New York City’s annual International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) has long been the launching pad for some of the biggest stars in contemporary design—it’s where Vitra collaborators Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec began, as well as Barber Osgerby, who is currently designing the 2012 Olympic torch. At this year’s event, held in May, a new player took center stage: the charismatic Mexican-born, L.A.–based designer Sami Hayek, and his new home furnishings collection, Espacio. Hayek is no stranger to the limelight—his older sister is the blindingly beautiful and talented actress Salma Hayek, and he’s been working as an environmental designer for years (projects have included everything from building middle-income housing in Tijuana, Mexico, to creating a concept of a private jet for Bentley). But with Espacio, Hayek, 38, realized a long-awaited dream: a line of high-quality, innovative furniture that celebrates and helps sustain the local communities and traditions that informed his designs.
Growing up in Coatzacoalcos, a small, industrial port city in Veracruz, Mexico, Hayek quickly grew interested in local craftsmanship and figuring out the way things worked. “I was curious about the ability of the Mexicans to find a solution to problems with no tools or resources,” he says. “I’d take things apart to see how they were made and then try to put them back together.” Although he lived in a beautiful contemporary home with his sister and parents (his father, also Sami, was a successful businessman and his mother, Diana, an opera singer), Hayek’s childhood was simple and idyllic. “I didn’t own a key to my house because it was never locked,” he says. “It was that kind of place”—a place where the milkman made deliveries on horseback and fishermen came to the kitchen door every night with the catch of the day. Years later, it’s clear that the contrast between his family’s modern lifestyle and the town’s traditional community plays an important role in his work.
Although the Espacio collection features some strictly contemporary pieces, like carbon fiber and acrylic chairs in sculptural shapes, many of Hayek’s most striking designs were inspired by the black clay marbles he played with as a little boy. Made out of barro negro—a rich, slate-colored clay that can be found only in Mexico’s Oaxaca region—his aptly named Barro Negro series encompasses everything from casserole dishes and serving bowls to intricately carved side tables and 12-foot-long dining room tables, all created out of an ancestral pottery technique. Hayek partnered with Oaxaca master potter José Luis Garcia to finesse this complicated procedure, which consists of baking the pieces in wood-burning ovens to cook the clay using a smoke process instead of a finishing glaze. (A smooth stone is rubbed on the surface to create the glaze.) The two were able to revolutionize the manufacturing process, making the material refined enough for serving food and strong enough to be used for furniture. They also formed a collective that trains local families to make the pottery, allowing them to support themselves while furthering an ancient tradition—an idea that’s paramount to the entire Espacio line. “My idea is to work with Mexican communities to honor their craft and incorporate them into my pieces,” Hayek says, “while paying them wages with which they can quickly better their lives.”
Hayek also turned to Oaxaca craftsmen for his Berna rug, which is handwoven from indigenous, naturally-dyed coconut palm leaves. Created by a family that produces woven palm-leaf hats by trade, the design is composed of interconnecting oblong circles that yield an abstract pattern. And a partnership with the Huichol community in Mexico’s Michoacan region provided the exquisite beadwork found on Hayek’s Mestizo credenza and mirror frame. Each glass bead is hand-laid using age-old Huichol patterns that, when applied to, say, a bright orange painted wooden credenza, feel invigorating and fresh. The process is so labor-intensive, Hayek can develop only about 12 pieces of furniture a year.
But he doesn’t draw all his inspiration from Mexico. The Damas rug is made out of handwoven silk and New Zealand wool by three women in Nepal, while the Ceniza furniture collection is made of reclaimed wood found in barns throughout the midwestern United States. Mixed with natural leathers, thick, textured fabrics and polished steel, the beds, nightstands and bookcases have the weathered look of items that were passed down through a family for generations.
Hayek’s looking forward, too, with plans to open freestanding stores in L.A., Miami, Mexico City and São Paulo, Brazil, in the next year. But he will continue to collaborate with traditional artisans on future collections. His latest project is in the Mexican state of Jalisco, where he is working with a family that carves volcanic stone. “I have always been bothered by the idea of just trying to design another pretty chair,” Hayek says. “I’m more interested in designing experiences than creating styles, and I will continue to fold these stories into whatever forms I can.”
Furniture prices start at $400 and serveware from $175. Hayek’s pieces can be purchased at his Los Angeles studio at 928 N. Fairfax Ave. For more information, call 323-645-6945 or go to espaciosamihayek.com.
Sami Hayek’s Standouts
The stories behind some of our favorite pieces from the Espacio collection.
Damas Rug: Hand-woven out of silk and wool by three women in Nepal, each rug takes three months to complete. Although abstract at first glance, the pattern is based on the silhouette of the female body. $20,000.
270 Chair: Available in metal, carbon fiber or acrylic, these sculptural contemporary chairs are some of the few pieces made entirely at Hayek’s L.A. studio. From $1,500.
Barro Negro Side Table: Craftsmen hand-carve the intricate design—based on traditional Mexican flower and sun patterns—into each piece before baking the clay using the old-world barro negro pottery technique. $4,000.
Barro Negro Piggy Bank: The first time Hayek ever made a profit was playing with barro negro marbles as a boy, so he created this piece as a playful nod to one of his favorite childhood memories. $500.
Mestizo Credenza: The complicated beaded pattern is meticulously hand-laid by Huichol artisans using ancestral methods from the 16th century; the high-gloss lacquer gives it a modern finishing touch. $24,000. —Amanda Friedman