Rebeca Méndez

Recognition

2017 AIGA Medal

Born

1962, Mexico City, Mexico

Recognized for challenging and transforming academia and design with her innovative interplay of identity and culture

Rebeca Méndez often says that boundaries are like open invitations to her. Whether that means subverting conventional stereotypes in corporate client work, or physically traveling to other countries in pursuit of education or research initiatives, Méndez has spent her career crossing the boundaries of culture, disciplines, and thought. She inhabits the worlds of design and art simultaneously, and it is this rare ability to migrate effortlessly between art gallery, ad agency, and university classroom that enables her dynamic point of view to emanate from everything she produces.

She credits her parents, both chemical engineers, for instilling in her “the curiosity, resilience, and spirit of the explorer—one who discovers and sees the world anew—as well as the empirical and determined mind of the scientist—the one who investigates, experiments, and proves.” Though she grew up in Mexico City, Méndez would spend her summers deep in the jungles of Chiapas and Yucatan, camping with her parents, in search of ancient Mayan archaeological wonders.

She developed a strong work ethic early, training as a gymnast from age six into adolescence, and was selected to compete in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, though Mexico ultimately boycotted the Olympics. At her father’s encouragement, Méndez moved to the United States to study graphic design at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California. But her childhood pursuits “set the course for [her] interest in matter, in cycles and systems,” concepts that recur in her later works.

After graduating from ArtCenter College in 1984 Méndez went on to serve as design director for the school, where she helped produce more than 300 projects each year, from annual catalogues to the institute’s first website. During this time, she returned to the classroom to teach and also to pursue her M.F.A. in fine arts, which fostered in her a new transdisciplinary approach to form-making.

Through photography, film, video, and installation Méndez explores the nature of perception, media representation, and culture. Often, her work takes her to unfamiliar and extreme environments in places such as Iceland, Patagonia, the Sahara, or the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. To her, the journey is its own medium. Her work then becomes a conduit of the heightened perception she obtains in these remote locations, channeling the environmental and social issues that Méndez has been addressing through her practice since graduate school.

Her thesis project was aptly titled Boundaries, which would become a recurring theme in her work as an artist and activist. Today, the word “boundaries” carries with it politically charged connotations, and Méndez is keenly aware of her responsibilities as an artist and designer working at a time when political forces seek to insulate our society through reinforced borders and walls. She is the designer behind the bold typographic campaign for Refuse Fascism, an organization of activists dedicated to stopping the spread of racism and nationalism. "It's not that I do political art, I do art politically," said Méndez.

As a woman who immigrated to the United States from Mexico, the fight against misogyny and intolerance is deeply personal. Her upcoming artist residency in Mexico City will focus on immigration issues and women’s rights, but in a format less visually direct than her Refuse Fascism campaign.

Since 1996, when she opened her own studio with her husband Adam Eeuwens, Méndez has dedicated at least half of her design work to pro bono and social causes. In 2004 she donated her creative services to the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women, rebranding the agency’s name and visual language to better represent their two-fold system of intervening in cases of sexual assault and domestic abuse against women, while also promoting violence prevention initiatives through youth education programs and public policy. The commission received a 50 percent increase in donations after relaunching as Peace Over Violence under Méndez’s creative direction. She was honored at their 45th Annual Humanitarian Awards Gala for her design contribution to their cause.

Méndez says that design as a social force, a concept she’s lectured about extensively, is what initially attracted her to a career in visual communication. She spent several years creating public art commissions for architect Thom Mayne of Morphosis, and designing book projects for cultural institutions such as MOCA, Los Angeles; the Whitney Museum of American Art; and Guggenheim, but realized that the scope of her audience was relatively limited. Having the capacity to reach a global audience is what convinced her to enter the world of advertising. She spent the next few years working for Wieden+Kennedy in Portland, and later joined Ogilvy & Mather as creative director, to lead the Brand Integration Group in Los Angeles.

She continued to approach her corporate accounts—including top global brands IBM, AT&T Wireless, Motorola, and Trend Micro—with the same passion she had for her cultural clients, and with the sensibilities of not just a designer, but also an artist. She inspired her design team at companies such as Microsoft with lectures on the essence of the brand’s technology, binary code, and how the concept of zero was the key to the mathematics and cosmology of the ancient Maya.

