A/D/O by MINI | The Atitlán Project


The Atitlán Project

Using art and design as catalysts for social change in Guatemala.

Filling a crater surrounded by conical volcanic peaks, Guatemala’s Lago de Atitlán – Central America’s deepest lake – has been a center for colorful textile production since Mayan times. Local women still wear the traditional huipil dress, patterned with iconography derived from the natural world, and a strong connection with the region’s craft heritage remains.

But today, the 12 towns sprinkled around the lake’s verdant, sloping shores are experiencing economic struggles due to lack of job opportunities for young people. A dearth of arable land, low fish stocks and substandard education are all impacting the communities. Guatemalan journalist Harris Whitbeck, whose family has a house in the lakeside town of Santa Catarina Palopó, witnessed these problems first-hand three years ago. So he devised a plan to help reinvigorate the place with which he has had “a very long and intense relationship”.

Remembering the success that Dutch artists Dre Urhahn and Jeroen Koolhaas (Haas & Hahn) had in revitalizing the Santa Marta favela in Rio de Janeiro, simply by painting the buildings in bright colors, Whitbeck contacted the duo and asked if they could do something similar for the 850 hillside houses that make up Santa Catarina Palopó. Thus, the Pintando el Cambio: Santa Catarina Palopó project was born – following other art-focused initiatives around the world, like Jodipan village in Malang, Indonesia, which was painted in rainbow hues by local artists and students to prevent evictions, and a variation on the same theme in the Tepe neighborhood in Kuşadası, Turkey.

Initially, the team presented their vision for repainting the Santa Catarina Palopó buildings, but the designs were rejected by the townspeople. The project evidently needed a more personal, and local twist. So Whitbeck invited Guatemala-born designer Diego Olivero – co-founder of Meso Goods – to join the effort. The two had collaborated for a decade on various social schemes in the country, and the appointment seemed like a natural fit. “Diego’s really good at connecting to the people he’s working with,” Whitbeck told The Journal.

Yet there was still push-back from the town’s residents when Olivero put forward his first ideas. “We did a couple of initial proposals, and the community was like ‘no, this really doesn’t represent us’, because I came with a design without first doing a workshop with the community,” the designer said. “So we went back to the sketch paper, and had a meeting with the 20 community leaders that represent the 5,000 people who live there. Then we went back to the studio, created different patterns and proposals for how it would look, and then it was approved.”

Olivero’s updated vision was to use the colors and patterns of the local textiles as a starting point for the facade designs, providing a selection of base hues, and a set contemporary graphics based on the heritage motifs to be applied on top. Each homeowner could choose from this palette, ensuring their building treatments are “traditional and sentimental”, while keeping visual cohesion to the town overall. Residents gave it the thumbs-up. “All the roofs are red and windows are white, based on the antique huipil, then the rest is based on the contemporary huipil, so blues and greens are applied to the front of the houses,” Olivero said.

Volunteers, painters and residents began working together to wash the facades with the preferred shades, then applying the patterns using stencils. One house at a time, the town is being transformed into a patchwork of vivid buildings that serve as a backdrop for vibrant daily life. “For a $500 fee, anyone can ‘adopt’ a house and participate in choosing a design with its inhabitants, then join in painting the facades,” said Olivero.

As a result, visitor numbers are increasing, spurring young families to open new businesses, tour offices and cultural centers. The skilled weavers are also creating more traditional textiles to sell to tourists, helping to preserve and continue the ancient craft techniques. “The community has received a lot of attention recently, and a lot of tourism has arisen from that,” Olivero said. “Design was a tool to create that impact.”

The success of the project so far, according to both Olivero and Whitbeck, has been tied to working so closely with the town’s residents – listening to their needs and preferences, and implementing solutions that go beyond a lick of paint. Creating work for the manufacturers in the community – alongside the new enterprises popping up organically – is key to long-term economic success.

But the job is not yet done. There are still hundreds of houses in the town left to paint, and additional funds are needed to see the project to completion. That’s where West Elm comes in. Olivero contacted the American furniture retailer about Pintando el Cambio in 2017, and also introduced Mitzie Wong and Wendy Wurtzburger of Philadelphia design firm Roar + Rabbit – whose debut collection launched with the brand – to the region and the cause.

After traveling to Lago de Atitlan, painting one of the Santa Catarina Palopó houses themselves, and meeting some of the local artisans, Wong and Wurtzburger were impassioned to create a capsule collection of furniture and home goods that incorporated the Guatemalan craft techniques. “They brought a lot of enthusiasm to the project,” Olivero said. West Elm, which has a long-standing commitment to sustainable production, also jumped at the chance to support the communities around Lago de Atitlán.

Some of the textiles used for the furniture, homeware and objects in the capsule are manufactured by the women of Santa Catarina Palopó. Along with the age-old weaving techniques, new skills like beading and wool-work were introduced to the artisans, helping to increase jobs and productivity. What’s more, West Elm is pledging $100,000 to the Pintando el Cambio cause, which should be enough to bring the project to 70% complete.

“The social mission of this, combined with the design component and making it accessible to people, really resonates and felt natural and organic for us,” said West Elm’s Dru Ortega. “Having worked with both Diego, and Wendy and Mitzie, it just felt natural for us to be able to do it, in a way that didn’t feel forced, and felt like we were giving back to a good cause.”

The Atitlán Project capsule collection by Olivero and Roar + Rabbit includes 14 one-of-a-kind chairs and ottomans that highlight the craft of Guatemala. Textiles beaded and woven by hand, in contemporary patterns and colors influenced by the huipiles, are used to cover the pieces. West Elm is also selling a limited-edition selection of rugs, artwork, cushions, towels and other accessories that follow a similar aesthetic.

The one-off designs will be auctioned off during May 2019 to raise additional funds for Pintando el Cambio, and Whitbeck hopes that the tangible connection to the town will encourage potential buyers. “The project created work in the community, and the designs are manufactured by women in the community,” he said. “People who consume design want to have a story attached to it, and are looking for more meaning in what they spend their money on.”

The online auction, hosted on Paddle8, will launch May 6, 2019. To coincide, a panel discussion between Whitbeck, Olivero and Roar + Rabbit will take place at A/D/O on May 7, 2019, when the group will discuss the importance and impact of the project in more detail. The Atitlán Project furniture will also be on show at A/D/O May 6-9, 2019, and the auction will continue taking bids thorough May 22.

By raising awareness and funds for the project with events like these, the whole team hopes that support for the communities around Lago de Atitlán will continue to grow beyond Pintando el Cambio, and create a stable and sustainable economy in the region for generations to come.

“The idea is to continue the development," said Olivero. "Painting is one thing, but the handcraft is another. Education is super important. Raising awareness about the lake, which is on the verge of very high contamination. The art is just the start."

Text by Dan Howarth.

Photography courtesy of West Elm.

A global community of creators empowered by MINI to boldly explore the future of design.