EDITOR'S NOTE: Maruja Fuentes tragically lost her battle with leukemia on June 28, 2010. She was 32.
She took the 2008 International Conventional Furniture Fair (ICFF) by storm with her leaning mold design that mixes biomimicry with architecture to provide a new solution for how public resting spaces can be constructed. Meet Maruja Fuentes.
AUGUST 2008 - A native of Ponce, Puerto Rico, Maruja Fuentes has waded through many design waters. She studied environmental design at the University of Puerto Rico, earned an undergraduate degree in architecture from the Catholic University of America, completed her master studies in architecture at Georgia Tech and studied furniture and textile design at SCAD. Recently, her work featured as part of the exhibit space IDSA.NYC reserved at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF). She now lives and works in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Tell us about where you're working and what you're working on.
I’m working as a professor at the School of Architecture at the University of Puerto Rico teaching first year and fourth year courses in design studio, as well as an elective course in furniture design. I’m also working out of my own studio where I’m currently in the manufacturing stage of my product, “leaning molds,” and designing a table/sitting system called “flower pod”.
Can you share the story behind the “leaning mold”?
When I moved to DC to finish my degree in architecture, I had no car so I took the bus or the metro all the time. Carrying my architectural models and all of my other stuff I was always looking for a place to just take a break. At that time, all the seats were taken out of most of the public transportation areas because homeless people were sleeping on them. There was nothing left to sit on. I remembered kind of leaning against the wall most of the time. I even remember saying “Someone should invent some type of seating that could work in such a transitable (transient?) space.” From there the concept grew on how could furniture be part of this architectural landscape, without becoming an obstructing object. Based on this comment I realized that it could be more of a sculpture, but obviously with a function. That’s when I started working on the solutions that eventually became the leaning molds. It’s a temporary leaning system intended for public spaces.
It’s the first piece I got an opportunity to be involved in the whole process. I designed it, prototyped it, applied for a design patent for it and took it to manufacturing. It was the only piece I took to ICFF and I sold a few the first day. It’s made out of recycled ABS where only the top part of it is virgin—that’s for its color. The molds are composed of two pieces which are identical in shape and fit together like puzzle pieces. One serves for leaning while the other serves for back support. And together they can create infinite patterns. The recycled sheet and the product are all made and manufactured in Canada.
When designing it, I thought it’d only be for Metro or other public spaces, but I got orders from restaurants, galleries and a shoe store owner who wanted to use it for alternative display shelving. He wanted to hang it behind the cash register and display the sneaker on it. So, they ended up being really versatile.
Where did your design journey begin? What design or design-related disciplines have you explored? Where do your passions lie?
I started out studying architecture, then took an elective course in furniture design in my second year and loved it. Although I wanted to change to furniture design, I decided to get my masters in architecture first, and then moved onto furniture design. Along the way, I studied many different things like: textiles, graphics, fine art, fashion…
Since they are all related it’s really easy to make a merge and feed myself unconsciously from all of them. It’s funny how everything has become one thing for me. I’m passionate about design so it is really hard to say which of those areas I’m more passionate about. But I must say I’d rather work at a smaller scale.
Where do you draw your design inspiration from? What informs your approach to your work?
I usually draw my design inspiration from nature; I think it is perfectly designed. In the early stages of developing the leaning molds, the shape of the product developed while I was driving from San Juan to Ponce staring out my window toward the landscape. As I looked I kind of said to myself, how fun it would be to have something to kind of grow from the walls. Once I got the idea I did some research on fungus—on its shape and how it grows—and used that form as a reference for its form.
I also tend to design based on our everyday activities that usually are unnoticed; more like solving problems.
What informs me, I must say, is space itself. I look at the surroundings and the inhabitants always searching for a feeling of the sense of the space so I can transform the space for the people, how they will move in it and the way they will interact with the objects in that space.
I try not to think about how I’m going to make a product while I’m developing the idea for it. I usually look at a problem and explore all the different ways I might be able to solve it as creatively as possible. If I think too much about how to produce it, I constrain myself and I won’t be as creative.
Are any of your products handmade?
Yes, some of the products are handmade because of their material. It makes the process slower and sometimes limiting, but for some products it’s better that way.
I’m actually working on a set of ergonomic glasses I designed. The material is glass and the process I’ll be using is blow molded. Even though they’re for mass production, they’re still hand-made. Another handmade product is an interesting lamp I’m working on made of the fluff, or residue found in our dryers, wrapped in tread and sprayed with starch to make it strong. It looks like a little nest.
Do you consider yourself a bi-cultural designer? Is there even such a thing?
I haven’t even thought about it. It has been so common for me to travel and work outside Puerto Rico. I’m frequently back and forth. I like the idea of being bi-cultural. I’m not sure if there is such a thing, but I like it. Now with my new products, I’m also working in Canada and South America so I will just consider myself multi-cultural.
I always think broadly. Once you travel, you start seeing that your problem is other people’s problem, too. I saw the problem with the Metro in the US and I realized that we had the same problem in Puerto Rico. You learn different ways to seek out solutions.
Is there anything unique about the way eco design is practiced in the US versus the way it is practiced in Puerto Rico? Are there differences between working in Puerto Rico and working in the US?
We were already working on sustainability well before the current boom started that is happening in the States and in other countries. When I was a student 10 years ago, I had a professor who was building his own solar home. But, in general, the way eco design is practiced in the US is pretty similar to Puerto Rico’s practice.
The difference would be seen more in architecture with Puerto Rico being a tropical island. This allows us to work with the sun and the wind more naturally than you would in the States where you have a big variety of climates. We have a lot of open spaces for natural ventilation and natural lighting. We also produce our own prime material for construction concrete which responds to hurricanes. We have the LEED certification and US Green Building code down here, too. Everyone wants to earn points for their buildings.
What do you think is the next big thing in design?
That’s a tough question. Obviously, technology plays a big role. It can bring some big changes to design. Although, I would like to see more people working more towards sustainability and universal design, kind of a merge. How would you call it? Humanitarian design? I’m not sure; I guess something that addresses the needs of all human beings.
What are your own personal design aspirations?
I’m such a dreamer; this is a hard question to answer. It will take the whole interview. I guess, in summary, I want to go as far as I can go with my designs and love the journey.
What are some of your favorite design books or web site distractions?
I do have a book called Diseño del Siglo XX, which I really like. But my favorite books are not about design. They are biology and nature books. My web site distraction is Yahoo or Google…I love to search for whatever comes to my head and start looking at the images.
Care to share any nuggets of design wisdom with us?
I tell my students, “Simplify” which is really hard. You might design something with 200 pieces, but those are more pieces that can break or malfunction. I like to ask, “Can I make this work with fewer pieces?”
What have been your takeaways from your IDSA experience? What have been your biggest gripes against IDSA?
I’m pretty new at IDSA. So, for now, is all good.
What three things would you most like to see IDSA do differently?
I would like IDSA to create opportunities to exhibit at other design show or fairs.
For more information, visit www.marujafuentes.com.