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Exploring the Contradictions in Latin American Modern Design

Photo by Wilson Santiago
Installation view of ‘Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940–1978’ at the Americas Society, New York (all images courtesy the Americas Society)

The notion of the moderno, or modern, in Latin America is more associated with a mindset than a particular style. Such is the emphasis of the exhibition Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940–1978 at the Americas Society. During the postwar years, Latin American urban centers focused their energies on development and poured millions of dollars into infrastructure. With new architecture came new object design, and the expansion of national industries for furniture, ceramics, and glasswares for a growing middle class. The show at the Americas Society looks at how the national and political agendas of three different countries were translated to the intimate scale of the home, expressing a common desire to assert a local identity while being international and modern at the same time.

I spoke with Jorge Rivas Pérez, one of the three curators of the exhibition, about the unique character of Latin American modernist design, whose history is still growing in scholarship and largely under the radar. Design in particular has been marginalized by contemporary historians, often in favor of architecture. “Design was a professional space for the outsiders in mid-century Latin America,” Rivas Pérez noted. “Who were the outsiders? Immigrants and women.” During and after World War II, Europeans flocked to Latin America, where the economy was booming — especially Venezuela, which Rivas Pérez called “the Dubai” of the day. “Immigrants that had trained in their home countries, whether architects or designers, were able to have titles in places like Mexico and Venezuela,” he explained. And the women, often the daughters of designers, found a milieu within home wares. “In the Hispanic world, in the royal period, women were in charge of … spaces in the colonial house. It was a natural evolution that they would be involved.”

Few design objects of this period have survived in good condition, and the remaining ones are difficult to get a hold of. So it is a feat that the curators and the Americas Society were able to pull 88 objects from 40 mostly private collections. The three rooms of the exhibition, which move chronologically, make associations between Mexican, Brazilian, and Venezuelan objects rather than segregating them by country. “We wanted to emphasize the common ground,” said Rivas Pérez. “This is why we are mixing things.” Walking through the show with Rivas Pérez, he pointed out some of the aesthetic innovations and contradictions of Latin American modern design.

The Influence of Modern Art

Tenreiro, 1947.5
Left: Joaquim Tenreiro, “Three-legged chair” (c. 1947), wood, 27 ½ x 22 x 24 in, manufactured by Tenreiro Móveis e Decorações (courtesy Zesty Meyers and Evan Snyderman, R & Company, New York); right: Miguel Arroyo, “Mendoza coffee table” (1956), wood, 14 x 47 1/16 x 44 ½ in, manufactured by Pedro Santana (courtesy Carpintería Colectiva Emilio Mendoza Guardia Collection)

In reference to the Joaquim Tenreiro (Brazilian) chair and the Miguel Arroyo (Venezuelan) table placed close to one another, Rivas Pérez explained that they’re “modern and local, aligned with geometric abstraction. This relationship with modern art is a big statement.” The Arroyo table in particular makes reference to one of Alejandro Otero‘s colorful wood sculptures hanging on a nearby wall, which itself evokes the staggered, colorful lines of Piet Mondrian, a big influence on Otero’s work. The bold lines of Tenreiro’s chair similarly allude to concurrent trends in Latin American visual art. At the same time, the furniture is made out of local woods, and the chair “is wide, is low. It’s in line with this idea of Brazilian relaxed life.”

The (Tacky) Baroque 

bowls
From left to right: Aldemir Martins, “Cangaceiro dish” (c. 1966), melamine, 7 7/8 x 7 7/8 in, manufactured by Goyana Melcrome; Miguel Pineda, “Plate” (c. 1960), enamel on copper, 10 5/8 x 10 13/16 x 1 in (courtesy Galería Julio de la Torre, Mexico City); designer unkown, “Venezuela La Burriquita platter” (1951), ceramic, 10 ¼ in diameter, manufactured by Cerámicas Artísticas Nacionales, Antímano (courtesy Caracas Private Collection, New York) (click to enlarge)

These Mexican, Brazilian, and Venezuelan plates, Rivas Pérez said, raise the “whole issue of identity and history” in Latin America at the time. “The shapes are very modern,” he observed,” whereas the design is more “pre-Hispanic … you have nature, the birds, the landscape.” The combination, he admits, “becomes a little bit, I would say, tacky. It’s too much, but it’s part of this baroque culture that’s always resurfacing.”

Hand-made and Mass-produced Furniture 

Van Bueren-1 copy
Michael van Beuren, “Chair and desk” (c. 1940), pine, palm, desk: 29 ½ x 47 ¼ x 19 5/16 in, chair: 31 ½ x 18 ½ x 17 5/16 in, manufactured by Van Beuren S.A. de C.V. (courtesy Domus Collection of Jan van Beuren)

This chair and desk, designed by American-born, Mexican-based Michael van Beuren, are displayed at the Americas Society along with other low-cost furniture that was mass produced for the lower classes.

“Even in this industrial production, they produced thousands of these chairs,” Rivas Pérez said. “This [van Beuren] chair is very modern, very Bauhaus. You have two colors, and then you have this” — he pointed to the pine and palm weave — “which is something you find in popular furniture in Mexico. It’s labor intensive, handmade. This modern machine produced the furniture and then you pass through this handmade labor intensive process. It’s this contradiction, it’s a big contradiction.”

Artistic Experiments 

AS-COA-Moderno06
Lina Bo Bardi, “Cadeira de beira de estrada [Roadside Chair]” (1967), wood, rope, iron nails, 197 x 90 x 62 cm (77 9/16 x 35 7/16 x 24 7/16 in) (courtesy Instituto Lina Bo e P. M. Bardi, São Paulo)
This Lina Bo Bardi chair made of wood and rope is, as Rivas Pérez put it, “more of a personal statement … a kind of experiment.” The chair, “based on African models,” came out of “this moment of reaction to and rejection of the modern movement.” In Brazil, as in other Latin American countries, this love-hate relationship with foreign influence had been around since the beginnings of modernity in the 1920s, when artists in the newly independent republic went searching for their local roots. “It was a moment when everything was revised,” said Rivas Pérez. “There was this question in the ’60s: are we doing ‘right’?” For Bo Bardi, this meant assuming an almost “anti-design” position, looking, as other artists on the continent did, to ancient practices and vernacular materials to define local identity.

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At the end of our walkthrough, I wondered aloud whether an exhibition like this serves mostly as a memory of another time — whether this affirmation of a national identity is still relevant in today’s globalized world.

Rivas Pérez, who is also a designer himself, said yes. “It’s very important, more than ever now, because of globalization. What is happening now is you have this very homogenous design produced for mass consumption, and then you have this different local design, things that are very local and very unique …. And all that production is deeply infused with identity issues …. You can see here in the United States that the identity becomes not even national but of the neighborhood. You have this Brooklyn aesthetic identity. Brooklyn designers are fierce in defending their territory, their local identity grounds. …. This process of infusing your identity into design is being accelerated. It’s becoming a more important tool.”

Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela 1940—1978 continues at the America’s Society (680 Park Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 16. 

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