Fernando Laposse

The Sweetest Alchemist

We met Fernando at this years London Design Festival and we were immediately taken by his gentle and humble presence and literally blown away by his work. Alchemy, temporality and fragility that gets transformed into beautiful design objects.

Emerging as a designer with a fascination for using the edible, Fernando’s family history gives insight into the course that his work has taken and it all began with a French Italian Great Grandfather who emigrated to Mexico to build a business in nothing less than things that require…sugar.

Equally interesting and influential are his roots in France and in Mexico. One can feel a playfulness and a warmth in his work mixed with a sophistication and exactitude for the precise beauty of the elements in his pieces. It is exactly this dichotomy that makes his objects as well as his films so fascinating.

And so we find him, mixing and preparing and concocting and experimenting like a scientist, a chef, a designer, a photographer, a performer, a filmmaker…a man of many talents and ideas and not only food based.

Where did you grow up in Mexico? And how much has it influenced your work?

I grew up  in Mexico City which is enormous and chaotic but very stimulating at the same time. I would dare to say it is one of the most cosmopolitan cities out there, but in a different way from London, Paris or New York. Its a city that has always been a metropolis, from Aztec times through to today. You can see it in its architecture, the main Cathedral was built by the Spaniards on top of an Aztec pyramid, which sits not too far from a french built Palace, a gift from Napoleon the III to Maximilian, an Austrian Prince who was emperor of Mexico in the XVII century. Its a city which is constantly changing, which has a very distinct culture that is different from the rest of the county, from music, arts and urban trends like Mexican wresting or its street food culture. Its also a very tough city, where nothing is taken for granted and you have to fight to get what you want, so chilangos (people form Mexico City) tend to be very entrepreneurial and pragmatic in order to stay afloat. I think this is one of the main influences that the city had on me and my work.

What is the connection with France, besides being born there?

My dad’s grandfather was from a town in the French-Italian Alps and migrated to Mexico to look for an adventure, he was a baker and confectioner who specialised in making pastries and marmalades. Once in Mexico he set up shop and started to experiment with local tropical fruits and flowers and developed innovative recipes which became very popular. His business was passed down through generations until my father and his brothers took over and by then they were in need of new recipes. My uncle took care of finances and my father moved to Paris with my mom and trained for a few years in the school of Lenôtre, a well known Parisian pâtisserie and my mom, an artist, studied in the Ecole des Beaux arts. It was during this time that I was born. Although we moved back to Mexico a couple of years later we often went back to France until my dad had the opportunity to move back after selling his bakery. I tagged along with him to do a year abroad in high school, I was 15 and I loved it so much I never went back to Mexico.

You work with the famous French crystal company, Daum. How did this relationship start?

I was contacted by their creative director, Mauricio Kozlowski, because he saw a resemblance between their process of pate de verre, which is a very old process where chunks of glass are moulded into incredibly intricate sculptures and my sugar glass techniques. He invited me for a visit to their factory in Nancy, where I had the privilege of seeing their team and the different steps they take to make their beautiful pieces. I was blown away, because it was extremely inspiring to see their process which is completely hand made and has been unchanged for centuries. It was also very rewarding to get to speak to the various workers at different stages of the production and to exchange experiences, they were really excited to hear that sugar could be worked in a similar manner! Mauricio and I decided to create a video to promote the launch of their new collection where I made a sugar replica of one of their biggest vases and melted it down with some heat guns. I time-lapsed the process and inverted the video to make it look as if the vase was growing from a puddle of liquid, in the end we were all very happy with the results.

Some of the work is very temporary,  is it performance or design ?

I guess it depends how you define performance, for me a performance needs a performer, and I try to remove my presence from my works as much as I can and let the pieces speak for themselves. At the same time, my work doesn’t necessarily follow the protocol and presentation of traditional product design so one could make the case that it is something in the middle, perhaps thats why sometimes it can be hard to sell it.  

How does the concept of permanence play a role in your work?

Permanence or the absence of, is a recurring theme in my work. I find things that don’t last very long very poetic as it is often fleeting experiences the ones that stay with us the longest. I guess thats what’s magical about food, in a way it is the most ephemeral kind of art.

Do you consider yourself a gastronomic designer? How did food come to play in your work?

I am often labelled as a food designer but I don’t like to be pigeonholed into a particular category, I mean I work with materials that can be eaten but you can hardly call them a meal. I have also done furniture, I use a lot of photography and video in my work and a lot of my research for recent projects involves chemistry. I find its a shame that nowadays you have to define yourself as something and reduce everything you are into a word in a way its killing the idea of having polymaths. I think I am more comfortable just saying I am a designer because  the people which are truly interested in hearing you ramble for a bit are almost always going to ask, oh what do you design?

How did sweets and sugar come to play with your work?

It was somewhat unintentional. I was desperately trying to learn how to work with glass, and I signed up for a week long course  which made me realise that for anyone to get decent at glass blowing it takes a lot of years of practice and one must have the privilege or finances to access a glassblowing studio. So I decided to look for a way to make my own prototypes in a material that mimicked glass but was cheaper to get and less dangerous to work with. Sugar became an ideal material as it really behaves very similarly to glass. It can be moulded, blown, coloured and it is transparent.

