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Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Interview: A fresh take on tropical furniture

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Sol y Sombra’s Cuau Solis has found a growing market in Mérida for his playful and distinctive ‘Ecotropical’ tables and chairs. We asked what brought him to the peninsula and how he drew on his artistic, intellectual and technical training to form his studio in the Centro.

YELpromoted-1114Tell me a bit about yourself. Where were you born, raised, educated, etc? Do you have family here?

I was born in Monterrey, a large industrial city in northern Mexico where hard work is an end in itself and entrepreneurial activity is socially encouraged. Compared with the rest of Mexico, Regios — as people from Monterrey are called — are known for their work ethic, passion for soccer and an appetite for good beer and carne asada. When I was eight, we moved to Mexico City so my father could complete his studies in psychoanalysis. Living in D.F. has been the strongest cultural influence in my life. Back in the ’70s, I was exposed to myriad books from my family library, and also a diverse cultural environment where writers, artists, actors, and scholars befriended my parents. These, along with my training in industrial design at Universidad Iberomericana and the influence of beloved friends, led me to become a full-bred, middle class, enlighten Chilango. The years in Mexico City were my formative years.

{ Slide Show: See Cuau Solis’ creative take on outdoor décor in Mérida }

You can't miss Sol y Sombra on Calle 55 in Mérida.
You can’t miss Sol y Sombra on Calle 55 in Mérida. Jadiel, a worker/apprentice at the shop, stands in the doorway.

Later in life I moved back to Monterrey and divided my time between being an advisor for product development projects and working as a scholar in local universities. My role was always as the creative loco who puts his skills to work while remaining firmly grounded in imagination and originality. Just after getting married, I moved to Canada and enrolled in McGill University to study the sustainable development of local communities. Long winters in Montreal and my work as a research assistant gave me the opportunity to familiarize myself with information technologies. Back in 2005, when I came back to Mexico, I became chief of staff for a government agency. I was in charge of translating for high-ranking officials how exactly all the acronyms and technical lingo of IT would make a better world for all of us.

cualpullquote1Tired of the violence in Monterrey, my wife Luz María and I decided to move to a better place to raise our two daughters. We could tell from our visits to Yucatán that there were a lot of untapped markets on the Peninsula. I have always wanted to go independent and my background in product development helped me write a solid business plan to start something new and exciting. So, there I was, some money at hand, a decent knowledge of IT technologies, a strong theoretical background on sustainable development, the chance of developing my own products, and last but not least, the almost unbearable creative rush that Yucatan imposes on imaginative minds.

I love the chair you have hanging from your sign on Calle 55. It really got my attention. What made you think to do that?

We love to mix low-tech and high-tech to enhance creativity. In the case of our sign, it came out naturally. We have a small chair stumbling around the shop, some chain and hard wood waiting for some good use, and as always the design software to liberate creativity. For the outdoor sign, our design statement was, “We sell furniture able enough to resists tropical outdoors while remaining fun, beautiful and comfortable year after year.” I like to think we literally nailed it.

You were a photographer, and you are obviously an artist at heart. How did you get into building furniture?

Cuau Solis
Cuau Solis

As I mentioned earlier, I did studies in sustainable development. This term implies reaching economic growth while attaining social development and protecting the environment. I wanted to put those principles in action at the micro level. So we came out with a business model that contributes to economic growth by hiring and training local workers that manufacture furniture made with local materials from renewable sources.

Nowadays, photography cannot be understood without computers, and computers cannot be complete without networks. They are all part of the same: different central processing units connected by their Internet Protocol addresses. We are always trying to catch up with technological changes but the revolution moves fast. For instance, our website needs major changes because it is not smartphone friendly enough. Eventually, sooner rather than later, we are going to find some time to fix things up.

What inspires you? What designers, or what musicians, other artists? Do you like to listen to music when you work? What kind?

