material is quick and magical. I love the material properties—the softness and the ability to change the finish easily. The material is forgiving, so the only limitation is the time and skill of the artisans who I collaborate with. I’m lucky to have found people with great skills and also the openness to try my crazy ideas!

Kirar’s “Corazon Espejo,” designed for Design Week Mexico (left); Inside of “Corazon Espejo”(right)

Can you tell us a bit more about your copper Corazon Espejo? It’s such a striking piece.
In 2013 I was asked to speak in Mexico City during DESIGN WEEK MEXICO, and I was invited to show my conceptual work at Museo Tamayo with ten other notable women architects, designers, and artists. At the time I had just started a working relationship with a family of copper artisans in Michoacan. Between Brooklyn and Morelia, we made this piece together! 

The sculpture is a large heart-shaped locket when closed and a mirror revealing abstracted chambers when open. The Corazon piece is about many things: protection, exposure, self-reflection and perception, reality and distortion. The parts of the heart locket were formed from a raw ball of copper that was heated and hand-hammered. The mirror part is a polished plate that was made the same way, from heating and hammering and then polishing. Because of this, it has a perfectly-imperfect surface which gives a slightly distorted reflection. It’s my favorite part of the piece.

Cut copper pieces awaiting assembly (left); A local craftsman hammering copper for a Kirar design (right)

In what ways does designing for yourself differ from designing for a brand?
I would say the design development and emotional process is quite similar, actually—It’s the end result that is miles apart. When I create a collection I really get to know the brand I’m designing for, their DNA, history, their clients. Then I work from sketch to technicals. I know that the point is to speak the language of the client’s audience—to give them what they want.

The process for my artwork is similar in development—sketching to technicals—but now we’re responsible for building the finished pieces. And, perhaps most importantly, I am the client and the language I need to speak is my own. It’s an opportunity to push boundaries, to speak a language that is new. It’s a language that everyone may not immediately understand or perhaps not everyone may like, but I’m totally content with that. The point of making art, for me, is the ability communicate from within—strongly—even if it is idiosyncratic and challenging to people. I’m creating authentic sculptural work that is singularly my point of view, through the lens of my experience.

Kirar’s Fringed Envelope Bag, Loop Keychain, and Passport Holder in LK Signature Stripe

For those interested in your private line, what’s the best way for them to access those items?
My website and also through Instagram, or by contacting my studio directly. (Hmmmm…maybe I should be on DECASO?)

Switching gears to you as an interior designer, what do you love about using DECASO?
What I love about DECASO is the extensive range of amazing design; vintage, antique and contemporary artist/makers to shop. Browsing, I always feel I’m continuing my education as a designer and expanding my palette as a decorator. DECASO showcases furniture and art the way I like to design and live, with a mix of everything incredible in my view and at my fingertips. It’s an incredible resource to be able to access the best product no matter where I’m designing.

What’s next for you?
I am currently working on limited edition functional art pieces for my show with Gallery Maison Gerard in New York City in June. This will be my first show with Maison Gerard and it will include original furniture, lighting and accessory pieces I designed living between Brooklyn and Mérida—a result of the cultural, historical and material influences of my travels and personal research into traditional techniques in the Yucatan and around Mexico.


All photos courtesy of Laura Kirar