This is the latest installment of our Designing Women series. Previously, we profiled the Swedish-Californian designer Greta Magnusson Grossman.
Clara Porset with a model of a table for production. Photo by Elizabeth Timberman; image from Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Esther McCoy Papers
If you happen to be in Austin this week, be sure to check out the final days of Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940–1978 at the University of Texas’s Blanton Museum of Art. With a selection of 130 design objects, the exhibition celebrates a pioneering chapter in Latin American modernism while also highlighting some lesser-known designers from south of the border—including Clara Porset, a Cuban-born furniture and interior designer who called Mexico home.
Born to a wealthy Cuban family in 1895, Porset traveled widely in her youth, studying architecture and design in New York and Paris before visiting Germany to meet Walter Gropius and Hannes Meyer of the Bauhaus. Their focus on combining art, technology and craftsmanship in a larger dialogue with society resonated deeply with Porset, who returned home to Havana in 1932 to begin working as a professional designer. A few years later, she joined former Bauhaus instructors Josef and Anni Albers at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she spent a summer steeped in the Alberses’ modernist design teachings. The trio would become lifelong friends, and Porset’s designs would always evince a strong Bauhaus influence.
Porset is best remembered for her butaque-inspired chair designs from the 1940s and ’50s, which were reinterpretations of a traditional Mexican chair (the butaque’s curule shaped base was most likely introduced by Spanish colonialists). Porset experimented with different materials, shapes and sizes, giving her chairs a tropical-modernist flair.
When the political situation in Cuba began to unravel, Porset left for Mexico, which would become her adopted home in 1940. There she found inspiration in traditional folk arts and crafts whose rustic qualities she translated into sleek furniture designs. This is best seen in her butaque chairs, handsome, low-slung loungers that could be long-lost tropical cousins of Alvar Aalto’s Armchair 406 and Hans Wegner’s CH25 Lounge Chair. Over the years, Porset would experiment with different proportions and ergonomics to make the chairs more functional, as well as various elastic materials and also natural fabrics like palm, jute and ixtle (a native Mexican plant fiber) for the chairs’ seat and back. One of the few female designers working in Mexico at the time, Porset made furniture for the residences of Mexico’s elite and received commercial commissions to furnish hotels and public housing projects; she is also remembered for her furniture design collaborations with the trailblazing Mexican architect Luis Barragan at his own residence and numerous others’. During this era Porset had a number of successful furniture collections put into production by the Mexican manufacturers IRGSA and DOMUS.
Porset’s chaise lounge CP-403 for IRGSA, made of laminated plywood with woven rattan. Above and below image from Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Esther McCoy Papers
Porset’s mahogany chair CP-423 for IRGSA, made with woven rattan and bamboo
Beyond Mexico, Porset’s designs were featured in the Artek-Pascoe showroom in New York in 1946, and in the early 1950s they were championed by Esther McCoy in the pages of Arts & Architecture and The Los Angeles Times Home Magazine. Porset also collaborated with her husband, the muralist Xavier Guerrero, on a design proposal for MoMA’s Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition in 1940. Although Porset was the only female designer from Latin America to participate, Guerrero received sole credit for their competition entry, an oversight that MoMA later remedied. The couple also entered MoMA’s 1950 competition for low-cost furniture design, with a tubular steel chair strung with a plastic seat and back.
Entry panel by Porset and Guerrero for MoMA’s Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition, circa 1940—this was the first time that MoMA’s competition brief included Latin American designers. Image courtesy the Museum of Modern Art
Entry panel by Porset and Guerrero for MoMA’s low-cost furniture design competition, circa 1950. Image courtesy the Museum of Modern Art
After the Cuban Revolution, in 1959, Porset was invited to return to Cuba to found a school of industrial design intended to help establish a new class of utilitarian designers on the now Communist island. Although her plan was never fully realized, she was also commissioned by Che Guevara (then Minister of Industries) to design furniture for a number of local schools and institutions. A few years later, Porset returned to Mexico, where she helped launch a program in industrial design at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, teaching there until her death in 1981. Porset’s will established a scholarship fund (now a design award) to encourage a new generation of young female designers in Mexico.
Porset in the workshop circa 1950s with furniture maker Alfonso Rojas, who is adjusting a plywood mould to create a chair back. Photo by Elizabeth Timberman. Above and below images from Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Esther McCoy Papers
In 1952, Porset organized an exhibition of design objects from Mexico called El Arte en la Vida Diaria at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, displaying the country’s strong tradition of craftsmanship in dialogue with modern industrial design. Above is Porset’s chair alongside various handicraft textiles.
Porset designed this set of patio chairs for the Mexican architect Mario Pani. Photo by Lola Alvarez Bravo
A pair of mahogany lounge chairs CP-418 for IRGSA made with woven rattan
Another lounge chair design in mahogany with woven rattan by Porset for IRGSA
A page from the IRGSA catalog featuring Porset’s design for a mahogany table with traditional rattan bindings