Born in Mexico and now living in Los Angeles, Rebeca Méndez thrives on the threshold of disciplines and cultures, working in the boundary spaces between art and design, and between Mexico and the United States. She has done exceptional corporate work through her own business—Rebeca Méndez Design, founded in 1996—and for Ogilvy & Mather's Brand Integration Group, Wieden + Kennedy and Carl Seltzer Design, and earned top honors in graphic design circles (from Graphis and AIGA, among others), but she is also an exhibiting artist. When she discusses her work, which delicately integrates the organic and the digital in its aesthetic, she cites her photography and architectural collaborations long before she mentions her brand-identity projects. Rather than considering these practices as distinct endeavors with little relationship to each other, Méndez instead sees them as part of a larger cycle of creative activity united by a clear set of values and integrity. However, it took her a long time to figure this out.
Méndez explains that when she graduated from Art Center College of Design with a BFA in 1984, she was like a deer in the headlights. “I was educated with a very conservative mentality that said you should obey the industry, and that nearly killed me,” she says. Having arrived in the States as a self-described Communist Manifesto—carrying 18-year-old from Mexico City, Méndez later took a job at Carl Seltzer Design, where she recalls one of her first assignments, for Lockheed, a project based on the stealth bomber. The psychic disconnect almost convinced her that she'd chosen the wrong career. Luckily, a commission from the Getty Center to design a fellowships poster helped reorient her.
Méndez's three tips for your practice:
1. Experiment—create work for yourself, independent of clients, responding to your own questions and curiosity.
The Getty project brief was cheerfully broad: go into the Getty research vaults, look at the materials and find a way to represent the Center. In her subsequent wanderings, Méndez happened to stumble upon the work of several Fluxus artists, including that of George Brecht and Yoko Ono, and was smitten; her poster was based on a Brecht piece, and her excitement over the anarchic energy of Fluxus, combined with the opportunity to produce something that was at once compelling, creative and unique, made Méndez realize that her future was indeed in design—rather, design that leans strongly toward art, and in a mode that adheres to her own values and creative impulses.
Méndez returned to Art Center in 1989 to serve as the school's design director while earning her MFA in digital arts, which she completed in 1996. During this period, she honed a more critical attitude, taking direction from the dictates of designers such as Bruce Mau and the work being created at CalArts and Cranbrook. Design, she realized, is not merely about solving the problems of corporate clients, and indeed, one of her current mantras—be disobedient—emerged from this period. That said, Méndez also advocates a tripartite respect for experimentation, collaboration and principled commercial work. “It's taken me all these years to get here and to realize that when I'm doing all three of these things, I will not have to abandon my integrity when I'm doing commercial work.”
Even a cursory glance at Méndez's CV will amply demonstrate her commitment to collaboration. Her creative co-conspirators have included filmmaker Mike Figgis, architect Thom Mayne and video artist Bill Viola. She also works on many projects with her life and business partner Adam Eeuwens, including the developing 16mm-and-Hi-Def video series About to Happen, which “explores issues of space and time by studying the forces of nature modulated through technology.”
2. Collaborate—work with or form a collective of your friends and peers, especially those in other disciplines (writers, architects, artists, musicians, dancers).
Méndez is fascinated with large-scale works, often using murals, as well as light and digital media, in a way that transforms architectural objects into immersive interfaces. She is currently working on the façade and interiors of a condominium building in Tokyo, as well as a group of eight large murals for the County Registrar's office in Los Angeles. This project, she says, allows her to combine her interest in public art, conceptual art and visual culture.
It is this mix, with a clear emphasis on having an impact on culture, that Méndez finds most satisfying. She is committed to making change—social and political change in terms of the diversity of designers—as well as uncovering the ways in which power functions. This commitment contributes in part to her decision to remain in Los Angeles, where what she calls the clash of cultures and the ensuing connections and visual vitality help feed her own creativity. She cites her studio's ongoing work as “brand stewards” for Peace Over Violence, a local social services agency that supports victims of abuse, as critical to her practice.
She also appreciates the “lateral arrangement” that often characterizes collaboration in Los Angeles; rather than the hierarchical pyramid of the client/designer mentality in other places, this city, Méndez argues, is much more open to a side-by-side process. Similarly, L.A.'s Wild West legacy lingers, supporting Méndez in her own desire to keep pushing into new territories. “One of the things that may really be to my detriment is the fact that as soon as I learn how to do something, I set it aside and move on to something new,” she says. “I am not a good businesswoman, but it's a choice—I have chosen a much more creative direction.”
3. Have integrity—do your professional work without abandoning your personal convictions and values.
In her teachings as a tenured professor in the Design|Media Arts program at the University of California, Los Angeles, Méndez embodies what she herself has learned. She refuses to be “the expert” and constantly strives to destabilize predictable hierarchies and traditional pedagogical practices. And if her students feel secure, having defined a clear sense of identity, she insists that it is this moment that demands interrogation. “You have to continue that process of questioning,” she says, adding that UCLA, as a research institution, has helped her in this endeavor. “The core of design comes from a critical mind, and UCLA has helped to open the space for me to do that.”
Méndez has also chosen a much more outspoken path and insists that, with extensive distributed communication, having a voice is more important than ever. “One of the most difficult things I teach in my classes is that process of waking up to having something to say,” she says. “We constantly download and consume—too often we just swallow what's given to us. But the internet is helping us be more active in having things to make and share, in having an impact and in allowing new voices to speak. That's what I look forward to: we should be a sharing culture.”