Liliana Ovalle

This week, inspired by New Territories, an exhibition of contemporary Latin American design at New York's Museum of Arts and Design, we're delving into outstanding designers and projects from the region. To start things off, we spoke with Mexican-born, London-based designer Liliana Ovalle about her Sinkhole Vessels, a collaborative project between Ovalle and Oaxaca's 1050° Ceramics Collective, which is included in the new MAD show. Born of Ovalle's fascination with the geological phenomenon of sinkholes, and alluding to the tenuous future of traditional crafts, the series features morphed clay vessels suspended from wooden frames. We chatted with Ovalle this week about the exhibition and her work.

Designer Liliana Ovalle Designer Liliana Ovalle

Inside Ovalle's London studio Inside Ovalle's London studio

AC: What's your impression of the New Territories show?

LO: The show gives a great picture of the diversity of design practices in Latin America, but, at the same time, it gives evidence of a common feeling. We share a history that is embedded in our vision of the world, and the complexities we face nowadays are similar. It is very interesting to see how parallel themes—from materials and colors to political concerns—are addressed in different ways.

AC: What did it mean to you personally to be involved?

LO: I think the show can have an important [impact] on the way Latin American design is known and perceived; it is a great pleasure to be part of it. One of the most satisfying experiences for me was to meet again with the ceramists who made the vases at the museum during the opening. They came all the way from their community in Oaxaca. The last time we met was over a year ago when we were firing the ceramic pieces in their backyard, and they hadn’t seen the finished pieces yet. It was really gratifying to share the pride in their work, especially since the practice of vernacular ceramics in Oaxaca, as many other crafts, faces big challenges to subsist as it is entangled to a very complex social context.

Ovalle and the ceramists in Oaxaca Ovalle and ceramists in Oaxaca

Oaxacan ceramists prepare vessels Oaxacan ceramists prepare vessels

firing the vessels Firing the vessels

AC: For those less familiar, please describe the Sinkhole project.

LO: Sinkhole Vessels is a series of ceramic pieces that references the geological phenomena of sinkholes. The black vessels stand as a representation of these underground spaces that suddenly open to the surface. Each vessel is suspended in a wooden frame, alluding to a cross section of the ground that reveals hidden topographies. The clay shapes, which reference local archetypes for utilitarian pottery, are crafted by local ceramists from Tlapazola, Oaxaca.

Ovalle's sketches Ovalle's sketches

sketches and material research Sketches and material research

AC: Describe your experience working with Colectivo 1050° on this project.

LO: When I approached Colectivo to make the Sinkholes, I had certain presumptions of the work that we would produce, but it was not until I got to know more about the richness of the traditional ceramics of Oaxaca that the project took final shape. Colectivo 1050°, founded by Kythzia Barrera, has done extensive research into local ceramics and has established working relationships with many indigenous communities over the years. They gave me access to the richness and complexity of their local ceramics, and the project evolved through a mutual understanding of the type of work and skills [available] from both sides. There is a notion that design can rescue or rediscover crafts, but through this collaboration, for me, it is evident that as designers we have a lot to learn.

Finished vessels in Oaxaca Finished vessels in Oaxaca

AC: How would you describe the connective thread throughout all your work?

LO: My work is very diverse in terms of materiality and making processes, but behind each project there is a continuous thread of inquiry. Most of my designs are driven by a narrative or an insight, which becomes the guiding principle to explore an aesthetic or material. These insights can be related to observations of a context— many times they go back to my Mexican background—or to scenarios or events that prompt certain ambiguity, such as sinkholes or meteorite crashes.

AC: Do you have plans to work with Colectivo again?

LO: I am working on a new body of work that focuses on the open fire process as a way of achieving different tones and gradients in clay. The techniques used amongst the Oaxacan ceramicists rely on the skills and knowledge of the artisans as the tools, and resources are extremely basic. There is a very direct contact with the materials —the clay is sourced locally and the right temperature and timing of the fire is almost felt by instinct. The new designs I am working will play with these aspects of the production process, particularly in the firing stage.

AC: What's next for you?


LO: Now I am preparing for a show at Maison&Objet that will take place in January 2015. I am doing a series of metal objects that unfold to reveal different layers of color and light. For a long time I have been interested folding objects, and recently I had the chance to see Lygia Clark’s metallic Bichos (Creatures) at a show at the Royal Academy. I think there will be some influence from her in these new works.

Ovalle's Sinkhole Vessels Ovalle's completed Sinkhole Vessels

Thanks so much, Liliana!

New Territories: Laboratories for Design, Craft, and Art in Latin America is on view now through April 6th at the MAD museum in New York.

 All images courtesy of Liliana Ovalle. Process photos © Kythzia Barrera.