This interdisciplinary approach to design is what led to her current position at UCLA’s School of the Arts & Architecture, where she has worked full time as a professor in the Design Media Arts department since 2003. Because students typically enter the program with interests and perspectives outside the world of design, Méndez founded Counterforce Lab, a research and fieldwork studio at UCLA that invites students to create and execute projects relating to climate change and the ecological impacts of humanity.

In her 2013 large-scale video installation titled CircumSolar, Migration 1, she documents the migration pattern of the Arctic tern, a small and slender seabird whose journey is the longest of all living creatures on earth, stretching from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back each year. Méndez isn’t interested for the sake of birdwatching, but rather the metaphor the tern represents: all living things exist within cyclical, migratory patterns that we should respect rather than ignore. “The smallest of creatures are really a barometer of what’s happening or what can happen to us as a species. In order for us to understand, truly, our place in the world, we need to connect to the social issues of migration.”

Méndez has received many awards for her excellence in design. In 2012 she received the National Design Award in Communication Design from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum for her work that is now in their permanent collection. Her designs have spanned solo exhibitions across the world, from San Francisco to Venice to Oaxaca.

The cyclical nature of the university semester system has given Méndez time to continue her excursions to distant locales. Her impulse to travel is essential to her creative process. “The moment that I feel rooted, static, I become like a caged tiger. I just need to be on the move, even coming here to this country or the things I create between art and design,” says Méndez. “When you cross a boundary of any kind, you find yourself outside of your skin, outside of your known space, and therefore you must be open to what could become. It's that constant becoming, that crossing of thresholds, where things actually happen.”


Timeline:

  • 1962 Born in Mexico City

  • 1972 Selected to join Junior Olympic Team

  • 1979 Prepares to participate in Moscow Olympics; does not compete due to boycott of games

  • 1984 Receives B.F.A. in graphic design from ArtCenter College of Design

  • 1989 Accepts position as design director for ArtCenter College

  • 1996 Receives M.F.A. in fine arts from ArtCenter College

  • 1996 Opens Rebeca Méndez Studio in partnership with husband Adam Eeuwens

  • 1997 Leipzig Book Fair awards bronze medal for Best Book Design from All Over the World for book on Bill Viola designed for Whitney Museum of American Art

  • 1997 Signs on as art director at Wieden+Kennedy in Portland, Oregon

  • 1998 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art curates solo exhibition of her work

  • 1999 Thom Mayne/Morphosis commissions her to create 25,000-square-foot permanent art installation in restaurant Tsunami in Las Vegas

  • 2000 Hired as senior partner and creative director for Brand Integration Group at Ogilvy & Mather in Los Angeles

  • 2003 Joins Design Media Arts department as professor for UCLA School of the Arts & Architecture

  • 2004 Develops Brand Lab elective at UCLA, in which she leads undergraduates in rebranding Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women (LACAAW)

  • 2006 Two large-scale permanent installations, commissioned by Thom Mayne/Morphosis, introduced at University of Cincinnati Campus Recreation Center. Graphis magazine presents her with Platinum Award (2008)

  • 2006 Travels to Iceland (2006–2008) to film with a hand-cranked Bolex 16mm film camera, results in series At Any Given Moment in 2009

  • 2008 Awarded commission from Los Angeles County Arts Commission to create permanent public art installation in Elections Operation Center in Santa Fe Springs, California

  • 2010 Receives California Community Foundation Fellowship for Visual Artists

  • 2010 Awarded artist residency aboard The Arctic Circle, sailboat expedition of Svalbard, to document migratory patterns of Arctic tern

  • 2012 Receives National Design Award in Communication Design from Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

  • 2013 Exhibition of CircumSolar, Migration 1, single-channel video installation projected onto a circular screen 25 feet in diameter at Glow, all-night arts event, Santa Monica Beach

  • 2013 Los Angeles County Arts Commission enlists her to create CircumSolar, Migration 2, a permanent public art installation at Pico Rivera Library

  • 2015 Initiates Counterforce Lab, research and fieldwork studio for UCLA undergraduates

  • 2016 Receives Vision Over Violence Award from Peace Over Violence at 45th Annual Humanitarian Awards

  • 2016 Designs branding for activist organization Refuse Fascism to be used during protests and in newspaper ads, recent spread in the New York Times

  • 2016 Creates CircumSolar, Migration 4, for Metro Art commission for Crenshaw/LAX, to be inaugurated in 2019


Sources:

“CHANGE/MAKERS: Episode 2, Rebeca Méndez,” ArtCenter College of Design, last modified October 8, 2014, http://www.artcenter.edu/about/alumni/alumni-stories/rebeca-mendez.html