When Latin America Became the Seat of Modernity

When Latin America Became the Seat of Modernity

Lina Bo Bardi, the great Italian-Brazilian architect, liked to say we all invent architecture just by climbing a stair, crossing a room, opening a door or sitting down in a chair. All of “these little gestures,” she said, along with the objects they involve, are richly endowed with meaning and memory.

Design is life. Life is design. We are its designers.

Bo Bardi, of course, was hardly alone in thinking this way, as “Crafting Modernity,” a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, makes plain.

The show is a gem. It focuses on domestic design from six countries (Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Chile and Venezuela), produced between 1940 and 1980. Latin America had entered a period of transformation, industrial expansion and creativity. Across the region, design was becoming institutionalized as a profession, opening up new avenues, especially for women.

Modernism was the aesthetic throughline.

It fueled a push for national identity, improved conditions for the working poor and enabled a marriage of native crafts and mass production. It became a means of celebrating the region’s ecological diversity.

And yes, it also provided fresh excuses to design, say, an airy, low-slung chaise in which to snooze briefly under the tropical sun, next to the cool earth.

I can’t recall the last time I coveted so many beautiful chairs. The ones here run the gamut with their industrial refinement, fetishistic hand-tooling, local woods and fabrics, and suave, often witty, whisperingly delicate lines and silhouettes. The photographs give you some idea. But see the show, if you can. It’s open through Sept. 22.

During the later decades of the last century, economic free-fall and repression crippled much of the region, some of it instigated by the C.I.A., with trade agreements like NAFTA decimating many small, rural businesses, then globalization wreaking further havoc. A knowledge of what’s to come adds a layer of melancholy to the work on view.

Ana Elena Mallet and Amanda Forment, who curated “Crafting Modernity,” call it a first stab at making up for lost time. They’ve gathered photographs and black-and-white films of signature houses, along with designs by tent-pole figures like Bo Bardi, Oscar Niemeyer, Roberto Burle Marx, Gego (a spectacular black, brown and white carpet) and Roberto Matta (his groovy green foam-rubber puzzle-piece chairs).

The show also highlights designers who don’t ring as many bells here, among them Clara Porset, Gui Bonsiepe, Martin Eisler, Amancio Williams, Ricardo Blanco, Cristian Valdes, Olga de Amaral, José Zanine Caldas. The list goes on.

Zanine Caldas, for example, was a self-taught Brazilian artist, architect and model maker who switched gears and became an environmentalist and missionary for native craft traditions.

He is represented by an extraordinary object, a kind of lumberjack’s love seat, carved from a salvaged tree trunk, whose facing chairs encourage conversation and maybe a little canoodling.

Bonsiepe was a European transplant, like Bo Bardi, Eisler and Gego, who spent much of his career in Latin America. Collaboration is a leitmotif in “Crafting Modernity,” reflecting a wave of collectivist idealism that swept across the region during the midcentury. In the early 1970s, Bonsiepe oversaw a collaborative of Chilean and German designers, assigned by Salvador Allende, Chile’s newly elected socialist president, with the task of reshaping the nation’s material culture along socialist principles.

Among other things, they produced a chair for kindergartners: Creamsicle orange, with its teensy right-angled seat wedged between two triangular legs. The chair became a symbol of progress and hope. So, the whole design project was ended abruptly in 1973, when a military junta took over Chile in a bloody C.I.A.-backed coup.

As for Porset, MoMA uses her chaise from the 1950s — a butaque, it’s called — to advertise the show, and no wonder.

Butaques derive from “duhos”: ritual hardwood chairs, for communing with deities, dating back to pre-Columbian times. When conquistadors arrived, they brought their own chairs. In time, cultures merged, producing the butaque.

Porset’s version — conceived, as Mallet points out, at a “pivotal moment in Mexican history when discussions surrounding the definition of Mexican identity were paramount” — uses laminated wood and woven wicker, distilling all that earlier history into a modernist classic as suave and streamlined as a racing car.

I mentioned lost time earlier. This is MoMA’s most significant engagement with modern Latin American design since “Organic Design in Home Furnishings,” in 1941, which began as a pair of competitions, one open to U.S. designers, the other to Latin Americans, who were encouraged to emphasize local materials and methods. Porset and her husband and collaborator, the Mexican muralist Xavier Guerrero, were among the winners of the Latin American competition (MoMA only credited Guerrero).

Born near the turn of the last century into affluence in Cuba, Porset studied with Anni and Josef Albers at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, indoctrinating herself in the Bauhaus. In New York, she joined up with members of Cuba’s revolutionary junta, then headquartered in the city. Her leftist politics landed her in hot water with Cuba’s autocrats.

So she relocated to Mexico, entering a community of designers and artists that included Guerrero, all of them dreaming about post-revolutionary society.

Guerrero shared with Porset a deep respect for regional crafts. Their entry into “Organic Design” consisted of an ensemble of pinewood and fabric tables and chairs — “rural furniture,” they called it — which paid homage to objects they had come across visiting homes in Mexican villages.

Those chairs and tables no longer exist, but the drawings for them are in “Crafting Modernity,” which picks up where “Organic Design” left off. Craft and industry can and should work harmoniously — organically — was Porset’s message, an idea that, like Porset, links the MoMA shows across eight decades.

“In everything there is design,” is how she put it, “in a cloud, in a fingerprint, on the sand or in the sea, set in motion by the wind.”

As I said, Bo Bardi certainly wasn’t alone in her thinking. She’s represented here by her Bowl chair from the 1950s, its plastic-and-foam-rubber frame nesting on a slender, ringed steel base that allows the bowl to tilt and swivel.

The bowl’s hemisphere can summon to mind the 18th-century French architect Étienne-Louis Boullée’s famous unbuilt monument to Newton, a textbook example of Enlightenment idealism.

It also sort of resembles a jumbo sized sex toy.

The blend of idealism and hedonism gestures toward one last aspect of the exhibition — its lightness of spirit — which is captured as well in a photograph of the Bowl chair from the cover of Interiors magazine in 1953, reprinted on the show’s object label.

The bowl tilts upward in the picture. A woman reclines inside it, as if soaking in a tiny tub. It is Bo Bardi.

Her head turns from the camera, her legs are crossed, her feet dangle oh-so-casually over the edge.

Design is life.

Life is full.

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