These Are the Real Meanings Behind Appropriated Mexican Decor Elements

published Sep 16, 2022
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Colorful blankets on ladder in room with blue and yellow pillow.
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One thing I appreciate about international hotels is their thoughtful design. I often see ideas I can utilize in my home, especially when I want to include elements from other cultures. For example, I recently stayed at a hotel in Mexico with decor intrigued me, as it was regionally inspired without looking like the typical decor at my local Mexican restaurant, which is bursting with bright colors, painted tiles, and sombrero-clad figures. 

I dwelled in a space celebrating color and natural elements, which invited a question — what is the difference between including a culture’s design in your home and cultural appropriation? While using another country or culture’s decor elements isn’t necessarily wrong, it does depend on why you’re incorporating them. 

As an interior designer and former art history major, Maddy Kozoyed often queries her clients on their reasoning behind including specific pieces. To avoid appropriation, she suggests asking yourself if you’re adding something because of its heritage, design, or another reason. Answering those questions can help determine if usage is a good idea. “If a client isn’t interested in paying for the price of a handmade, artisanal, or Mexican-made option, I would consider another option,” she says.

Although plenty of appropriation isn’t purposeful, there are harmful effects of disingenuously displaying certain pieces. “The loss is that the original culture, production methods, or visual heritage, which have centuries of history and craftsmanship behind them, end up looking like a cartoon,” advises Anna Karp, the CEO and cofounder of the renovation site Bolster. Instead, Karp encourages adopting the mindset of appreciation instead of appropriation. 

“My point of view is that appropriating a ‘look’ without looking into the substance that originally created such a look is the true loss,” says Karp. In other words, try celebrating heritage instead of simply mimicking a style. Here are five often appropriated Mexican design elements and the meanings behind them.

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Talavera Tiles and Pottery

Whether in a bathroom, on a wall, or incorporated into art pieces, Mexican design often includes beautifully colored pottery. Authentic tiles — called Talavera — are made from volcanic soils found near Puebla, Mexico, and were initially hand-painted using techniques that originated in Italy and Spain during the 15th and 16th centuries. Although not every indigenous artist uses this age-old method, the blue-toned tiles are all over Mexico.

Today people commonly include these elements in their homes, particularly in bathrooms and kitchens. “Talavera tiles are frequently used in bathrooms, on fountains, as borders for windows, doors, mirrors, fireplaces, and wall murals,” says Laurice Constantine, the founder of Casadar, a site that connects homeowners with designers. She also notes that majolica is a broader term for pottery, including Talavera and other handcrafted earthenware.

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Piñatas

When I was a kid, I attended many parties where I anxiously awaited the time that I could try batting tradition in Mexico dating back to a 16th-century festival. “One of the pet peeves of every Mexican in the design industry is the immediate association of Mexican design with piñatas,” Karp says. 

Although today’s piñatas are paper-maché and take on shapes ranging from dinosaurs to popular cartoon characters, the original had much more meaning. Once constructed from clay and covered with ribbons and paper-maché, the initial piñatas were a ball with seven cones representing the seven cardinal sins, which are overcome by opening the piñata. 

Credit: Jennifer Prince
La Casa de la Playa in Riviera Maya, Mexico

Vibrant Color Schemes

When using color, the intent is usually to commemorate the cheery vibrancy often associated with Mexican design. However, color can often be misrepresented, and Mexican decor doesn’t always include bold tones. “Heritage in Mexican design is not limited to the use of bright colors, like pink and yellow, although those colors form an important part of our color language,” acknowledges Karp. “Mexican design and color trends are so much more than that, and their evolution and growth within America’s design trends will hopefully soon transcend these associations,” she adds. 

Karp also noted that being eco-friendly and using natural items is a vital part of design in Mexico, and these sustainable elements often lead to more subtle hues. “Mexican design is also about materials and textures,” she reflects. “A lot of our crafts and heritage are constantly being reinvented and repurposed into sophisticated interior design pieces that take sustainability into account.” Natural tones and locally-sourced items were quite evident throughout my hotel space. 

Credit: Stocksy/Jeremy Pawlowski

Sombreros

Central America is known for its warm weather, which is why the country attracts many honeymooners and those looking to escape harsh winters. However, for those who live in Mexico and work outside, the constant sun and heat can be intolerable, which is why many still wear wide-brimmed sombreros. “For example, in the ‘90s, the prevailing imagery of Mexico was primarily Speedy Gonzales or ‘The Three Amigos,’ and more recently, ‘Disney’s Coco,’” Karp says. 

Not only does seemingly harmless visual entertainment acclimate the U.S. to cultural appropriation, but it also affects those living in Mexico. “It created an influence that not only reframed how Mexico is perceived within the U.S. but also impacted how a new generation of Mexicans see themselves in Mexico.”

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Sugar Skulls

Traditional Mexican sugar skulls are intricate and beautiful yet often appear in decor, especially during October. While Halloween focuses on all things spooky — witches, ghosts, and skeletons — Day of the Dead soon follows (on Nov. 1 and 2) and honors those who have passed. “You might come across some Day of the Dead (Día De Los Muertos) traditional art in Mexican interior design,” Constantine says. “Skulls and skeletons with ornate decorations are among these artifacts.” Not only are the sugared skulls a way the Mexican celebrate their ancestors, but the shape and colors on the skull also bear meaning, such as hope and purity.