Frida Escobedo

Mexico's rising star Frida Escobedo speaks about her architecture and design practice

Frida Escobedo’s office has been recently refurbished. The space in Mexico City’s Juarez district is home to about 20 staff, a team of furniture designers, interior designers and architects that Escobedo has built around her since launching her eponymous company in 2006. “We were beginning to need more space,” she says with characteristic coolness, explaining that the renovation has almost doubled the size of her HQ. With a smile she continues: “It’s been fun choosing how to go about it.”

Escobedo, at just 42 years old, has become one of the most sought-after names in architecture and design over the past half decade, with her Serpentine Pavilion design in London in 2018 helping to launch her into the international limelight. This comes alongside work of all sorts, from creating shop interiors to private furniture commissions and large-scale projects for the public realm. Her recent commission to design the new wing of the MoMA in New York – the contract was granted this year – is a clear indication that her star is due to become a whole lot brighter.

That said, Escobedo is refreshingly un-flashy for a budding starchitect. For instance, during the refurbishment she saw no need to replace the desk she sits behind, a piece of furniture that’s been cobbled together by combining an old door and a few custom-made legs to go below. “It’s perfect for my needs,” she explains, pointing out its greater-than-ordinary length, which allows for her reference books to pile up on either end, as well as its cleverly tailored height and its shallowness, which lets her sit closer to her guests, relative to other desks.

This quietly practical approach is perhaps what marks Escobedo out. It is in part to do with her background, not exclusively as an architect but as a multidisciplinary designer. “I would take on any projects I could to stay afloat,” she says of her time after finishing her bachelor’s degree at Mexico City’s Universidad Iberoamericana. “You’re not going to get that huge commission, so you need to make whatever you have work and be fluid in how you approach each job. This also lets you test ideas at different scales.”

This thoughtfulness and adaptability is something Escobedo learned from one of her primary inspirations, the late Mexican painter and architect Juan O'Gorman. “He would design in a way that’s perfect in every little detail without having any excess,” she explains, using the house that O’Gorman designed for Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in Mexico City as an example. It is imaginative in its structure, which comprises two separate buildings (one for each artist) connected by a bridge across the top. “There was never any grand spectacle about his architecture; it was more about flipping between approaches to his tasks and using different types of finishes or materials.”

This level of care is apparent in all aspects of Escobedo’s office. Though the walls appear white to the eye, look closer and you will recognise them as very pale grey. “You wouldn’t notice it, but this colour helps set the mood for the room,” she says. “It softens it, though without making any loud gestures.”

Escobedo does also create pieces that are intended to, simply put, look interesting – even if they do so in a modest manner. Her Copper Chair, made for Masa Galeria, is composed like a deconstructed cube, its armrests skewed at a 90-degree angle so that it is a diamond – rather than a square – beneath you. It is a sculptural object, beautiful to look at – even if it might not be entirely practical for sitting on.

“I think the chair is a kind of provocation,” Escobedo explains when queried on its function. “When you approach it, you ask yourself: How do I place myself on it? Where do I put my arms and do I cross my legs? How does it affect my mood?” It’s an object that leans more toward spectacle than pragmatism. At this point, art meets design in her practice.

As for the importance of Mexican design on the world stage: perhaps it’s too big a question for one person to answer. But Escobedo believes the country has an advantage in its tradition for design at all levels, from big-name architects working in the ‘international style’ to ordinary people who use their local vernacular.

“There’s a strong tradition of design here, of really paying attention to the details and thinking practically,” Escobedo says. “I know about one Mexican family who moved their stairs onto the outside of their house; it was the perfect way to address their needs and it just came naturally to them. It’s the sort of thing that would win an architect the Pritzker Prize, but it happens all the time here.”

Perhaps it's this Mexican mindset that’s helping set Escobedo apart. She’s joining a rich tradition of design in her home country, even as she engages with contemporary architecture on a global scale. And she has a solid commitment to thinking carefully and creatively about her work – before simply getting on with it.