SUPPLIER SPOTLIGHT: Boldly Meso
Words and Layout by Jenny Wonderling | Shop Meso now!
All photos by Meso (unless otherwise specified)
Enthusiastic, accessible, and deeply committed to what they are growing, the owners of Meso have elevated crafts to mainstream design with a conscience, and they have a lot to be proud of. As Gonzalo, one of Meso’s founding partners explained, “Since we started, we immediately disrupted the handmade sector. It was like our trademark, doing things completely differently.” Impassioned by the positive change they are bringing to hundreds of artisans and their families in many villages of Central America, (and many more through the non-profit programs they have helped support) three young entrepreneurs are simultaneously preserving and improving traditional ways of life, while offering access to a global market for age old techniques. When I started Nectar 11 years ago, I searched mostly in vain for companies with a great modern design sense making sustainably, ethically sourced products. Handmade and Fair Trade companies at that time were plucking traditional globally sourced crafts and while providing a market, not translating the designs for those with a more scrutinous design sense. It was almost impossible to source from companies that were effectively doing what Meso has created with seeming ease: an abundant line of diverse goods for the home that are unequivocally modern and yet whisper of something more. And that “more” is a visceral, heartfelt response I long for in every product I share with Nectar’s clients, but is still not easy to find: items that subtly ignite a curiosity and respect for the hands that made each specific piece, and their unique culture. And it is this experience that allows for much more than a simple purchase.
Suddenly a mere pillow has served to remind us that we can better others through that purchase. But we are also gifted with a new lens and respect for a different and often ancient way of life, perhaps even touched by their subtle energy and story, whether we consciously are aware of this or not. In a political age that is increasingly dismissive of the benefits of cultural diversity and exchange, I cling vigilantly to the fact that embracing and learning from our global village is not only essential to our collective happiness but our survival. Most of us have forgotten what it takes to shear sheep, spin wool, source and process berries and other natural items for dyes, use a backstrap or pedal loom, hand wash textiles, hang them to dry, walk miles to get it all done, as stories are shared and songs are sung in an ancient language. It is important to have others remind us of the inherent beauty in all that simplicity, tradition, and even hard manual work. And yet there is all that, (poof!), contained in that one pillow that you can purchase from your perch at your formica desk with a click of a button and a screen.
Beneath a dynamic aesthetic that seems familiar to your Western eyes, that can easily integrate with your modern decor, Meso’s items are also imbibed with all that. And the magic is that anyone can sense intuitively that there is a difference between these handmade items and something mechanized, easily and quickly replicable, and lacking a kind of wabi sabi character and texture. They may not be able to name it, but it causes an urge to run one’s fingers across the knobby texture of the natural vegetable dyed hand loomed wool rugs and pillows, feel the just-right weight in the hand of their recycled glasses, all both deceptively simple and yet organic and full of character. Not to mention Green. And the Meso line has expanded significantly beyond these items to include masks, candles, soaps, jewelry and more. What unifies all of it is the integrity behind the products, that they are providing a sustainable and creative outlet for a traditional way of life, and access for those items to a global market. I have watched this small company grow significantly, drawn in by their bold geometric rugs and pillows, designs that invoke early 20c abstract artists like Sonia Delaunay, and settle easily among a Vintage Modern inspired aesthetic or any other, adding just the right pop of color, texture and graphic.
Meso’s designs caught my interest their very first year at the New York International Gift Show. Their lush booth has always stood out with it’s strong designs, especially in a generally more subdued palette in the Handmade section where they are nestled. The owners are genuinely friendly, obviously impassioned about what they are creating and the positive change they are contributing to. And I admit it, I’m a sucker for a great story. It is that passion that is life’s nectar for me, something I can’t wait to learn more about, support, share, have evidence of around me in my home and work space. Previously known as The Mayan Store, Meso’s founding owners, Diego and Gonzalo, along with their new partner Marisa have recently rebranded their identity to be just as expansive as they have become both in terms of reaching broader global markets and the communities from which they source. No longer limited to Guatemala and Mexico, they are working with artisans all over Mesoamerica, and intend to continue their growth. Or as Gonzalo explained, “Changing the name really allows us to embrace other cultures and techniques, and apply our own philosophy of contemporary designs with new concepts to other artisans as well.” Marisa added, “And I think that the line also reflects how we are maturing as a brand and as a company.” It was at the NYIGF that we met briefly for this interview (and an order of course. ;0) and I learned how Meso provides a bridge between past, present, and future so gracefully.
To plunge deeper into Meso’s journey, read excerpts from the interview with it’s partners Diego Olivero, Gonzalo Pertile and Marisa Umaña here...
Jenny: So when did you start this new partnership?
Gonzalo: With Marisa, early in March of 2016, but we know her around 5 years. She was working previously with the Guatemalan exporters association and we used to travel together and worked together at different shows and collaborated on different projects. Then Marisa decided to join our team and become our partner!
Jenny: So you have different roles or is there a lot of overlap?
Gonzalo: Actually we have very clearly defined and very different roles.The three of us took one whole year off from the shows in 2016 to organize our house internally because it’s a learning process for the three of us.
Jenny: Marisa, what is your background?
Marisa: I have a background in International Commerce and Development, and a Masters in both International FInance and Development, but I used to work with the Exporters Association in Guatemala so I had a lot of work strengthening companies that wanted to go out in the market and sell their handmade products. So that is how we met.
Jenny: And Gonzalo, what is your role?
