She Has Led Projects Related to Topics Such as Circularity, Biomimicry, and Design Fiction. An Interview With Sustainable Designer Paula Cermeño León.

Photograph by Jagoda Wisniewska
Q: Who is Paula Cermeño León? 
With a passion for sustainability, Paula Cermeño León is a Swiss-based, Peruvian-born industrial designer who showcases the value of plants and biodiversity by developing products and material experimentation, notably in the fields of skincare and wellbeing. Since 2017 she has acquired a diverse skill set by dividing her time between her design practice, research, and academia. She has collaborated with experts working with plants both in Switzerland and Peru, in contexts such as research laboratories and local companies. She was the head of the Industrial Design Program and a lecturer at PUCP (Lima, Peru), as well as a Principal Resident at La Becque Artist Residency (La Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland). Now based in Lausanne, Switzerland, she is centering on her design practice by cultivating new collaborations in order to create products with a positive impact and to biodiversify industrial design.

Q: What brought you as an industrial designer to San Francisco and what are your objectives for this journey?
My goal in San Francisco is to grow my network of collaborators by connecting with people and companies working in plant-based skincare and striving for sustainability with their materials, ingredients, and processes. Each city, country, place, has a different approach to these issues and I am excited to discover the Bay Area approach through the use of new technologies. 

Q: What was your most exciting project so far?
My Refined Remedies project was exciting because it was the first time I got to work in a lab, thanks to my collaborators who introduced me to their space and who supervised me while we made tests together in order to perfect the colors, textures and shapes of different edible and topical wellbeing products. 

Q: What challenges do you see for a Swiss designer wanting to work internationally, and in the Bay Area specifically?
As a Swiss-based designer I think the Bay Area is a great environment for experimentation and to push products further. In a new place it’s challenging to find collaborators with common interests and similar passions, and to then build new projects from that. 

Q: Have there been pushbacks in your career and how did you approach/handle them? 
There are definitely obstacles when trying to implement sustainable strategies in wellbeing and skincare products, notably because of financial or technical feasibility. I think it’s important to not give up, look at the long term and divide big goals into stages, as well as to always reach agreements through dialogue and learn through collaboration.

Q: Which project from your portfolio is essential to your personal life?
Platanaceae is a series of burn wound bandages that I designed from banana leaves. The first-aid bandage is an example of a much used product that needs to be single-use because of its purpose (it needs to be discarded after a maximum use of 12 to 24 hours). However, its materials last a lot longer than that and create waste. My project Platanaceae is a conceptual prototype that questions whether we can start making bandages out of abundant, biodegradable materials such as the banana leaf. 

Q: What is one word of advice you can offer to young women who want to reach your level of success?
Success is relative and shouldn't necessarily be the end goal. Have your vision in mind, and also appreciate small steps that bring you closer to that vision.

Q: Can you tell our audience one of your most memorable moments in your career?
One of the first times I had to talk about my work during Milan Design Week, at the Triennale Design Museum, in front of the jury of the Lexus Design Awards, whose members I admire deeply. It was a nerve-wracking but rewarding experience. 

Q: At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? 
Designers can thrive when they find collaborators from different fields. Collaboration can open new doors and opportunities.

Q: Which woman inspires you and why? 
Hella Jongerius is a Dutch designer. I’m inspired by her experimentation with color and how she has made an impact in the design industry throughout her career. 

Q: What advice would you give to young women who want to pursue their dream and start a business? 
To pursue your own project as a career path, find what you’re passionate about and then connect your skillset to discover opportunities for influencing change. Gradually dedicate more time towards it and build up in stages. 

Q: What advice would you give to young women who want to succeed in the workplace?
Make your voice heard through actions. 

Q: After high school, where did you feel your career path would take you? 
I thought I would design highly industrial products, such as electronics and appliances. 

Q: Can you tell us how you manage your work life balance?
When I feel off balance, I try to gradually build back time towards what is important to me. For me, sudden changes can scare away important shifts. 

Q: What's your advice for women in male-dominated fields?
Harness what makes you unique.

Five Things About Paula Cermeno Leon

1. What was the last book you really got into?
Designs for the Pluriverse by Arturo Escobar. I love how he builds on the Zapatista concept of “a world where many worlds fit.” 

2. What’s the most amazing adventure you've ever been on?
I really enjoyed going into the Amazon jungle in Peru last year. To reach the community we were visiting we had to hike all day -up and down- through mud, sand, rocks, creeks, sun, and rain, and I was the least experienced of the group. Of course, it was totally worth it. 

3. Best and worst flavor ice cream?
Best: a good mint chocolate chip

Worst: a bad mint chocolate chip

4. Are you a morning person or a night owl?
Night owl except when I have jetlag

5. What’s your signature drink?
Pisco sour


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