I love the midcentury contribution to Mexican design from people such as Clara Porset, Don Shoemaker, Luis Barragán and Ricardo Legorreta. Yucatán outdoors are a great source of inspiration, you just have to take a look at a crotos plant, a pitaya fruit, or a flowering banana tree to decide on your color pallet. Concerning craftsmanship, I learned good methods from Norm Abram of The New Yankee Workshop. Also, from Buddy Rhodes and Fu-Tung Cheng, both concrete artists from California.

I listen to music when I work on the computer; saws and routers are jealous critters that love to sing to their own tune. The whole singer-songwriter scene is my thing, back from James Taylor, Carole King, Jackson Browne, Elton John, Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, and the like, all the way to Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Don Henley, Sheryl Crow, John Mayer, Darius Rucker, to name a few. I also love listening to podcasts by the BBC and CBC, because innovation is not only about creativity it is about ideas.

What are your most popular designs?

An upstate New York vibe has been embraced by local homeowners.
An upstate New York aesthetic has been embraced by local homeowners.

Amongst Mexicans, the Adirondacks have great acceptance. Comparatively, Adirondack chairs are the most comfortable design we have, especially when paired with the footstool. Our designs maintain the classic lines of the chair, but with the added value of being anthropometrically enhanced with the help of the computer. I have sold Adirondacks to Americans and they are happy with them; nevertheless, Mexicans are more drawn to this piece of furniture. When it comes to outdoor furniture, I regard Adirondacks as the flagship of the shop. Concerning expats preferences, these vary considerably. Nevertheless, they prefer traditional Mexican designs as the Miguelito chairs and dining sets where the table might be concrete or lattice, depending on the intended use.

Who are your typical customers and what are your most popular designs?

cualpullquote2Our first intended target is the expat community. The vast majority of Mexicans think that all Canadians or Americans are “gringos.” They don’t recognize the important differences between expats and their unique backgrounds. To understand expats, it helps to conceive the United States not solely as a political entity, but also as a conglomeration of smaller “countries” with their own particular identities. The same goes for the neighbors up North: the Maritimes, Quebec, B.C., and the Prairies are different communities within Canada. However, expats in Mérida, whatever their background, have something in common: their love for Mexico. Our business is nurtured from such love and uses furniture to express that feeling.

Concerning the creative process of designing furniture, the phrase “the market is a good servant but a bad master” makes a lot of sense. If as a designer you decide that your products will be bond to whatever trend might be going around, you will never be able to innovate. There is no such thing as an “exclusive” Mexican culture; claiming that is sentencing creativity to stagnation. Culture is what you make out of it, a living thing that keeps changing despite efforts to the contrary. Take for instance coffee roasting, brewing and serving. A few years ago, the market for such product was rather low. I like to think that the expat community was responsible for raising the demand for better and more diverse coffee. If the market were the master in matters related to coffee consumption, we would still be drinking instant coffee. In an analog way, the same goes for outdoor furniture. The market is flooded with Asian imports that simply are not up to the required standards imposed by tropical and seaside weather. Our furniture has been leading the way to fulfill the unique Yucatecan furniture market niche.

Some of your work looks very traditional, but some seems quite modern. Do you think the public’s taste is headed toward a more modern look? (Or, what are customers looking for?)

We intend to give modernism a new balance by making our designs not only purely functional, but fun and interesting by adding different colors, textures and shapes. Yucatán is about emotional interest and aesthetic engagement; for these reasons, lots of things that don’t make sense in a purely functional way still remain due to their spiritual aspect (e.g.: high ceilings, wrap-around porches, open terraces, outdoor kitchens, indoor gardens, rain cisterns, roof gardens, etc.). Postmodern design basically tilts the balance of form and function by removing the dull designs. We don’t reject the values of modernism in design, we just put some “habanero” on them. I believe that expats, both metaphorically and factually, do the same with their existences.

Sol y Sombra, Calle 55 #464 between 54 and 56, Col. Centro, Mérida, Yucatan
Phone: +52 999 923 2797; email: info@solysombra.mx

More photos and information on Facebook and their website

Interview conducted by Lee Steele of Yucatán Expat Life. To learn about Promoted Posts, see our advertiser page.

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