What kind of sugar do you use in the creation of your sugar glass? Beet, Cane, Palm… have you experimented with different kinds of sugar?

Cane and beat are the two I used because they are the most available, the most refined, whitest, cheapest sugars tends to be the best. I’ve used other sugars but they tend to have some impurities that show in the final pieces and I dont like that because they are the first giveaways that the object is not made out of glass. I like to make the illusion that you are looking at a glass object as long as possible.

We really loved Malachi 3:2… how was the soap? Did it smell of pork?

Thank you! The soap smells like soap, I don’t know if you know what I mean but there is a very distinctive smell that unscented soaps have. This is because all soaps are made by subjecting a fatty substance, like oil or in this case lard to the process of saponification by mixing it with lye. The lye changes the molecular structure of the fatty substances and turns them into something completely different, soap!

Malachi 3:2 focuses on the magic of alchemy. Did you do all the chemistry yourself?

I did. This was the project that involved the most research. A couple of years ago I was freelancing for Faye Toogood and she gave me the challege of silvering glass. I found a few formulas online that used mainly silver nitrate and sodium hydroxide. The process is quite magical as the chemicals are mixed in a solution that starts off being clear, then goes completely black, and then clear again and then it slowly taints the glass until it becomes so reflective it turns into a mirror. Once I understood the chemistry behind it I started wondering if it was possible to make your own chemicals from scratch. I found out that silver nitrate is made by dissolving silver in nitric acid and that sodium hydroxide is caustic soda or lye, and that you can make your own lye by filtering water through wood ashes. Things started to click when I realised that to make soap and to make a mirror you needed roughly the same chemicals and that you can extract these chemicals by breaking down objects with fire and acids. What I love about alchemy is that it was a practice full of superstition and secrecy, and that instead of chemical formulas, knowledge was passed on through word of mouth, storytelling and recipes. Alchemists often used metaphors to refer to certain chemicals or substances to maintain their discoveries secret, this is something I find fascinating and extremely poetic.

The video and still images from Malachi 3:2 are reminiscent of Dutch still lifes. Were you playing upon that in this piece?

This project really focused on the process of its making as much as the final piece, therefore I really needed to show all the steps necessary to make it. I think something I have noticed over the years is that process videos are often sloppy and aesthetics are not a priority, and for this project I really wanted to curate every bit of the film. I decided to remove myself as much as I could from the frames and to make the different ingredients and objects the protagonists of the video. I think they relate to Dutch still lifes in the sense that the lighting is quite dramatic and that the composition is very carefully constructed. If you think about it, still lifes are supposed to depict everyday life, yet they are images that are so doctored that they are very far from it, I think the same applies in the case of Malachi 3:2. The piece could have taken me 3 days to make but in the end the video took 3 weeks to film and edit.

Malachi 3:2 is from the bible…are you Catholic? Does religion play a role in your life or work?

I was baptised, but my parents had a change of faith when I was around 8. My mom got interested in meditation and Hinduism and my dad went off to study compared religions and theology, lucky I was always give the choice to believe in whatever I wanted. I am not religious at all but I am extremely interested in religions from a cultural point of view. Religion has played a crucial role in all aspects of life but in particular in the arts and sciences. For centuries alchemy was considered black magic and many alchemists were burnt alive during the Medieval Christian Inquisition. I found the verse of Malachi 3:2 to be extremely interesting because although it is in the Old Testament, in my opinion it perfectly embodies the alchemist’s philosophy, it talks about the process of rarefying materials as metaphors for purifying the body and soul.

What is there about moulds that you like? So many of your projects involve an element of mould casting…what is the fascination?

I learned to make moulds when I started to work with ceramics. Moulds are great because they allow you to very easily replicate objects and they have been present since the Palaeolithic period, no progress could’ve been made if it wasn’t for the invention of moulds. In my case I use moulds a lot because it allows me to produce things myself in a very inexpensive way.

How long did you assist Bethan Laura Wood and were you influential in her work in Mexico? Did she influence you alternatively?

I worked for her roughly for a year and we became very good friends. She invited me to come along with her when she won the designers of the future residency in Mexico City and I acted as a tour guide for her, my role was to take her to places that would inspire her in the city. I guess we were both inspired by each other and by what we saw. It was very refreshing to explore the city I grew up in with Bethan as she noticed things that I gave for granted. We were both really inspired by the “cachetadas” which are very thin sugar lollies that street vendors hang in their carts. Bethan made her series of Criss Cross lights and chandeliers for design Miami Basel based on these and I used them to make an big installation made out of sugar in one of the windows of Selfridges.

I actually came across the idea as I read that breakaway glass props for the movies used to be made out of sugar.

What are your favorite Mexican foods?

I really like Pastor Tacos which are a specialty from Mexico City, but was born out of the influence of Shawarmas introduced by Lebanese migrants in the 1950’s. Pork meat is marinated in a variety of dried chilies and achiote, a shrub endemic to central Mexico, and roasted on a spit (like a kebab). The meat is then sliced off the spit and wrapped around a corn tortilla with slices of pineapple,coriander chopped onion and green salsa. Its absolutely delicious and very addictive!

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