- Clara Porset in Mid Twentieth-Century Mexico:The Politics of Designing, Producing, and Consuming Revolutionary Nationalist Modernity
In 2006, Mexico City's Museo Franz Meyer held an exhibition titled Creating a Modern Mexico, celebrating the furniture designs of Clara Porset y Dumas. This exhibition and a growing literature on her work by design historians during the first decades of the twenty-first century have helped establish Porset as the highest-profile pioneer of industrial and interior design in twentieth-century Mexico.1
Porset worked alongside prominent architects such as Mario Pani, Enrique Yáñez and Luis Barragán to design furniture and interiors for projects ranging from public housing to hotels and private homes. She also contributed articles about design to prestigious Mexican architectural and artistic publications such as Arquitectura México and Espacios and oversaw a 1952 design exhibition for the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (INBA). Perhaps most notable about Porset's role in Mexico's postrevolutionary architectural and cultural scene is that she stood virtually alone during the 1940s and 1950s in urging attention to industrial design as integral to Mexico's economic and cultural development. [End Page 349] Although she was never accorded as high a profile as the architects alongside whom she worked, Porset did enjoy significant prestige during her lifetime as a modern furniture designer and has not been forgotten in the years following her death in 1981. Since 1988, her legacy has been celebrated through the biennial Premio de Diseño Clara Porset, a competition for female designers established with funds allocated from her estate. This competition is run by the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México's Centro de Investigaciones de Diseño Industrial (CIDI), where Porset taught industrial design from its creation in 1969 until close to her death. The CIDI library is named in her honor.
Despite such recognition, relatively few Mexicans ever owned a piece of Porset-designed furniture or read her thoughts on the importance of good design. Porset herself expressed frustration in private correspondence about her lack of success in securing support from the state or industrialists for her mission to promote the development of industrial design in Mexico. Although her vision of how Mexicans might live was not fully realized, it is precisely this gap between the modernist utopian ideals and socialist politics that drove Porset's work and her practical experiences in postrevolutionary Mexico that makes her life and work revealing objects of study for cultural historians of twentieth-century Mexico.
Drawing on approaches from cultural, architectural, and design history, I show in this article how Porset's life and work provide a window into the historical connections between transnational politics, nationalism, and the development of new ideas about culture and modern living in twentieth-century Mexico. In choosing a semi-biographical focus on Porset to shed light on broader processes and systems of signification, I am influenced by historian Christine Hatzky's research on the Cuban communist leader Julio Antonio Mella, in which she aimed "to link the microscopic interpretation with the macro-region of structures that individuals produce and create, that they transform or reinforce."2 That approach is the one I take to look at Porset's work and make my observations of postrevolutionary Mexican politics and society.
As well as studying how "ordinary" people live, I concur with historian Lois Banner regarding the value of "assessing cultural leaders and icons who articulated cultural understandings" as a way of exploring how new cultural ideas emerge and evolve.3 Among these, I count Clara Porset. I [End Page 350] further agree with Banner regarding the potential of the biographical method for approximating what cultural anthropologist Clifford Geetz called "thick description," which is based on interpreting and understanding small facts relating to individuals or communities as speaking to larger issues and contexts.4
Porset's life and work reveal the nature of the cosmopolitan-nationalist dynamic that was central to the construction of new ideas of Mexico's authentic cultural identity and tied to its postrevolutionary nation- and state-building projects. It was primarily Porset's experience in transnational anti-imperialist political networks in Cuba and the United States that...