American cochineal, a small parasitic insect that feeds on the prickly pear cactus, was for centuries the source of the most coveted red pigment in the world. Imbued with profound artistic, cultural, and economic significance for indigenous peoples of Mexico and the Andean Highlands of South America, cochineal was transformed into a widely-traded global commodity upon European contact in the 16th century. While historically it was favored for its ability to produce a highly desirable crimson red, the insect’s red carminic acid can yield shades ranging from soft pink to deep purple.
For designer Fernando Laposse (Mexican b. 1988), locality and historical context take center stage in every object he designs. In this contemporary lamp with a shade created from a cochniel-dyed sisal with a hammered aluminum body (2019), he explores the rise and fall of two important Mexican commodities – cochineal and sisal – by recovering the beauty and utilitarian qualities of each material.
Once widely used for a variety of goods, cochineal and sisal fell into disuse with the invention of chemical dyes and plastic. In this whimsical lampshade, sisal, commonly employed for ropes and fishing nets, is transformed by the cochineal die typically reserved for the most sumptuous fabrics to produce a delicate balance of color and textures.
Photographed in the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in Manhattan.