August 2020

Corn is one of the top three most-grown plants in the world, however its main purpose is not to supply food for people but to be used to make biofuels, animal feed, ethanol, and bio-based plastics. As such, corn has largely lost its natural function and links to the land and communities it first emerged from.

TotoMoxtle is a new and precious material that is reconnecting corn back to its ancestry through collaboration with a small village in the south of Mexico. The material is a veneer made from the husks of ancient varieties of Mexican corn, which produces a valuable and visually striking reminder of the native and natural colours of Mexico. What’s interesting is that the project thrives off of the diversity of colours from this native corn, that have made them unfit for a modern market obsessed with standardization.

The community of Tonahuixtla in the south of Mexico is the epicentre of the material’s production. The village is an undeniably significant place to be working with native corn; located in a valley where the farming of corn dates back for centuries. However, as Fernando Laposse – a product designer and a founder of the project – points out, the re-introduction of native seeds to be farmed once again in the village was no easy task. With some of the native seeds technically classed as extinct whilst lying dormant in the vault of a seed bank for years, it was no surprise that many in the village were sceptical of any success. It became clear to Laposse that it was a risk to ask farmers to plant these ancient seeds on a large scale due to the obvious fact that their land is where they make their living. Therefore, Laposse with the help of community leader Delfino Martínez, decided to re-use Martínez’s grandad’s old farming plot from the 1970s as a testing ground for the ancient corn to avoid jeopardizing the other villagers’ livelihoods.

After trail, error, draught, advice from agricultural scientists and expertise given from the seed bank, Laposse and Martínez achieved a successful crop. The farmers in the village began to gain trust in the ancient seed varieties whilst also developing an understanding, through science, of why and how their traditional methods of farming worked so well.

From this moment onwards production of the rare, valuable and precious new veneer material began. It started small and broke social traditions in the village by encouraging women to work, since most of the men had migrated to the United States in search of a better income and to support their families back in Mexico. Much like the growing of the native seeds the people of the village soon began to accept this change, as the project TotoMoxtle produced more yield, gained prestigious commissions and provided pay that was five times the Mexican minimum wage.

The project works on two fronts: material development and social economic rejuvenation. Both of these are within an overarching philosophy to include the indigenous people in the world economy without sacrificing their core philosophies and vision of harmony with nature. In this respect, Laposse as an endemic designer, * has become the Robin Hood of his field – taking money from wealthy and supportive collectors to give to those in the village who really need it. In the future the project is looking to invest further into the development of infrastructure in the village, making the construction of the material more efficient to grow the output they produce.

TotoMoxtle, with its seasonal colour surprises, proves that diversity in native corn – opposed to that which is genetically modified – can and does provide a sustainable product, food, and a supportive income. It ensures that the material is intrinsically connected to the final product.

* Laposse is keenly aware of how material is sourced; he questions its links to nature, its locality and fosters local relationships at its origin. Just like a chef is concerned with his ingredients so too is Laposse about the quality of his materials.

By Emma Singleton

hanging corn
traditional bull plough
totomoxtle team of young mothers
separating the cob from husks
Delfino in the workshop
Process of making - TotMoxtle. 2020
Aluminium table with Totomoxtle marquetry
Archivo Exponer Laposse ©Emilio Diaz
totomoxtle legacy table detail
totomoxtle snake closeup
totomoxtle tiles closeup
carefully peeling the husks off
This article appeared in DAM76. Order your personal copy.