Mexican Modernism – Furniture Design in Mexico – Part # 1

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Mexico was a fertile ground for modernist architecture in the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s. While the United States was adhering to a Soviet-style official architecture, Mexico — looking to express a progressive new identity after its revolution — had gone entirely modern. Starting in the late 1940’s public building projects — government buildings, schools, hospitals and public housing — were designed according to the logical economy of a stripped-down functionalism. The desire for an expression of modernity extended beyond public architecture to the realm of the wealthy and the powerful. Modernism in Mexico’s elite private sector was often practiced as a style, symbolic of sophistication and novelty but divorced from the progressive social philosophy at the heart of the movement.

Mexican Mid Century Modernist design spans a period starting in the late 1940’s and goes on until 1968, timing with the Summer Olympics held in Mexico City. Examples from this period include the Ciudad Universitaria, El Eco (the first alternative art space designed by Mathias Goeritz in 1953), and the residential enclave of The Gardens of El Pedregal de San Angel, conceived and planned by Luis Barragán.

Luis Barragán was a trained engineer. Influenced by the traditional structures of Spain and North Africa, in addition to the avant-garde movements of the first half of the 20th century (in particular the German Bauhaus and the work and teachings of Le Corbusier), his most profound inspiration was the vernacular architecture and forms of his native Mexico. Cited as an inspiration by a number of his successors including Tadao Ando and Frank Gehry, he first ascended to international acclaim in 1976 when the MoMA in New York held a retrospective of his work. Soon after, in 1980, he would go on to receive architecture’s most prestigious award, the Pritzker Prize. After his death, Barragán’s home was restored and opened to the public as a museum, becoming a UNESCO world heritage site in 2004.

From 1945 to 1953 Luis Barragán as a real estate broker, oversaw from the conception, design, construction and marketing, to the creation of a network of roads, plazas, ‘simple abstract’ houses and gardens of Los Jardines del Pedregal de San Angel, laid out on the south edge of Mexico City.  Throughout El Pedregal, Barragán collaborated with 2 good friends and local artists whose work and philosophies were, for him, of great import. For color and composition Barragán consulted Mexican painter Jesus “Chucho” Reyes to brilliant effect, and also incorporated into the plazas and entrance porticoes the sculpture of German-born artist Mathias Goeritz. Barragán’s furnishings, like the spaces they were designed to fill, succeed in being simultaneously aware of – and referential to – both modern and traditional styles, successfully integrating current artistic trends with the vernacular to create a style that is at once both traditional and contemporary.

Luis Barragán seating in a Miguelito Butaque Chair

Although the number of Luis Barragán’s works is not significant, they have allowed him to become an influential figure in the world of landscape and architectural design. Opposed to functionalism, Barragán advocated for an ’emotional architecture’ claiming that, “any work of architecture which does not express serenity is a mistake.” Today, the Barragán Foundation which is owned by the Vitra Design Museum in Switzerland is functioning as his official estate. Vitra owns the rights to the name and works of Luis Barragán as well as Armando Salas Portugal’s photographs involving Barragán and his work.

Francisco Artigas was a very prominent figure in Mexican architecture with a great number of outstanding designs. The majority of Artigas’ projects were houses built in the 1950’s and 1960’s for clients in Mexico City’s exclusive suburb, Los Jardines del Pedregal de San Angel, laid out on the south edge of the city by real estate broker Luis Barragán. These masterpieces (for instance, Casa Gómez, 1953) made Artigas an icon of Mexican modernism. Artigas’ work was inspired by his profound admiration for Frank Lloyd Wright and Albert Frey as well as Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer. Francisco Artigas’ houses in El Pedregal and in San Angel expose the uncanny quality of abstract modernist boxes in strong site conditions whether a lava-covered foreign landscape or in a lush, almost tropical exuberant vegetation.

In the late 1960’s however, Artigas shifted his architectural style – in his new work there was no justification, no protocol, no larger plan based on a new concept of social engineering: he was simply bored with modernism….

Francisco Artigas interior designs from the 1950’s and early 1960’s keep a perfect balance and harmony with the surrounding landscape. Below I have put together some samples of his furniture designs from that particular period of time:

Pedro Ramírez Vázquez is responsible for a substantial portion of the most famous and visited contemporary buildings in Mexico City. The Nueva Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe is perhaps his most famous and celebrated contribution to Mexico City’s architectural heritage. Constructed between 1974 and 1976, the Basilica is widely considered the most important religious building in Mexico. Another of Vázquez’s notable projects was to create the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City (1964) and yet another of Vázquez’s well-known works is the Mexico City Museum of Modern Art, (the MAM) in collaboration with Rafael Mijares, also in 1964. He has been responsible for the construction of some of Mexico’s most emblematic buildings and he is known to be a modern architect with influences from the European modern movement, Latin American modern architects and pre-Columbian cultures. His contribution to industrial design is remarkable; in particular I have to mention his sculptures in glass made for Kristaluxus Monterrey and Daum France as well as several furniture pieces for offices and museums.

…to be continued in part # 2

Copyright © 2010-2017 Karin Goyer. All Rights Reserved.


