Mexican modernists

During the first half of the 20th century, design and architecture played a fundamental role in the creation of a dynamic and cosmopolitan Mexican identity. Design curator Ana Elena Mallet explores how three designers, today all but forgotten, responded to the economic boom of mid-century Mexico

Text by Ana Elena Mallet

modernist-1Still from Ciudad Moderna (Terence Gower, 2004), a video montage based on the Mexican film Despedida de casada (“Bachelorette Party for a Bride”, Juan de Orduña, 1966)

El Milagro Mexicano – the Mexican miracle – transformed the country between 1930 and 1960. Solid economic growth created a new middle class, keen to express a newfound confidence in their national identity, and voracious in their pursuit of a Mexican modernity. The architecture of this period is well known internationally thanks to the iconic work of architects like Mario Pani, Luis Barragán and Juan O’Gorman. Yet despite the great quality and innovation of the era’s furniture and objects, Mexican designers of the time remain virtually unknown. Three figures – Clara Porset, Arturo Pani (younger brother of Mario) and Michael van Beuren – met the newly empowered middle class with an elegant sensitivity, and defined the questing innovation of Mexican Modernism in furniture and interior design.

modernist-2Clara Porset-designed furniture for the Pierre Marqués Hotel, Acapulco, c. 1957. Courtesy Clara Porset Archive/CIDI/Faculty of Architecture/UNAM

Clara Porset

Possibly the country’s most renowned designer, Porset was born in Matanzas, Cuba, in 1895 and arrived in Mexico in 1936. She developed her body of work around Mexican vernacular furniture.

Architects such as Barragán, Mario Pani and Juan Sordo Madaleno drew upon her genius on many occasions. Muralist Xavier Guerrero, whom she married in 1938, introduced her to the riches of Mexican popular art. From the wealth of vernacular works produced across Mexico at the time, Porset discovered the butaque, a traditional armchair that was produced, with variations, in every region of the country. This piece was her source of inspiration and constant experimentation. Other designers, such as William Spratling and Héctor Aguilar in Taxco, had already reinterpreted butaques, but it was Porset who analysed them formally.

Convinced that design was a tool in the development of social welfare, Porset became involved in projects such as the development of furniture for Mario Pani’s Centro Urbano Presidente Miguel Alemán (1947), the first multi-family housing project in Mexico, aimed at state workers.

The project was not well received by its users, but Porset did not give up. In 1959 she returned to Cuba to offer her services to the revolution. She designed furniture for Ciudad Camilo Cienfuegos in Sierra Maestra, as well as for Ricardo Porro’s arts project, then returned to Mexico in 1964, where she taught at the Universidad Autónoma de México (UNAM) until her death in 1981.

modernist-3Arturo Pani plastic chair, c. 1960. Courtesy Pablo Velasco

Arturo Pani

Born in Mexico City in 1915, Pani travelled to Europe with his family at the age of four. After studying decorative arts at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he returned to Mexico in 1935 and started a career as a designer and interior decorator. His first project was the design of furniture for his family home on Calle Lieja, and it set the mood for his subsequent work. He became known for his innovative solutions, making antiques and contemporary pieces work in harmony within one space.

With the help of his architect brother Mario, he obtained his first major public project in 1936, managing the interiors of the iconic Hotel Reforma in Colonia Juárez. This project catapulted him to fame and he quickly became a favourite among the Mexican elite. Pani’s designs were edgy; he knew how to mix materials. His taste was inclined towards the European and historicist styles, but he adapted to any situation and, above all, to his clients’ needs.

Pani designed countless interiors, including bars, clubs and restaurants, in opulent and glamorous 1950s Mexico. Golden polished iron was one of his favourite materials, and he used it in the design of tables, consoles, lamps and chandeliers. Some of his most notable pieces are tables with metal bases and glass tops.

modernist-4Michael van Beuren table, c. 1940. Courtesy Jan van Beuren

Michael van Beuren

Born in New York in 1911, van Beuren travelled to Europe in 1929 on board a cargo ship, looking for adventure. In 1931 he enrolled at the Bauhaus, hoping to become an architect. During his time there, van Beuren met many of the masters of Bauhaus, including Josef Albers and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. At the end of his course he moved to Berlin and in 1934 returned to New York to do an architecture degree at NYU.

He came to Mexico in 1938 to build some bungalows in Acapulco and soon decided to stay in the country permanently. Unable to practise architecture because he had never finished his degree, van Beuren detected a gap in the market: the design and production of furniture.

The 1940s were a decade of consolidation for Mexico. This was the time of the development of infrastructure and new companies, and the birth of a middle class looking to carve out a new lifestyle. Van Beuren invited a colleague from the Bauhaus, Klaus Grabe, to start a company called Grabe & Van Beuren that aimed to satisfy the needs, real and symbolic, of this new, modern Mexico.

Van Buren opened a shop selling several lines of industrially produced furniture. The products were well received and in 1941 the pair won the Organic Design for Home Furniture award from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, for their chaise lounge in metal and macerate rope. (Also honoured were Clara Porset and Xavier Guerrero, for a set of low-cost furniture for rural farmers.)

After Grabe left, the company changed its name to Domus, and years later, after the arrival of Michael’s brother Frederick, to Van Beuren SA de CV. Van Beuren’s cosmopolitan approach and experience at the Bauhaus allowed him to make the most out of Mexican materials and local labour. He did this while also imprinting his furniture with a universal style that distinguished, and maybe defined, the taste and interest of Mexico’s emerging middle class.

Van Beuren constantly found new ways to apply the principles of Bauhaus to his production: industry, craft and art. The Pino and Danesa lines, which he designed in 1959-60 with British architect Philip Guilmant, were the culmination of his theories and experimentations. Working with pine and mahogany, the designers created a series of elements that could be replicated easily, reducing production costs and lowering prices.

In 1955, the factory turned into a sort of industrial city with the purchase of a sawmill to better control production processes and the construction of housing for workers. The latter was proof of the brothers’ belief that as their work improved their own lifestyle, it should also improve their employees’. Until Van Beuren SA de CV’s sale in 1971, the complex was an example of how a socially enlightened company could work in practice. §

  • 20TH Century Design