Running an independent studio while traveling the world for her projects, Mexico City-based architect Frida Escobedo makes an impact well beyond her own country. Whether it’s a design hotel on the Pacific Coast, a pop-up store for hip cosmetics brand Aesop or a public space – Frida’s work invariably veers between conceptual integrity and well-crafted design.
During a stint at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, she received her first public commission – to remodel the La Tallera Siqueiros cultural centre in Cuernavaca, Mexico – and also introduced a proposal for the MoMa PS1 courtyard, taking a radical approach to sustainability.
Find out more about Escobedo’s job and place of work in this edition of Where I Work and head over to “She’s Mercedes“ to explore her beautiful home and take a drive through some stunning Mexican countryside to take a closer look at her redesigned “La Tallera” cultural centre here.
How do you work?
In our office, there are no assigned desks. I just grab my laptop, check my e-mails and jump from computer to computer. There is also a big table where we all come together. This is where we brainstorm, do the first sketches, etc.
Is the environment relatively quiet or do you listen to music?
We used to listen to music, but we all have different tastes and neighbours, so we switched to using headphones. But when it gets late, of course we crank the music up, have a beer or mezcal and everyone just has a good time. It’s a really relaxed environment.
What about the other people in the building?
Everything is super open! For example, we have this small, informal table in the hallway that we share with our neighbours. It’s a great space for a quick break, but can also serve as a small meeting table.
How long have you been in this space?
For a year. Before that, we worked from my home. But with four people, it soon got too crazy, so I decided to rent a proper studio. At some point, you need to separate your private life from work.
How do you record your ideas?
I keep my sketchbooks in my apartment because there’s no real privacy in this public building. We also make little books for every project that contain all the visual references, the conceptual background, etc. – this creates a beautiful linear narrative.
What’s your creative process or workflow like? Is there a certain rhythm to it all, or does it change from project to project?
It’s a very horizontal, shared process. With competitions, it starts with a briefing and then we all get together to discuss the brief and initial ideas. After that, we work individually on images, sketch works and references, followed by another round of joint discussions. Then we start on the models. So, everyone from intern to senior participates in the process. It’s all about editing and focussing on individual strengths. My favourite part of the working process is that very first moment when everyone participates at the same level.
How do you see your own role in the process?
Early on, it’s my role to frame the task, add context and maybe a vision. Take the MoMa PS1 pavilion where the main theme was sustainability. So, I first explained my thoughts: If we want to create something truly sustainable, we need to do it with nothing. Let’s only use what’s already in the museum’s courtyard. After that, the whole team comes up with ideas.
Do you have an inspiration board? What’s on it right now?
I dont really have an inspiration board. We use our walls and I have some sketches from a wall structure at “La Tallera” and the proposal for the MoMa PS1 courtyard.
What kind of design objects do you have in here that you like?
We don’t really have precious things in our studio. We designed some chairs which are mock-ups and we are producing them in copper in the future. Also, I love MUJI, but who doesn’t?
Do you have anything that you designed at your home?
The volcanic rock chair in the little garden and a small table. That’s it.
What are your favorite tools?
I would have to say sketch paper and pencil. I also love books – to me, they are communication tools.
And what about tech or gadgets?
Nothing but computers and a regular printer. No 3-D printing or anything fancy…
I guess there’s design software involved?
We use AutoCAD, InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop and sometimes 3-D modelling tools like Rhino or Artlantis, but that’s really rare. We are more hands-on and love to work with paper and wood. Sometimes, our studio turns into a real workshop.
What has been your favorite project so far?
Right now, it’s the MoMA PS 1. Although we didn’t win the competition, I’m very happy with our proposal and I think the idea itself will resurface in a different iteration… The overall theme was sustainability and we wanted to create something with the materials that were already present in the museum’s courtyard. So, our plan was to extract a soil triangle and shift it from one side to the other – using what’s already there to create a different space: positive and negative. In the end, it’s a universal shape like a theatre or stage with a lot of didactic and political implications, yet derived from a really simple action. I’m really interested in this kind of process, something that’s really complex but resolved through a very simple idea.
Do you feel like you’ve “made it”?
No. I’m really grateful that I’m able to run my own practice and make a living of something that I love. I think that’s a privilege, but I don’t think that I ever feel like “I’ve made it“.
What will it take to get you there?
If you can collaborate with people that you appreciate and respect, if you keep learning with each project, if you can share time with your family and friends … But I also think that the notion of success changes with time; it differs when you are twenty or forty years old.\
How can we encourage more women in architecture?
My mum campaigned for women’s rights, so it’s always been quite important to me. The state needs to take responsibility, which is really tough in a country like Mexico. We need to discuss the meaning of caretaking since it’s a huge economy that relies solely on women. They’re just starting to quantify the true costs of taking care of people – whether that’s babies, sick people, elderly people…
I also think we need more tolerance. If a woman takes time off from work to start a family, we are really tough on her and say “she is out, she is not productive anymore“. I think motherhood should be valued and we also need to make it easier to re-engage in the professional world after becoming parents. People take sabbaticals to write a book, so why shouldn’t they do the same when they are having a baby?
Are there any people with kids in your office?
Not yet because everyone is very young. But we’ve discussed it. If someone wants to have a kid, then we need to have a playground here… But it’s especially difficult in an independent practise with no real stability since we only have project-based contracts. But I want to create an environment where people can actually thrive in both personal and professional aspects. I do want to have children. I can totally imagine me being in my studio with a kid. We might have to baby-proof the stairway, though…
What’s the current project you’re working on?
Right now, we’re working on a small produce market here in Mexico City and a housing complex in Puerto Vallarta.
Thank you for the interesting conversation, Frida!
If you want to learn more about Frida, head over to the “She’s Mercedes” website to explore her home, take a drive to the countryside and enjoy her redesign of the “La Tallera“ cultural centre outside of Mexico City here.
Photography by Ana Hop.