Mex and the city: How can a young furniture designer flourish miles from home?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

By using her initiative and imagination, Valentina Gonzalez Wohlers tells Holly Williams

When furniture designer Valentina Gonzalez Wohlers decided to leave her home in Mexico City in 2005, she "wanted to get as far away as I could – New York, America, was too easy". So she came to London, to study a Masters in furniture design at Central Saint Martins. It turned out to be a "life-changing" experience – she's still here, for starters.

"It was great, it was like experiencing a different way of learning," the 34-year-old says. "The way you understand the world – you see it differently. It's like learning to appreciate your perspective." But though she may have moved far from home, Mexico exhibited ever-stronger influences on her work. She's made a popular series of "Prickly Pair Chairs": a classic French oval-backed seat, that sprouts into a huge cactus. A series of tables were inspired by an old map of Tenochtitlan (today, Mexico City), which she spied at the British Museum and re-worked into an abstract shape.

Exhibiting at Designers Block at the Southbank Centre, as part of the London Design Festival, is her "Wild Bodged Chair". "I was taking the idea of a Victorian porter's chair to a completely new environment – a mountain in Oaxaca." Wohlers spent a week in the woods with Gabriel Lopez, whose café, full of hand-made, rather wild furniture, she stumbled across on a road trip across Mexico. There, she made the chair out of stripped branches, using Lopez's help to master traditional methods. "The chair is circumstantial – it's about the process, reconnecting with the craft, going back to basics. I'm trying to build cultural bridges between the UK and Mexico, introducing our aesthetic and style."

"Once you are away from friends and family and what is familiar to you, there is a nostalgia," Wohlers recognises. "You project who you are and where you come from through your work." She also points out that we no longer want anonymous design; we value individualism in what we buy. "People love stories – I love stories as well. If there is an interesting narrative you can communicate, giving objects character, then you engage emotionally with it and it becomes more than just a table or just a chair."

Wohlers' flat, in Shoreditch, east London, certainly tells her story. It houses her work, with all its tales of her origins, as well as plenty of knick-knacks, from a disco ball she found in the street to a Mexican bowl full of "flower grenades" (made of ceramic, they're filled with seeds; lob them on to scrubby ground and hopefully something will grow). In one corner stands her "Erotica" table – made of four quadrants of black metal, the cut-out pattern was designed by artist Miss Led, and it's subtly rather rude. "Each one has an erotic narrative – a stiletto here, the body of a girl, a mouth… It's funny because people will not notice at first and then it's like" – gasp – "cock in your face!" she says gleefully.

She's kept most walls subtle so as not to clash with the hot-pink and lime-green cactus chairs. But the kitchen and bathroom are accented in vivid turquoise and orange. As she explains, traditionally in Mexico, your bathroom and kitchen are "where you can go crazy".

The flat is also her work space, with one room as an office. Alongside a "to-do list" blackboard are family snaps, posters, scraps of inspiration – as well as two, not overly serious, "altars". "I'm very spiritual but I'm not religious; I'm a pagan. These are the good guys, these are the bad guys," she says pointing to figurines on two windowsills. The former features skulls, golden and red Holy Death figurines and even Malverde, the Mexican saint of drug dealers. In the good camp, we have the Virgin Mary, Buddha, Ganesh, and, er, Bruce Lee. Wohlers says with a smile: "They mean something to me, they're inspirational, and I feel they protect me in a way…"

Wohlers also runs a B&B in her home, letting out two spare rooms. She only began three months ago, and provides a minimal service – don't expect a full English breakfast here – but it's working out well. "Today, with the financial situation, young creatives don't make much money. This is a decent, straightforward way to make a living."

Although now a trendy postcode, her flat is part of what's arguably the first ever council estate. The area was a notorious 19th-century slum, Friars Mount; when demolished, the Boundary Estate was built in its place in 1900. The tall red-brick listed buildings today seem rather desirable, but they still belong to a mix of private and council tenants.

This mix is something Wohlers enjoys: "It's great because you see the different uses of the space – it's completely cultural. In a flat like this you have a family of 11 upstairs, then you have bankers from the City, or artsy designers' studios. It's just different realities colliding in the same building."

It should be no surprise that this suits Wohlers, though – culture clash is, after all, a major source of inspiration.

Designers Block is at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, today (;

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
peoplePaper attempts to defend itself
voicesWe desperately need men to be feminists too
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
Life and Style
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
John Terry, Frank Lampard
footballChelsea captain sends signed shirt to fan whose mum had died
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
Life and Style
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

£16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits