Design for the Future in Latin America, Both Past and Present

Installation view of Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940–1978, Americas Society.
Installation view of Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940–1978, Americas Society.

An unlikely but revelatory pair of exhibitions, one on each side of Central Park, is showcasing the long and sometimes idiosyncratic history of design in Latin America. Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940–1978, at the Americas Society (on view February 11 to May 16, 2015), is the more historically-minded of the two, concerned with the apogee of the modernist moment as it played out in three markedly distinct countries. New Territories: Laboratories for Design, Craft and Art in Latin America, at the Museum of Arts and Design (on view November 4, 2014 to April 5, 2015), more loosely surveys contemporary trends from the past fifteen years, uniting fashion, furniture, textiles, and ceramics, to name a few of the categories it seeks to dismantle. Indeed, design in both shows seems to know no boundaries and remains nearly impossible to define. Rather than enforcing a taxonomy or otherwise attempting to regulate the objects, however, the curators use this ontological slipperiness as an opportunity to complicate what could be fairly standard narratives of formal experimentation or technological innovation. Beyond their shared subject of Latin American design, the two shows diverge sharply in terms of scope, chronology, and curatorial approach, but taken together they tell the complex, often contradictory story of how design sought—and continues to seek—to shape the identity and the destiny of the region.

The titles of both shows emphasize the new, the modern, and the cutting-edge. “Moderno,” as the introductory wall text of that exhibition explains, signified “ideas of novelty and accelerated development, rather than [being] associated with a particular style or art movement.” It’s an ideological rather than aesthetic framework, and one that pertains specifically to mid-century Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, all of which experienced sudden industrial development and urbanization from the 1940s to the 1960s. Guest curators María Cecilia Loschiavo dos Santos, Ana Elena Mallet, and Jorge F. Rivas Pérez are smart to historicize and localize the terms of modernism by tethering it to burgeoning senses of nationalism that accompanied, and bolstered, this period of development. This context begins to explain why the exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design, focusing exclusively on the twenty-first century, dispenses altogether with the terminology of “modernism.” The term comes from Italian designer Gaetano Pesce—whose work comprises kinetic art, architecture, and furniture design—and refers to the “new territory” in which boundaries of art, craft, and design are blurred in contemporary global practice. Like “moderno,” the phrase is deployed in a somewhat counterintuitive way, describing process instead of geography, but it is also not a stretch to draw the line one step further, from “new territory” to “new world.”

That notion of the “new world”—of the Americas as a land of possibility—is the unstated link between these two exhibitions. Utopian overtones are more obvious throughout Moderno, which situates its nearly eighty objects within a hemispheric context of mid-century developmentalist ambitions, but the very fact that it looks at this moment through the lens of design is noteworthy. Art and architecture usually get the lion’s share of the glory when it comes to visual manifestations of Latin American modernity—think of the immensely photogenic Brasília, the iconic geometry of a Carlos Cruz-Diez Fisicromía, or the future-past architectonics of a Gunther Gerzso abstraction—but design is a crucial and oft-overlooked component of the modernist project in Latin America. In the broader effort to close the gap between art and life, arguably the most successful imbrication of these two realms was realized through design itself: through objects created for utilitarian purposes, their formal rhythms and physical contours structuring and even transforming lived experience.

Installation view of Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940–1978, Americas Society
Installation view of Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940–1978, Americas Society.

Moderno incorporates maquettes, plans, photographs, and publications, but it most successfully conveys the affective power of design in its striking installation of the objects themselves. These are placed in surprising juxtapositions and evocative tableaus. The exhibition opens with a smattering of home furnishings, but it is a group of three chairs in the first gallery that immediately sets the tone: the Alacrán [Scorpion] chaise (1940) by Michael van Beuren, Klaus Grabe, and Morley Webb, founders of the Mexican-based design company Domus; Joaquim Tenreiro’s iconic Cadeira de três pés [Three-Legged Chair] (c. 1947); and a prototype of the Butaque Pampatar (1953) by Miguel Arroyo. By virtue of their status as objects that imply and structure the physical presence of a human body in spaces both public and private, chairs distill many of the issues regarding the social implications of design. These particular examples, though, catch the eye because of their undeniable formal similarities. A shared interest in the organic link all three, most apparent in their undulating curves and their almost fetishized use of wood, which is bent, stained, and varnished to foreground its materiality. But a closer look at the wall texts reveals that these chairs hail from the three different countries that are the focus of this exhibition: Mexico, Brazil, and Venezuela, respectively. What’s more, the Alacrán chaise was produced by former members of the Bauhaus specifically for the exhibition Organic Design in Home Furnishings, held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1941. It is, then, but one example of not merely continental but also trans-Atlantic exchange, an object lesson in how the developments of the Bauhaus and other European design cooperatives dispersed and mutated throughout the Americas. This approach characterizes the show as a whole, which freely mixes objects (and protagonists) from various countries and leans towards big-picture themes such as “The Past as a Source for National Identity” and “Projecting the Modern Interior.”

It is a risky move that could very easily flatten the history of design into a hemispheric monolith, but the curators avoid this fate by paying equal attention to local, individualized narratives. To return to the three chairs, the Butaque Pampatar can be seen in dialogue with its Mexican and Brazilian cousins in the same gallery, but it is also the focal point of a wall dedicated to the more specifically Venezuelan history of its designer, Arroyo. An artist, pedagogue, and museum director, Arroyo had traveled broadly and come into contact with a number of figures who shared his proclivities for abstraction, an integration of the arts, and a reconciliation of past and present. His chair, created for the home of the critic Alfredo Boulton, was a modernist update of the colonial butaque chair, and it constituted part of a bigger push to dissolve the boundaries between art and design. This comes across quite clearly in the nearby Model for the Door of Miguel Arroyo’s House (1953) by Arroyo’s friend and colleague Alejandro Otero, which not only visually rhymes with the wooden slats of the butaque but is also reminiscent of the artist’s own Ortogonales from the same period.

