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

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

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 (southbankcentre.co.uk; valentinagw.com)