Some familiar restaurant signs and brands in Austin could carry a little "Hecho in Mexico" notification. When you drive down South First Street and spot the excellent Lenoir's chic gold-and-black nametag-style sign or stand in line for hours staring at the retro pop art logo of Franklin Barbecue, you're looking at work created in Mexico City by former Austin-based designer Blair Richardson.
Just minutes after midnight on Jan. 1, 2009, at a party in Marfa, the life of the Virginia native took an unexpected turn. She met the soft-spoken and charming Jorge MunguÍa Matute, a producer of cultural projects in Mexico City. When the next New Year arrived, she was living in Mexico.
It was a move she never expected to make. She had traveled through Mexico before, traversing Chiapas for a month solo with limited Spanish skills, and had already found herself "a little bit in love" with the country. But Mexico City felt like an impossible challenge.
"I didn't have any idea that I could just move there. I thought Mexico City was too scary, just because of its size. And just five or six years ago it was daunting because you didn't know what resource to turn to," Richardson said recently at CafÉ Medici in Austin. "And obviously the media portrays Mexico City in a bad light. I just thought it was inaccessible."
While some in the United States imagine Mexico City as an inhospitable, polluted and extremely dangerous mega-city, Richardson has found a strong sense of community in the town locals call D.F. (Distrito Federal), while her Little Mule design studio has flourished.
Her exposure to a different culture and new creative expressions, such as rotulos (hand-painted signs in the street) and lucha libre (masked wrestling) posters, has had an impact on Richardson and helped her mature as a designer.
"It's opened up a lot of new possibilities. Just being able to see different things automatically informs your design process, and travel always informs your design process," Richardson said. "It gave me new inspiration. You get tired of seeing the same thing over and over again."
Richardson, who moved to Austin from North Carolina in 2004 shortly after graduating from North Carolina State, took the name for her company from the Tom Waits song "Get Behind the Mule."
"You got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow," Richardson said. The company moniker also pays homage to the nickname her father gave the former gymnast, "Little Muley."
"Because I'm stubborn," Richardson says with a blend of mischievousness and bashfulness as she sips the drink she clutches with two hands.
She got her start in Austin working with national clients and local restaurants like Asti and Fino while at Pentagram Design before starting her own business in 2008. One of her earliest clients was the now nationally famous Franklin Barbecue, for whom Richardson created a visual identity.
Over the past few years from her office in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of D.F. she has designed branding and packaging for East Austin Mexican restaurant Takoba; Argus Cidery; the upcoming dog-friendly Yard Bar; butcher shop and restaurant Dai Due; and MÉtier, the cookbook and kitchen supply store in South Austin from the owners of Lenoir. She has also designed several cookbooks, including Fort Worth chef Tim Byres' "Smoke: New Firewood Cooking," which recently won a James Beard Award.
"I think it appeals to my organizational tendencies," Richardson said of cookbook design. "I like being able to make something seem easy. I fell into it naturally. I love it. I'm not intimidated by almost any recipe."
As proof of that statement, Richardson ventured into the world of butchery for the first time during my recent visit to Mexico City. Relying on "Smoke" and Dai Due's "Afield," Richardson broke down a whole rabbit, which she braised and used in a spectacular risotto. The bunny came as part of a basket from Yolcan, Mexico City's first community-supported agriculture organization, for which Richardson's home serves a distribution point.
The move to Mexico City has enriched her personal life and ironically meant more business stateside for Richardson, who visits several times a year to meet with clients. She credits the business growth to her expanded perspective, her exposure to a more international crowd and the cachet that goes with being able to say you're working with a designer based in a cosmopolitan foreign city.
As for whether she will return to the States ...
"I don't really see it. I like the contrasts in Mexico City -- the vibrancy of the markets, the confusion and the fact that things are not arranged perfectly," Richardson said. "I know that things aren't going to go exactly how I want them to; I can't force them. So I flow a lot more there."
Get more coverage of the Austin area's Hispanic community every week in our free Spanish-language edition, ĦAhora SÍ!, and online at ahorasi.com.
(c)2014 Austin American-Statesman, Texas
Visit Austin American-Statesman, Texas at www.statesman.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services