Building up an icon (mass produced) – Part #13

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Vitra was founded in 1950 by Willi and Erika Fehlbaum in Weil am Rhein, Germany as a shop-fitting company. Business flourished when in 1957 Herman Miller Inc.* assigned Vitra the license to produce and sell the products of Charles & Ray Eames and George Nelson in Germany and Switzerland. The influence of Charles & Ray Eames was fundamental to the development of the company. *As far as the partnerships that Herman Miller had in Europe back in the 1950’s, there were originally 4 companies: Vitra in Switzerland, Hille in the UK (which I already discussed in my previous post), ICF in Italy and Mobilier International in France; nowadays only Vitra retains a license from Herman Miller Inc.

In the 1970’s Vitra’s growing reputation for high-quality designs combined with a dynamic corporate identity was further enhanced by Rolf Fehlbaum who commissioned company buildings by highly innovative designers, including factory buildings by British architect Nicholas Grimshaw (1981) and Italian Antonio Citterio (1992), a conference building by Japanese architect Tadao Ando (1992), and the world-famous Vitra Design Museum by Frank O. Gehry, completed in 1989. The Vitra Design Museum maintains one of the largest collections of modern furniture design in the world with objects representing all of the major eras and stylistic periods from the beginning of the 19th century to the present. Special areas of the collection include early industrial bentwood furniture, turn-of-the-century designs by Viennese architects, Gerrit Rietveld’s experiments, tubular steel furniture from the 1920´s and 1930´s, key objects of Scandinavian Design from 1930 to 1960, Italian Design and contemporary developments. A further area of special interest is American Design, ranging from Shaker pieces to the postmodern seating of Robert Venturi. The Museum Collection also holds several prominent estates including those of Charles Eames, Verner Panton, Anton Lorenz and Alexander Girard. The Collection is complemented by an extensive archive and research library. When the Barrágan papers in Mexico were in danger of dissolving into dust, Vitra rescued them. Vitra’s work with the Barrágan and Eames archives have allowed the Museum to celebrate established reputations and to throw new light on them, as well as in some cases, to overcome unjustified neglect.

In the closing decades of the 20th century Vitra became widely known as a fashionable manufacturer of furniture; it was precisely during the 1980’s that the “Vitra Editions” initiative was launched, commissioning experimental designs from a range of designers including Ron Arad, Frank O. Gehry, Shiro Kuramata, Alessandro Mendini, Ettore Sottsass, Borek Sípek and Philippe Starck. We can recall as the most successful chairs in this experiment to have been: Kuramata’s “How High the Moon” Armchair in nickel-plated steel mesh (1986), Sípek’s Ota Otanek Chair (1988), Philippe Starck’s Louix XX Stacking Chair (1992) and Frank Gehry’s “Grandpa Chair” (re-issued in 1993).

Today Vitra’s product line consists of designer furniture for use in offices, homes and public areas. Apart from the company’s own designs, it also manufactures and distributes the works of great names such as Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, George Nelson, Verner Panton, Antonio Citterio, Philippe Starck, Sori Yanagi, Mario Bellini, Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec, Greg Lynn, Hella Jongerius, Glen Oliver Löw, Dieter Thiel, Jasper Morrison, Alberto Meda, Ron Arad, Maarten Van Severen and Jean Prouvé among other leading designers.

The close collaboration in the early 1960´s with Danish designer Verner Panton played an important role in Vitra´s success story, when the company decided to develop what became Panton´s best-known design: the “Panton Chair”, introduced in 1967. The “Stacking Chair” or “S Chair” became Panton´s most famous and mass-produced design. Sleek, sexy and a technical first, the “Panton” was the chair of the era.

A good eye for targeting production rights for the right furniture designs was also a key to Vitra´s success:

  • Sori Yanagi´s iconic “Butterfly Stool” was originally produced only by Japanese Tendo Mokko Corp. An example of Vitra´s timing (being in the right place at the right time) they own the production rights for the “Butterfly Stool” in Europe, North & South America & Africa.
  • In 2002 Vitra obtained the rights from Prouvé´s family to re-edit Jean Prouvé´s famous designs with the “Jean Prouvé Collection”. Furthermore, in 2011 Prouvé´s original designs have been updated with ideas from G-Star & Vitra giving birth to the “Prouvé RAW”, a collection of furniture classics from this French designer and artisan, newly interpreted. Mainly focused on chairs, lamps, tables, a chaise longue and others that were updated in new materials and colors while leaving the structure of the pieces largely unchanged.

OK. If you think that the last paragraph is redundant you are right, but it is exactly the way most consumers feel at this moment after 20 something years of re-introductions, re-issues, re-launches, revivals, re-interpretations, reproductions, re-editions of rediscovered design classics have become very fashionable AND PROFITABLE with a proven formula so they are currently marketed at rather high prices by the many renowned furniture manufacturers around the world, becoming a very important part of the bottom line for the furniture business. The  question is: will the industry ever see farther than its comfort zone? Is the new talent dead? How many design students are there in the universities in the world? I hope that there are only 2 or 3 and that they are aware that the leading companies of the industry rather be in their comfort zone than offering opportunities to new-comer designers. Of course, re-copycats and cheap re-imitations have flooded the markets. Do you re-understand that we are tired of the re-formula? This re-marketing is extremely dangerous to the point of re-tiring consumers in the long run.

…to be continued in part # 14

Copyright © 2010-2017 Karin Goyer. All Rights Reserved.

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