Moderno: Latin American Design

11 Feb — 16 May 2015 at the Americas Society in New York, United States

Furniture displayed in the exhibition "Moderno"
Furniture displayed in the exhibition "Moderno"

The oldest private gallery exhibiting Latin American art in the United States once again opens its doors to the designs that brought the International Style to the buoyant Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela of the 40s, all the way to the 70s.

The exhibition gathers 80 modern designs for living. An ensemble of technical objects produced to be intimately operated by the individual. Pottery, tables, cutlery, chairs, sofas, vases or blueprints are presented as utterances that build a speech that not only tells a story, but transforms societies and ultimately whole regions.

Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela became strong proponents and active implementers of the economic theory known as Developmentalism during the 40s and 50s. These state-run agendas for industrialization were interwoven with wider utopian ideals that merging with European Modernism and the total art principles of the Bauhaus resulted in projects like the monumental city of Brasilia or the even larger individual aspirations of social progress.

Such departure from tradition required the cooperation of a multiplicity of agents, from industrialists, civil servants and politicians, to architects editors educators and designers, in a common effort for achieving the social change that would consolidate, over time, the great advancements of contemporary Latin America. A level and process of development incarnated by a strong desire of regional integration actually achieved through free trade agreements like NAFTA, Mercosur, and the Pacific Alliance, and the proliferation of forums like UNASUR, ALBA, or CELAC. These are paving the way for achieving the international concorde of the new consensus in the region: whether it comes in the form of the Seoul, Beijing or Mumbai Consensus remains to be seen, but a relentless process of regional convergence is the mark of a sustained effort of modernization where design has its historical role.

It could seem a long leap of causation reaching from humble domestic designs to social change, but modern ideas such as environmental consciousness, health and reproductive rights, gender equality or modern vaccination policies would have been otherwise rejected.

The establishment of a functioning “developmentalist configuration” as defined by the French-Nigerien anthropologist Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, that “would mobilize and manage a considerable amount of material and symbolic resources” requires the understanding of the elemental concept of “psicogenic configuration” coined by the classic sociologist Norbert Elias. In a few words: a sociological construct such as the “developmentalist configuration” builds upon individual psychological configurations that are highly dependent on those domestic technical objects that we will call “enseres”. The Spanish voice “enseres” literally means in-beings, and refers to those primordial objects in which we, in a sense, are. Norbert Elias shows that the individual, in operating with enseres progressively develops his/her subjectivity.

Enseres such as pottery made out of stained glass in primary colors, coffee tables with geometrical patterns, solid steel rods bended into low cost chairs or stackable cutlery divested of all decorative motives were operated and operated the development of several generations of Latin Americans retrieving and delivering the ideas of modernity that these designs so effectively symbolized. Across the exhibition you can recognize the lightness of Le Corbusier, the flat sequences of Walter Groupis and the impossible cantilevers of Mies van der Rohe. All of them models and standard-bearers of the International Style that MoMA put in motion in 1932 with “Modern Architecture – International Exhibition” claiming for “The need for a new domestic environment”.

Time and decontextualization have transformed these enseres into anthropologic relics, and the upcoming publication of a 200-page hardcover catalogue by SantillanaUSA will give them transcendence.

Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940–1978
Guest Curators: Maria Cecilia Loschiavo dos Santos, Ana Elena Mallet, and Jorge F. Rivas Pérez