Inédito award winning design studio ITZ Mayan Wood Furniture began with a fallen Pich tree. Ripped down from Hurricane Dean, the tree — 1.5 meters in diameter — provided the material with which designer Ania Wolowska and Luis López made their first table in the Bacalar Lagoon region of Quintana Roo.
Their Ocum Side Table just won the Inédito prize for Best Design and 100,000 pesos ($5,354) at Design Week Mexico, which took place Oct. 5-9. Ania and Luis’s studio specializes in producing high-quality furniture from a variety of native species of tropical hardwood, combining modern design with a commitment to environmental sustainability. Their designs, which preserve organic forms, represent an allegiance to the surrounding natural beauty.
The studio started five years ago in the Bacalar Lagoon region of Quintana Roo with basically no budget when a member of a of the neighboring Mayan ejidos (an area of communal land used for agriculture) offered them the pitch tree that had fallen on their property nearly four years prior. With this tree they made the first table.
After a year in Poland, where Ania finished her masters in furniture design at the Academy of Fine Art, Luis and Ania decided to move back to Quintana Roo, captivated by the breathtaking, turquoise Bacalar Lagoon and the peopleof the region. “We discovered extraordinary richness in wood species in this region almost by accident, and also a large number of talented carpenters,” Luis told The News.
The name ITZ, Mayan for “tree resin” or “sacred essence of things,” was decided upon in order to pay homage to the Maya communities of the region and traditions that inspired their designs. When they started the brand, everything was made by Ania, Luis and one Maya carpenter. In those first few months, Ania designed the studio’s first chair, “Kulche chair,” which eventually evolved into the “Tamay chair,” the piece shown at Museo Tamayo at Design Week.
The opening of the studio’s workshop quickly followed, along with a catalog of 20 products the hiring of their first eight employees. Ania currently designs all the furniture. Although they now have a team of around 28 employees, she supervises the entire process from beginning to end.
They acquired certification for sustainable practices, but as the studio grew, they became more critical of their production process and thought about the economic and social aspects of sustainable design.
Luis explained to the News some of the selective forestry processes used by the communities from which the materials are sourced. Mexico’s National Forestry Organization analyzes the forests they use, considering age, species, and concentration, before licensing the extractions to assure tree removals leave minimal impact. In “squaring,” a selective forestry process, an ejido is divided into a number of squares, oftentimes as high as 50, and each year trees are removed from one selected zone. Meanwhile, the land in the other squares recovers and is reforested.
ITZ feels very fortunate to be able to work with the communities they do and are proud of their processes. One of the ejidos, Noh Bec, won a National Award for Sustainable Forestry.
However, the team wants to go beyond local certifications, and is pursuing recognition from the Forest Stewardship Council, which designates perhaps the most recognized certification for sustainable wood, and set the goal to acquire certification for their “Chain of Custody.” The process has taken about two and a half years due to the need to evaluate and certify each part of the production process, from the forests to sawmills to the kiln dryers. The process will finally conclude with an audit, taking place next month. The studio will be one of the few design brands in the world, who work with this species of tropical wood, and have obtained certification.
In addition to certification, Luis says the studio invests in its human capital. Nearly everything is handmade and they try to avoid automated machines. “We believe in the spirit of things made in the hands of workers.”
When asked about Design Week, Luis said the event has greatly influenced their practice. “The first thing Design Week gave us was excitement and energy to continue working.” They first attended three years ago. That year invitation was limited to female designers and they were invited to present the Tamay chair, which had been launched only a few months prior.
“The opportunity to present work in Museo Tamayo and have friends and family in the space … It felt like we were going in the right direction.”
After the energy of their first Design Week, when they returned they were able to seriously look at other participants’ work and compare. “This definitely puts a lot of pressure to continue improving. There are so many studios doing amazing things, the bar is being raised constantly,” Luis said.
Founded in 2009 by Emilio Cabrero, Andrea Cesarman, Marco Coello and Jaime Hernández, Design Week Mexico aims to promote creativity and design as catalysts for social change. This year marked its eighth edition. With over 170 design studios represented, this year’s event drew over 16,000 visitors, allowing a dynamic and mutually beneficial dialogue between design practitioners and the general public.
Luis highlighted the fact that “the event has really brought the design community in Mexico together.” He notes that the community has become collaborative.
“We started sharing our inside knowledge, sharing techniques and right away sharing these stories,” he said. “It is really nice that the Mexican community, these studios, these young artists share the vision and practice of sharing knowledge.”
For the near future, Luis says they want to stay small and focus on quality.
“We are trying to focus on our strategy of not growing so much. In two years we went from eight workers to 28. We want to focus on remaining small and improve on quality. We want clients who are willing to consider the vision, and take the extraordinary materials and conservations seriously.”