Gonzalo: I am more of the administrative part of the company. I studied Business Management, now I’m doing a Masters Degree in International Development as well. Marisa and I work very closely together and Diego is the creative side. He is always the one who is behind the designs, he’s an industrial designer actually. He has a lot of experience in Interior Design, Hospitality Design. So he comes with a lot of experience and knowledge of the market. He’s the one who really takes the products and the techniques and makes them appealing to different markets. I think it’s a really nice balance. We’re happy.
Jenny: When did you start the company?
Gonzalo: It started in 2010 so almost 7 years now and we started really, really small. A small collection of some pillows and lamps in a show in Guatemala. Little by little we started growing, getting more clients, and also growing our network of artisans. Everything was really natural, the growth itself, clients, artisans, and we just kept adding things.
(Photo by Jenny Wonderling of Diego Olivero (left) and Gonzalo Pertile (right))
Jenny: And did you start with one village?
Gonzalo: We started with one cooperative, like 15 artisans and it was only textiles.
Jenny: And did you introduce a very different style from what they were used to doing before?
Gonzalo: Yes, since the beginning we completely changed what they were doing and actually the first trade show we participated in Guatemala, we won a prize for the best Central American designs. So since we started, we immediately disrupted the handmade sector. It was like our trademark, doing things completely differently.
Jenny: And how did the artisans respond? Was it hard to get them to understand what you were trying to accomplish, to change their vision of what was beauty?
Gonzalo: Yes, it was hard in the beginning. First of all they don’t know you. They don’t know who you are if they can trust you. You come and say, “do this differently.” So it’s a building of relationships, explaining why it’s better to do it this other way, to just try it.
Jenny: Are you still working with the same artisans?
Gonzalo: Yes, and we’re growing and the thing is, now the trust is there so when we give them a new design its easier.
Jenny: And how would you say working with them has shifted them?
Gonzalo: That’s one of the important things that we always do is an impact study of the communities to measure the impact. We have statistics of three communities. For example, since they started working with us they have earned 5 times more than what they earned before- that’s one of the communities. And the argument is that the average price of the product increased 18 times since the beginning because the work they were doing in the beginning was just a bracelet. Now they are doing a beaded pillow for instance, so it’s much more income for them and therefore their average price increases.
Jenny: How incredible.
Marisa: And because of what we’re doing they have jobs the whole year now, where before they were just selling at the market like for one week here and there, it was seasonal. So now they have a constant income for their families and you can see how they have grown.
Jenny: And has the introduction of your designs affected how they create their own designs too or they are only making items for you now? Or are they also making traditional work and still bringing it to the market? If so is their work now also influenced by your aesthetic?
Diego: I think little by little they are starting to change and that’s going to keep changing for generations.
Marisa: I think what’s important is they are changing their way of thinking. They know they have to improve their designs and their quality, because they see how much they have grown working with us. They now understand if they better their designs and their techniques, they can better themselves.
Jenny: And their sense of the market is now so much more global than the little local one… And are you certified Fair Trade?
Gonzalo: No we’re not but we will be. It’s a long process and its very expensive.
Diego: We have a partnership with USA and the ministry of economy though, and we do the same practices as Fair Trade, abiding by the rules but we just aren’t certified.
Jenny: Did you fund it yourself since the beginning?
Jenny: that’s amazing!
Gonzalo: And we started little and incrementally, both of us still had separate jobs so this was our side business, our hobby I would say. We would take money from our regular paychecks and then little by little grow, and invest back into the company. And then when it came to the moment that it was really sustainable in itself, by the second year, at that moment we said, ok, it’s something big that we are creating so let’s dedicate our focus and I started working full time here.
Jenny: Any big challenges? What are you biggest as a small business?
Gonzalo: The biggest is that you don’t find the artisans in the capital cities. You have to search for them, to travel sometimes 8-9 hours in the country between the mountains. That is a challenge, and production supervision.
Jenny: How do you find the artisans?
Gonzalo: We go on trips, sometimes they hear about us and contact us directly, sometimes we collaborate with the Ministry of Economy who has a really big network around the country so they introduce us to some communities.
Jenny: Are you trying to train people also who don’t have any experience?
Diego: Yes, we do it. Since the rugs are one of our best selling items, we work with two communities, and recently started training a young community of weavers how to weave, and learn different dying techniques. For example Indigo, this is new.
Jenny: And where did you learn all these ancient techniques?
Gonzalo: We have technicians that know how, we get consultants who specialize in these things, specialists in the field so they can teach the others. We identify the master weaver in each community and it’s usually an old guy who goes around to the rest of the communities teaching the others.
Jenny: And the glass? Where are you making that?
Gonzalo: In Guatemala. It’s a community about 4 hours from the capital city and its a cooperative who was making glass before. We boosted their production and apply our own vision and techniques. It’s been going really well.
Jenny: Any vision or changes for the future of the company?
Gonzalo: The main thing is the partnership and growing to other artisan markets, bringing in other artisans from other countries. I’m very happy for what’s to come for Meso.
...And how can they be anything but happy, this company that is as Diego explains, “Is passionate about working at the intersection between business and positive social impact.” Or as their site video succinctly describes their mission: “Driven by colorful design and centuries old techniques, [the company] promotes a social design movement that brings together designers with artisans. In order to create unique handmade products that contribute towards improving human well being and the livelihood of artisans, [Meso] provides high quality designed products to a socially aware and responsible consumer. [-] We strive to generate positive changes and provide sustainable income for artisans by promoting a Social Design Movement that unites designers and artisans to create ethically crafted and unique handmade products for an inspired and mindful style of living.”
And they do.