What would you have expected to see in an exhibition entitled Art in Daily Life in Mexico City in 1952, knowing that it had been curated by one of Mexico’s most prolific industrial designers?
The latest electrical gizmos or kitchen gadgets from state-of-the-art Mexican factories and furniture designed in a sleek postwar style? All of those symbols of Mexican modernity were displayed in the art deco galleries of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, but alongside them were beautifully crafted artisanal objects including pots made by village ceramicists in Jalisco and Michoacán.
Combining industrial artifacts with handmade ones steeped in craft tradition was a declaration of intent by the exhibition’s curator Clara Porset, who believed passionately that contemporary Mexican design should be rooted in the country’s rich artisanal history. Today, her approach would be considered timely and intelligent, but over sixty years ago, when the crafts were routinely derided in design circles as clumsy and archaic, it was dazzlingly visionary.
Porset’s faith in both craft and industry, and her conviction that each could inspire the other, stemmed from her cosmopolitan education in Europe and the United States, as well as her years of research into Mexico’s folkloric heritage.
Born into a wealthy family in Cuba in 1895, Porset attended high school in New York, later studying art there then architecture in Paris. Shortly after returning to Cuba in 1932, she was expelled from the country because of her radical politics. A year later Porset was allowed back and designed furniture in Havana while continuing her studies at a summer school at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she befriended its director Josef Albers and his textile designer wife, Anni. In 1935, she was forced to flee Cuba again, and settled in Mexico, where she fell in love with the artist and political activist Xavier Guerrero. As well as introducing her to the Mexican intelligentsia, Guerrero took her across the country to visit local craft workshops. The Alberses accompanied them during their annual visits to Mexico.
Porset drew on the fruits of their research in the furniture she designed for both Mexican manufacturers and modernist architects like Luis Barragán and Enrique Yáñez. For years, she strove to reinvent butaques, the low-slung chairs with wooden frames made by hand in tiny workshops in Veracruz and Yucatán that had been popular in Mexico for centuries. Porset studied different types of butaques to identify the sturdiest, most comfortable shapes, as well as forms of upholstery. Some of her finest versions were designed for the Mexico City Country Club and the Pierre Marqués Hotel in Acapulco, one of her collaborations with Barragán.
Curating Art in Daily Life was an irresistible opportunity to present a dynamic and inclusive vision of modern Mexican design that embraced both the industrial and artisanal. At a time when many designers believed that craftsmanship could only be modernized by replacing hand-craftsmanship with mechanization, Porset valued both disciplines for their distinctive qualities, and urged their practitioners to do the same.
As well as exhibiting the latest stoves made in Acos’s factories and handmade Texcocoan pots, she included objects developed by modernist designers like the Hungarian émigrés José Feher and Eva Zeisel for fabrication in Mexican craft workshops. Porset also commissioned a photographer friend, Lola Álvarez Bravo, to fill the Palacio de Bellas Artes with giant photomontages of the evolution of Mexican crafts and industry to explain how and where the exhibits were made.
The show was a popular and critical triumph, and Porset’s reputation soared in Mexico. But by the end of the 1950s, she and Guerrero had left the country for Cuba to set up a new design school at Fidel Castro’s invitation. Four years later, having fallen out with the Castro regime and Porset’s colleagues at the school, they returned to Mexico, where she devoted the rest of her life to championing her mutually enriching vision of modernity and tradition.
Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based writer on design. She is the author of Hello World: Where Design Meets Life published by Hamish Hamilton.