At Taller Paco Padilla, a ceramics workshop in Tlaquepaque, just outside of Guadalajara, a weathered man and longtime employee named Don Alfonso sits at the potter’s wheel. It’s mesmerizing to watch his hands work the wet clay, continuously making cup after identical cup. Nearby, Santiago Padilla—grandson of founder Paco Padilla—works on his simple, Scandi-inspired dishware brand Hacha. It’s a stark contrast, the old and the young side by side. According to Padilla, there aren’t many throwers like Don Alfonso left, which is why it’s more important than ever for young designers (like himself) to continue the tradition of Mexican crafts.
Luckily, talented creatives in Guadalajara are answering the call. Most are focusing on the region’s most cherished legacy of ceramics, although some are also working with other ancient techniques and materials to make everything from wooden furniture to necklaces made from volcanic rock. They’re also launching design studios, opening showrooms, and creating online platforms that make it easier to get these decidedly modern Mexican pieces into your home.
The state of Jalisco, where Guadalajara is located, has a long history of producing crafts, namely ceramics. Most of the workshops are found in nearby villages of Tlaquepaque and Tonolá, both easy and worthwhile day trips from the city. (Tlaquepaque is actually home to two museums that celebrate the art form, the Museo Regional de la Cerámica and Museo del Premio Nacional de la Cerámica Pantaleón Panduro.) For some contemporary designers, like Laura Noriega of Tributo, collaborating with these local masters is an important part of the process.
Tributo, which Noriega opened in 2013 with her sister Gabriela, currently partners with artisans in seven states who use ancient techniques like woodworking, blown glass, and embroidery to transform the sisters’ designs (of everything from furniture and lamps to jewelry and pottery) into a reality. But before starting the studio, Noriega visited workshops around the country. “I was really concerned because production of these crafts was reduced, and the younger generation wasn’t interested in learning,” she says. In 2010, as a professor of industrial design in Guadalajara, she took students to meet with craftspeople nearby—and some of these relationships resulted in products that are now part of Tributo’s collection.
Marcella Gallardo, meanwhile, is the mastermind behind Dolce Utopia, which launched in 2014 as a “socially engaged art project.” She currently works with four artisans in Zapopan (just northwest of Tonolá) who create simple, thin, and somewhat amorphous porcelain dishware in unglazed shades of gray, tan, and white. The long-term plan is to donate 50 percent of each month’s profits to help further the artisans’ education, whether that means hosting classes on finance or helping them finish high school. “A lot of artisans there have gone to the U.S. because they couldn’t make a living from pottery,” says Gallardo, who was trained in Tonolá. “Dolce Utopia was intended to help solve this problem and promote education of the artisans and their families.”
Ana Paula Gómez, who began Kino after working as an interior designer, takes the crafting into her own hands. She first learned pottery from an artisan in Veracruz who spent two weeks teaching her, as Gómez says, “the rustic way of doing it.” After another six-month course in Guadalajara, Gómez bought a wheel and a kiln and went to work. She’s currently focusing on bottles and bowls, which she creates on the wheel before using her hands or other tools to distort the shapes. “I don’t like symmetry, and this gives them more personality,” says Gómez, who produces about 20 pieces per month.
Melisa Aldrete and Luis Cárdenas of PopDots also make all of their ceramics themselves. They’re known for what Aldrete calls “infinite series,” collections in which no two pieces are alike, which allows them the freedom to experiment. “For us, it’s more about the process than the finished product,” she says. “And it would be frustrating to keep doing just one thing over and over.” The new “Siniestros” series includes matte, black clay vases that are lined with latex; if (or when) you drop them, they crack but don’t shatter. On Aldrete’s insistence, I tried it myself on the floor of Tamiz, a small, appointment-only showroom in the Colonia Americana neighborhood they opened with Estudio Pomelo, a studio that works with artisans in Oaxaca to create colorful, hand-woven textiles, and MediaMadera, makers of modern wooden furniture. It added an extra crack, which is exactly the point.
Despite the creative output, Guadalajara isn’t an easy market for selling, especially compared to Mexico City, where there are a number of design fairs. This is where Michele de Alba and Samantha Cendejas come in. They recently founded Laguna Blanca, which began as an online platform that sells ceramics by designers in the city (including those mentioned above). “Most of the designers don’t have their own shops,” de Alba says. “And we saw there were a lot of people who want to buy their crafts, but didn’t know how to find them.” Laguna Blanca now displays pieces at a showroom called Bolívar 129, which debuted last year a few blocks from Tamiz and also carries iron rod chairs from Saracho Estudio, Campos Taylor jewelry, and other wares by local brands. They plan to open their own shop within the next six months.
Back at Taller Paco Padilla, I’m standing with Debra Heftye, the creative force behind the ceramic studio The Norm. In one corner, Japanese-style bowls from her upcoming Smoke line sit in a single row, recently finished by Don Alfonso. It’s the second collection she’s produced at the Tlaquepaque workshop. “I think now that so much is industrial, we are starting to forget the origin of everything,” she says. “I wanted to go back to where it all comes from.”