Architecture & Urban Design
Outside the Box
ATRA Collective revamps a 19th-century mansion to make a new home in the heart of Mexico City
The buzz surrounding Mexico’s design scene is at full throttle these days. And rightfully so. The country is home to some of today’s most exciting design voices—Fernando Laposse, Ewe Studio, Gloria Cortina, and VIDIVIXI, to name just a few—as well as a rich and growing gallery, collector, and fair scene (including last month’s debut MDF Mexico Design Fair in Puerto Escondido). As Alexander Díaz Andersson, founder of emerging design studio ATRA says, “Mexico is a land of opportunity, challenge, and amazing potential when it comes to craftsmanship and design.”
Building on a deep cultural legacy, Mexico City in particular—named the 2018 World Design Capital—continues to draw in talents from around the globe. A beautiful mix of old and new, it is, as Díaz Andersson observes, “an ever-changing city.”
Díaz Andersson himself has called Mexico City home for years now. Born and raised in Sweden to a Swedish father and a Mexican mother, he studied industrial design in Madrid before moving to the Yucatán Peninsula, where he began experimenting with furniture. Today, he is steadily carving his own mark on his adopted city through a range of design and interiors projects—and, as of this spring, with a showroom and cafe.
The new ATRA Collective showroom opened just this past April in a historic building in the heart of the vibrant Roma district. The project was inspired in part, he says, by the realities of the past year, “sheltering in place and not being able to travel and see art fairs and new exhibitions. The opening of the gallery has a lot to do with this frustration that we all felt during that time. We were collectively craving art and design and culture.”
The result is an inviting new space that embraces the spirit of the city, combining old and new architectural elements to present art and design pieces from Mexico and beyond, as well as live performances by Mexico City-based dancers, actors, and singers. And in parallel, Díaz Andersson and team opened the doors to Cafe Husman immediately next door—bringing a long-wished for family dream to life. Read on to learn more.
What do you love about Mexico City? And what inspired you to open your new showroom and cafe in the Roma Norte neighborhood in particular?
Mexico City is an ever-changing city. When I was designing Blanco Colima, a cocktail bar on the same block five years ago, Casa Basalta—[the building] where ATRA Collective and Husman Cafe now stand—was almost a ruin. Now it's one of the most vibrant corners of Mexico City for all things design and food. Most of the week, it remains a fairly peaceful, tree-lined street; then on the weekend it is another story.
What I love about the city is this mix of chaos and peace, the layering of centuries of various architecture styles, the nature resisting—and, of course, the people.
Tell us a bit about the space that hosts your new showroom and cafe.
Casa Basalta is a big colonial mansion with a Greek Revival element to it, completely refurbished with radically contemporary architectural elements, contrasting with the history of the house. All the outdoors are paved with volcanic stones, and a bright yellow modern structure has been added on top of the antique house.
I designed a Japanese restaurant called Umai at the back of the house with traditional Japanese landscaping. The front patio hosts my family's Swedish-Mexican café, Husman. It's like a very chic outdoor kiosk. I designed black marble tables, brass and leather outdoor chairs, and the kiosk itself is in black charred wood planks, lined inside with contrasting white marble. It’s not your typical cafe kiosk. And the food is delicious.
The gallery is in the landmark, protected portion of the house, so it has traditional moldings, windows, and doors. It's like a 19th-century white cube project space. It works well with my furniture, and we also try to reinvent the space and the experience with every show and collaboration we do.
I understand the new showroom presents both your own in-house designed works, pieces made in collaboration with artisans, and works by other designers and artists. What connects all the pieces you display?
I started this project with my brother, artist Andreas Díaz Andersson. At the time he and other designers and artists friends didn't have the proper outlet to develop and exhibit their work in Mexico City. We wanted to create a space where design can be shown next to art without dumbing it down and vice versa.
So far we’ve worked mostly with contemporary Mexican and North American artists and designers, but we're also planning sometime this year an historical show with archives from [painter and sculptor] Matthias Goerritz. We have another show involving musicians, actors, and live performers. At the moment we're presenting a show with ATRA and Bogus Studio furniture along with pieces by Victoria Chávez García, a young Mexican ceramicist [who is] extremely talented.
Tell us a bit more about the idea behind your new cafe.
My siblings and my upbringing was in the south shores of Sweden. My father is Swedish and my mother is Mexican. When we all moved here almost 15 years ago, we left behind not only Scandinavian gastronomy but also a lifestyle that in Sweden we call Fika—a way to relax during the day with a certain type of food and coffee and a comfortable seating area. We’ve had this idea of opening a Swedish restaurant for the past 10 years, and in the middle of a global pandemic that changed the way we work and live, we collectively decided that we needed some "fika" in our life.
How do you think your heritage influences your creative approach generally? How do you think this is manifested in your objects or the new spaces?
Regarding my double nationality, I would say that there is a sense of perfectionism in the making and casualness in our overall approach. My cultural background has maybe more to do with the exhibitions I saw or the movies I watched than the place I grew up. The impact of the first Carlo Scarpa building I visited, or the first Richard Serra exhibition I went to, influenced my work and my studio practice forever.
And finally, what are your larger goals for these newly opened spaces?
Good design, good art, good food.
Thank you, Alexander! ⬥