Lina Bo Bardi, Cadeira de Beira de Estrada [Roadside Chair], 1967.

It is this shifting, surprising interplay of contexts, this telescoping between macro- and micro-histories, that makes Moderno such a rewarding show, all the more so because these histories have been all but ignored, especially in U.S. exhibitions. Of particular note is the attention paid to women artists such as Tecla Tofano, whose ceramic works fuse surrealist symbolism, mordant humor, and an uncompromising feminist sensibility; and Clara Porset, a pioneer of furniture design and interior design who drew upon local Mexican materials and processes. But if Moderno is committed—in challenging medium-specific, Eurocentric, nationalist, and masculinist narratives—to breaking open the history of modernism in Latin America and beyond, there may be no better example than Lina Bo Bardi’s Cadeira de Beira de Estrada [Roadside Chair] (1967). Lashing together tree branches into a pyramidal form, Bo Bardi finds the strictest geometry in the rawest of materials. In one fell swoop she takes the presumptions of the three chairs that open the exhibition, namely the fusion of the organic and the geometric, to their logical extreme. The apotheosis of modernist design, Bo Bardi seems to suggest, may also entail its deconstruction.

That experience of discovery is bound up in New Territories simply by virtue of its premise. It is the second of the Museum of Art and Design’s Global Makers Initiative, dedicated to promoting work “from parts of the world often under-represented in traditional museum settings.” Curator Lowery Stokes Sims and an advisory team traveled throughout Latin America to become familiar with the current state of design, and the results of this reconnaissance mission are installed across three floors of the museum. There is an open-ended feel in almost every sense: the selection, the organization, and the nature of the works resist easy categorization. In this respect, the emphasis on “Laboratories” in the subtitle is most appropriate, and it is to the show’s credit that it opts for complexity, even confusion, rather than cut-and-dry narratives.

Pepe López, Geometría blanda [Soft Geometry], 2010.

That is not to say that the exhibition lacks any kind of framework; quite the contrary. New Territories employs not one but two overlapping organizational schema, of “hubs” and “themes.” The hubs consist of city centers or city pairings: Mexico City and Oaxaca, Caracas, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Santiago and Buenos Aires, San Salvador and San Juan, and Havana. Each hub is viewed predominantly, but not exclusively, through the lens of a specific issue, strategy, or material. These themes are, respectively, Crafts, Legacy, Repurposing, Experimentation, New Markets, and Space. In theory, the themes chosen for each hub appear to make perfect sense. As the site of so much modernist ambition, Caracas would be a natural fit for a section on the Legacy of art and design. Pepe López’s Geometria blanda [Soft Geometry] (2010) fashions a version of Cruz-Diez’s recognizable Fisicromías out of used shopping bags, a literal deflation of the ambitions of Venezuelan modernism that gently but pointedly exposes its commodification. And São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro would seemingly be the logical choice to find trends of “upcycling” and Repurposing quotidian materials. This plays out in Mana Bernardes’s Môbiluz (2011), which transforms industrial scraps into an airy mobile, and—to return to the theme of the chair—the U-Rock Chair (2012–14), designed by a team led by Davi Deusdara for use in public spaces. The latter, created from recycled PET bottles, exemplifies the curatorial preference for work that proposes solutions to urban problems. An adaptable, lightweight prototype, it is but the latest in a history of design as harbinger of the future, even if that future is an imagined one: passed over by the Battery Conservancy, the U-Rock Chair has yet to go into widespread production.

Within the Repurposing portion of the show we also find better-known artists such as the Venezuelan Rolando Peña and the Mexican Abraham Cruzvillegas. While Peña’s gilded oil-drum chairs (2013–14) and Cruzvillegas’s Low Budget Rider assemblage (2009) certainly merit inclusion, their presence scrambles the organization of the exhibition. Such welcome intrusions are frequent. The effect is profoundly, almost distressingly disorienting at first, but as hubs and themes bleed into one another, the experience becomes playful—and instructive. There is a payoff to this gutsy strategy: frameworks and narratives, the show cleverly insists, never seem to work in practice as well as they might on paper. In New Territories this extends from the works on display, which intentionally question divisions between art and craft, to the exhibition format itself.

Installation view of New Territories: Laboratories for Design, Craft and Art in Latin America, Museum of Arts and Design.
Installation view of New Territories: Laboratories for Design, Craft and Art in Latin America, Museum of Arts and Design.

Given the unruly status of design, encompassing of everything from art to fashion to furniture, it is appropriate that both shows boldly resist the pitfalls of the hegemonic narrative. Moderno draws upon a variety of histories to navigate between multiple narrative registers, while New Territories actively undermines its own categorical structure even as it is being applied. In that sense, the exhibitions fully embrace the utopian possibilities afforded by design even as they are wary of the allure of utopia itself. This ambivalence is best seen in the most affecting, most painful pieces in New Territories, which belong to Lucia Cuba’s series Artículo 6: Narratives of Gender, Strength and Politics (2012–14). Created in response to the forced sterilization of women under the Fujimori regime in the artist’s native Peru, the series envisions clothing as a medium for political activism. Cuba prints testimonies, names, and legal text upon Andean polleras [skirts] in a deeply critical but tentatively hopeful project, one that melds tradition and the very recent past in an attempt to point a way forward. Its inclusion is a sobering reminder that the idea of progress, however enthralling or glamorous, can ultimately be blinding. As much as the designs in both shows may look to the future, so too can they reveal what has been forgotten.

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