Goodwill Mission

Getting off the bus in this small town in the state of Oaxaca puts you on a crowded road lined with open storefronts, where women slap lumps of masa from hand to hand. Shiny new motorbikes share space with stray dogs and ancient cars, and rows of turquoise and lavender papeles picados—the festive cut-paper garlands used to celebrate everything in Mexico—flutter overhead. The intricate patterns of these garlands were the basis for the cutout legs and edges of the designer Sami Hayek’s Humo dining table, an offering from his eclectic new Humo line, which is being produced in part by Oaxacan artisans. “The ceramists hated this table; it was so problematic to make, they couldn’t wait to be done with it,” says Hayek, with a hint of a grin.

It looks as if they may be out of luck. After a standout showing at this year’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF), the line is receiving strong interest from dealers and decorators, which means that those ceramists will have to get back on the job. The Los Angeles–based Hayek is here to confer with his workers on a few problematic aspects of production, but from the start this work session feels more like a party.

A couple bottles of Corona and a platter of halved lemons lie next to the 38-year-old designer, who is sketching a full-scale mock-up of a new tabletop design on a piece of tracing paper that’s taped to the wall. Next to him, sharing a shot glass of mezcal, is the artist Jose Luis Garcia, a native Oaxacan who functions as a go-between for Hayek and the local workers. This is Garcia’s studio and house, a small compound of Spanish-style buildings that he shares with his wife and business partner, Lolita, and two adolescent children, as well as a rotating cast of visiting artists, craftsmen, and associates, all of whom are directed to call him El Maestro.

In an adjoining workroom, three of the ceramists—all residents of a nearby village—are patiently using stripped oak branches to build a fire on the floor of a brick kiln. Hayek worked with them to develop a unique process that strengthens and refines traditional barro negro pottery—a native Oaxacan craft that usually takes the form of glossy black decorative items—so that it can be used for furniture, including the Humo table. At ICFF, the material confounded viewers, who thought it might be wood or an ingenious synthetic. A battered boom box switches from American brat-punk diva Kesha to a traditional Mexican ballad and back again as the ceramists banter, sipping occasional glasses of beer and inching the fire closer to the heart of the kiln.

The three artisans—all neighbors and friends—usually work together in their own homes along with a dozen others. There, the atmosphere of conviviality is much the same, though the material comforts may be fewer. They are here today because a visit to their village was ruled out; drug cartels from the north have been converging on the area and causing trouble, and it’s best not to make any conspicuous trips. These, the laughter and the danger, are the dual reasons that Hayek started Espacio Sami Hayek, a collaboration with the international bed and bath company Springs Global, which manufactures Wamsutta bedding and has partnered with Diane von Furstenberg as well as Nate Berkus, whose line will launch next year.

Before its lines were even available for sale, Espacio Sami Hayek had over 50 products, ranging from its tables to stunning red credenzas featuring beadwork done by the reclusive Huichol tribe and rugs woven by a wheelchair-bound craftsman whom El Maestro discovered knitting on the side of the road. It is an ambitious crazy quilt of artisanal collaboration that also spans bedding, tableware, and novelty pillows, as well as serious pieces of furniture that sell for up to $24,000 (a sofa that’s made of wood reclaimed from American barns). Espacio’s first set of designs will be sold through showrooms and will also be available online; it plans to open a flagship in the future.

The collections pair old craft techniques with modern styling to create pieces that have a hard-won soul but are comfortable in contemporary settings. Hayek, though, is more excited by the old craft techniques.

“I want them to be able to continue to work like this, in their homes, with their families around. That is a very traditional way of working in Mexico,” he says. Unemployment, plummeting wages, and the growing power of drug cartels—and the corresponding drop in tourism—have all worked together to erode community life. “But if you can get people not to flee their community because they have work and have their families, because they are proud of who they are, and probably because they have more to lose, that might help.”

Hayek sees Espacio as a homecoming of sorts: “There was something about being a designer that always bothered me: Who needs another pretty chair? But with this, there’s an intention behind it, and it’s part of my culture.” Of Lebanese-Mexican descent, Hayek moved to California to attend Pepperdine University, where he received his undergraduate degree, and later Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design, where he completed a degree in environmental design, but he grew up in the Mexican state of Veracruz. “When I got out of school I said to myself, ‘For ten years I will take any project that is offered to me,’” says Hayek, whose winning combination of brashness and modesty meant that those projects ranged from the high—a show house for Louis Vuitton, concept work for Bentley, designs for Poltrona Frau, and a limited-edition line of housewares and furnishings for Target—to the low. “Some of it was just a good experience, to know that I do not want to do it again.” He has often been drawn back to Mexico. As a college student, he worked with the Iranian-born architect Nader Khalili, and approached the Mexican government with a plan to build Khalili’s mud domes as low-income housing; a decade later, he designed and contracted a 120-unit green condo development in Tijuana. Hayek shies away from a signature aesthetic style, but there is a sort of intelligent quirk that runs through all of his work. “I want to design experiences, not objects,” he says.

