Cuban-born furniture and interior designer Clara Porset is best known for her modern designs inspired by the local traditions of Mexico, her adopted homeland. Her many design interpretations on the “butaque”, a low, graceful type of chair, part of Mexico´s popular culture, was her trademark. In a similar vein, an ancient Mesoamerican sculpture inspired the look of her “Totonaca” chair, considered a landmark of Mexican furniture design.
Allegedly, Porset won one of the four prizes for Latin America in MoMA’s 1941 “Organic Design for Home Furnishing” contest, but actually Xavier Guerrero (her husband) received the prize in New York. She was committed to fine craftsmanship, but she was equally a strong believer that well-designed furnishings could be made affordable. In the 1950’s she signed a contract to develop 2 collections of furniture for the office, along with numerous other designs for prestigious furniture manufacturer IRGSA (Industrias Ruíz Galindo, S.A.). These collections were highly successful and mass-produced for many years. Among her most applauded achievements is the outdoor furniture she designed and showed at the 1952 “Arte en la Vida Diaria” exhibition at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. Later, IRGSA manufactured them for the Pierre Marqués Hotel in Acapulco, in 1957. Her work was produced by DM NACIONAL, DOMUS, S.A., Ruíz y Govea, etc. On the other hand, among other design flops were the low cost furniture designs for Mexico City’s first large-scale public housing project (Centro Urbano Miguel Alemán), where she furnished less than 10% of the units. Unfortunately, some of the chairs sold to the Pierre Marqués Hotel were also removed pretty fast for a lack of ergonomics (you needed help/pulled to stand up). Also she collaborated with some of the most representative Mexican architects of her time, including Luis Barragán, Max Cetto, Enrique Yánez and Mario Pani among others.
Edmond J. Spence was an American designer who made a career out of translating international modern styles for the U.S. market. Spence designed a successful blonde wood line made in Sweden and imported by Walpole Furniture of Massachusetts, and another furniture line called “Continental-American Collection“, which was manufactured back in 1953 by the Mexican furniture company Industria Mueblera, S.A., with the brand label “Industria Mueblera of Mexico – Ageless Furniture Edmond J. Spence Design”.
Spence’s design brilliance comes in with his ability to interpret the most important aspects of Mexican design but in a fancy Mid-Century Modern way. Below I have put together some samples from his “Continental-American Collection”:
American born Michael van Beuren was a former student at the influential Bauhaus school in Dessau, Germany during 1931-1932, even though he did not graduate. He moved to Mexico in 1937 and having difficulty to practice his profession as an architect without an official title, he dedicated himself to the design of furniture. In 1938 he started to design furniture together with his colleague from the Bauhaus time, German designer Klaus Grabe, for a small company they called Grabe van Beuren y Cía. In 1941 the MoMA organized the “Organic Design for Home Furnishings,” a competition which opened to design teams from Latin America. One of the winning entries in the contest was a Chaise Longue designed by the team Klaus Grabe, Michael van Beuren and Morley Webb. The winning submissions earned the prize of having their designs industrialized and sold by the Bloomingdale’s department store. Grabe soon left Mexico to settle in New York where he ran Klaus Grabe Inc. and pursued his quest for modern low-cost furniture.
Van Beuren founded DOMUS – his first furniture brand – and probably his best known in Mexico. In 1950 Fredderick T. van Beuren, Michael´s brother took over the workshop production envisioning the company´s growth potential to become a mass producing furniture factory. At that time the company dropped its name DOMUS to become Van Beuren S.A. de C.V. By the mid-50’s Van Beuren, S.A. de C.V. was already mass producing complete furniture lines and models. Clara Porset manufactured her designs for the US market through Michael van Beuren´s company.
British architect Philip Guilmant, who had arrived in Mexico in 1954, joined the Van Beuren team in 1957. He greatly contributed to the success of the company with the design of 2 very well-known furniture lines: the Danish Collection (1957) and the simple and economic Pine Line (1958). By that time, the company was producing around 50 chairs per week… The Van Beuren brothers helped re-shape interior design across Mexico with mass produced industrial and affordable furnishings that found their way into countless homes and offices. Besides Domus, Van Beuren produced other furniture lines that were also very successful like Calpini (1951) and Decapóls (1961); the last one became very popular when marketed at the El Puerto de Liverpool department store chain. Production lines extended as well to other store chains like Salinas y Rocha and El Palacio de Hierro. However, in 1973 Michael Van Beuren sold the brand and factory to Singer.
…to be continued in part # 6
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