Painting the Town
All City Canvas, a 2013 recipient of Herman Miller Cares’ Design, Art, and Culture award, inspires the city’s newest coworking space and brightens a once anonymous corner of Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood.
Written by: Amber Bravo
Last year, Herman Miller’s philanthropic division, the Herman Miller Foundation, underwent a major overhaul. Headed up by a volunteer group of employees, the annual giving strategy was re-envisioned as Herman Miller Cares, which is based in five areas of focus: Education, Health, Essential Human Needs, Environment, and Design, Art and Culture. Ryan Anderson, Herman Miller’s Director of Future Technology, heads up the latter, and explains its objectives simply: “to encourage creative place-making and to take art out of the confines of the gallery. Instead of asking someone to pay to see the art,” Anderson says, “we’re saying, we’ll find you.”
By focusing efforts on cities in which Herman Miller has a high volume of employees, Herman Miller Cares is able to encourage company-wide participation, and moving forward hopes to focus on serving local youth programs. The location for the new Latin American Headquarters, Herman Miller’s Mexico City showroom, situated at the juncture of Mexico City’s Condesa and Roma neighborhoods, provided an obvious draw and provided the team an opportunity to hone in on a burgeoning arts and culture scene and join forces with a local, yet globally active public arts organization, All City Canvas. For the site of their site-specific intervention, ACC commissioned LA-based artist Augustine Kofie to create a mural on the exterior wall of Impact Hub Mexico City’s brand new coworking space, located right in the heart of Roma. Kofie was briefed to create a composition that reflects the space and character of Impact Hub while responding directly to the context of the neighborhood at large.
For the Herman Miller Cares project, two of ACC’s founders, Ricardo Celaya and Gonzalo Alvarez, believed commissioning an American artist like Kofie was the best choice. “He is one of the old school, late ’90s artists, and his style fits with what we wanted for this project—he’s very abstract but he uses a lot of geometrical shapes and it fits somehow with the profile of what we wanted to make with Herman Miller,” says Celaya. Alvarez echoes his assessment, “Kofie’s work is a clash between really old and new technology and innovation. And looking at where we’re painting—we’re in a turn-of-the-century neighborhood, but we’re doing a project which talks about innovation and moving forward, we like how he gets inspired from architecture, schematics, and from machines.” WHY had a chance to sit down with Augustine Kofie, just days before he began work on the wall outside Impact Hub, to learn more about his process and his impression of Mexico City and the neighborhood surrounding Herman Miller’s new Latin American Headquarters.
“Kofie’s work is a clash between really old and new technology and innovation. And looking at where we’re painting—we’re in a turn-of-the-century neighborhood, but we’re doing a project which talks about innovation and moving forward, we like how he gets inspired from architecture, schematics, and from machines. ”
What do you think attracted All City Canvas to your work?
Ricardo and Gonzalo approached me because Herman Miller [produces] American, modern furniture, and my work does dip into the modern realm. I am obsessed with shape and form and organization, and I also love ’60s, ’70s modern design—both American and European—and I love linear shapes and forms. I’m inspired by paper architects like Lebbeus Wood and Syd Mead. The work that I do is like an amalgam of all the things I’ve ever loved, and I’m at a point where I can think of something and produce it. The last nine years I’ve been working in a hard-edge linear kind of form, an abstraction of the graffiti lettering that I learned and trained myself with, but I’ve also taken on and expanded and stretched it and brought in lighter tones, and that has appealed to folks that appreciate street art and the traditions of graffiti but also modern aesthetics.
Could you tell us how you landed on the theme/design for this piece?
ACC had sent me photos, but I really didn’t get [the] full idea until I walked into Impact HUB after all the furniture was installed and all the texture and coloring was set. When you’re looking at the wall as a civilian on the street, that’s only one aspect, but the intent of the piece is for Impact Hub as well—to see it from the street but also from the roof. Those two perspectives are different from the ground perspective. I know my colors and know which eye level I need to be at in order to accommodate a couple different viewpoints, so I established the colors, which are partially inspired by the colors of the space, as well as what I do normally—walking around [Roma] and getting the feeling of its slight colonial, vintage history but also the modern aspect happening. There are younger people coming in and there’s that collision between the two—it’s a beautiful collision.
What is your process like?
With the kind of work that I do and with the piece I am submitting, there are a lot of hard-edge lines, so I use a lot of tape, a lot of straight edge, a lot of drafting supplies. I’m kind of constructing a painting. The way I work is I’ll build up a color form, lay it up and go in and add and dissect from it and let the space and the environment take shape. I do incorporate a lot of tools into the work, and I’m also going to be using Comex, which is the basic latex house paint that is used here. I say house paint in the States, and I have to correct myself and say latex when I’m here.
How much time do you spend in any given neighborhood before you feel you have the appropriate sense of context for your piece?
It would have been immature and premature for me to come up with a concept before I even got here, especially because I’m working with a client. This was my first time in Mexico City. I’m here for a three-week trip. Two weeks before the mural, I came in for a studio residency for a show I’m going to have in the spring with ARTO, and then the last week I am doing the mural. They were very conscious of me coming in and [having time to] just be here, wake up here, sleep here and experience the place. They weren’t dictating any direction for me. They were like, you’re an artist, do what you do.
I came in with preconceived notions obviously, but actually being here, I’ve been taken aback by the color connections I’m noticing and just the environment and architecture. It’s like this strange reminder of seeing things I’ve seen before and [being] confused by seeing it next to this new modern building and seeing young folks and older folks coalescing together. It’s been cool, especially being from Los Angeles, which is not a walking city.
“I came in with preconceived notions obviously, but actually being here, I’ve been taken aback by the color connections I’m noticing and just the environment and architecture. It’s like this strange reminder of seeing things I’ve seen before and [being] confused by seeing it next to this new modern building and seeing young folks and older folks coalescing together.”
Do you walk to the studio space here in Roma every day?
I do the walk back and forth, and then I’ll stop to sketch. Whenever I travel, I try to sketch. There are some places that I want to draw here because I love all the angles of the buildings and the overlaps, connections, and wiring. It’s beautiful chaos. There’s something here for someone who loves that vintage and history—the rich, rich, rich history, here. I’m always appreciative of traveling—I don’t take this for granted. When I get a project, I put in 100 percent; you want to come back and continue to work with folks, especially if they are great.
What are your impressions of Roma so far?
It’s been really fantastic, honestly. There are those chaotic moments of traffic and all that stuff, and I’ve had to put the headphones on because that’s a little intense. It’s that metropolis, that city life. Other than that I think everything is beautiful—even some of the chaos and turmoil. I’ve really been impressed with the amalgam of mom-and-pop shops and all the street food—the vendors. Everyone has been super cool and no one has been too weird or bugging on my Spanish, which is not so good. Everyone at All City Canvas has been more than accommodating. It’s been top notch. I’m going to come back to the city on my own, to do other things. It’s been absolutely perfect.