When Hayek started working on Espacio, he knew that barro negro pieces would be a significant part of it. As children, he and his sister, the actress Salma Hayek, spent summers in their mother’s Oaxacan hometown. “The kids would all play with barro negro marbles and they were so cool. Mine were just glass, but they didn’t have those, so we would trade and they would say, ‘I’ll give you five of mine for one of yours.’ When I went home, the kids there said the same thing: ‘I’ll give you five glass ones for one of those black ones,’ and I thought, ‘Aha!’”

Three decades later, those marbles have morphed into elaborate dining and coffee tables, as well as vessels and tableware. To reach the final designs, Hayek went through a series of experimental pieces with the artisans, making variations on his papeles picados–based designs. Each iteration brought the pieces further from the traditional, artisan-flavored design and closer to a cleaner yet more intricate pattern that looks like handicraft by way of the digital age.

Just working with the clay is no easy process. It takes five people about a month and a half to make one table. Each piece has to be kneaded and shaped, then dried in the sun for a day before the pattern can be pressed into it. (Hayek created a CNC stamp for use on the table’s patterned edges and legs, but he’s not sure how he feels about it: “It’s not because I’m mean! I just want people’s hands in the projects. My goal is to inject as much life as possible into the piece.”) Once that’s done, it needs to be dried again for up to three days before the powder that gives barro negro its signature shine can be carefully rubbed in, using polished-quartz rocks. Then the pieces can be fired by a slow smoking process, but just a few at a time, because the brick kilns are only about three-feet square. If larger pieces must be fired, the kiln needs to be built up, brick by brick, until it is tall enough to accommodate the piece.

And then there’s the fire. “We call it el jefe [the boss],” Garcia says. “It’s up to the fire to accept or reject the piece.” A piece that’s not dry enough will crack; a minuscule air bubble can make it explode in the kiln, shattering anything else that’s in there. The fire is stoked up to a blisteringly hot 800 degrees Celsius, high enough to make the pieces sufficiently strong for furniture, while dissipating any lead, which makes them food-safe.

At the moment, Hayek spends more time in Oaxaca, where he’s working with the barro negro, than at any of the other production sites. “Mud doesn’t understand drawings, mud does whatever it does,” says Hayek of the clay—it shrinks when baked, so the resulting pieces can’t quite be made to measure. “Rock and ceramics, they understand drawings, so they don’t need me as much,” he says. He may not be able to continue these trips, unfortunately, because his name is a bit of a liability. Design enthusiasts may know the name Sami Hayek from his work, but others will recognize it because of his sister. Salma is one of Mexico’s most famous actresses, and the wife of the French billionaire François-Henri Pinault, whose family owns the luxury-goods house LVMH. All of this makes Sami Hayek an attractive target for kidnappers, who have been working overtime in Mexico. “I am aware, and I am as cautious as possible,” Hayek says. “I feel like retreating and hiding is probably what I should do, but it’s not my tendency. And, this is my country.”

It was a complex chain of familial and personal relationships that brought Hayek to El Maestro, and to this part of Oaxaca: Hayek’s wife, the jewelry designer Daniela Villegas, introduced him to her childhood friend Jacinta Verea, who is the niece of Don Alfredo Harp Helú, who is a cousin of Carlos Slim, who is currently the world’s richest person. Helú has funneled some of his own billion-dollar banking and telecommunications fortune into an eponymous charitable foundation that focuses, in part, on preserving indigenous Mexican culture. Jacinta Verea helps run the foundation, and directed Hayek toward El Maestro.

“I could have just knocked on twenty doors, and it would’ve been a disaster. Here, I found a guy whose pieces will be charged with that enthusiasm, rather than someone who just wants to push shit through the door to make it through the day,” Hayek says of El Maestro, who has used funding from Don Alfredo to start a different program with a similar goal: paying artisans a living wage to make popular art. The national minimum wage in Mexico is 59.82 pesos (around $5) a day. Artisans working with Espacio make three times that, and Aide Ramírez Cedillo, the lead ceramist, can make even more.

These are small steps, but to Hayek, they’re promising. “I think the spark is on,” he says. “I don’t see Aide or the Maestro stopping. My goal is to impact a hundred families. That’s it. I just want to put my little dent into the equation.”

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