Modern Living: At Home with the Future

The Blanton’s new exhibition, Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940-1978, opens this Sunday. We asked Florencia Bazzano, Curatorial Research Associate in Latin American Art, to share her experience of working on the show.

Quinta Perla House interior
Living room of the Quinta Perla house with a chair by Miguel Arroyo and three BKF chairs produced by Tienda Gato, with the Mendoza-Guardia’s Dalmatian, 1954. Photo by Sara Guardia de Mendoza. Courtesy of Centro de Estudios de Archivos Audiovisuales y Artísticos and the Mendoza-Guardia Family.

Two of the images that spoke to me directly as I began to work on Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940-1978, were first, a view of a private home, rather relaxed in appearance; and second, a formal living room set, standing a bit forlorn in the huge lobby of a government building.

The first image shows the interior of Quinta Perla, the home that designer Miguel Arroyo owned in the Caracas suburb of San Antonio de los Altos in northern Venezuela. When I first saw this black and white photograph I thought, “this living room reminds me of my graduate student days.” It has that quality of modernity, informality, and coolness that would be attractive to an audience that is still young but educated enough to begin thinking about furniture styles.

The bright interior of Quinta Perla reflects the tropical light coming from an unseen large window to the right designed by Arroyo and his friend, the artist Alejandro Otero. The broad floor tiles, also light in tone, must be wonderfully cold to the touch during the long Caribbean summers. The furniture is a blend of smart design in simple lines, and suitable materials for the warm weather. The wood slats of the Butaca Pampatar (Pampatar Chair), the well-known design by Arroyo that appears on the left, allow the air to pass through for extra comfort.

The other three metal chairs with bright, breathable fabrics, are examples of the Butterfly Chair or BKF, named after the initials of the last names of the designers—Antonio Bonet, Juan Kurchan and Jorge Ferrari Hardoy—who created this chair in Argentina in 1938. Hugely popular and inexpensive, BKF became as ubiquitous a presence throughout the region as an Ikea sofa in the United States. As in my old students days, the back wall is taken over by a large bookcase, an uncomplicated geometric grid, bursting with books and papers and decorated with luscious ferns and creeper plants.

Moderno explores a moment in Latin American history when modern art, already accepted as an artistic language, entered the private home and turned it into a site for creative experimentation. The artists and designers involved in this grand experiment were young and the style they pursued also appealed to the young. These days, modern furniture has become so globally accepted that many of these pieces would look at home in our homes.

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, most large-scale architectural projects in Latin America involved the design of modern furniture. One of the best-known examples is Brasília, the  federal capital of Brazil. Oscar Niemeyer, the project’s leading architect along with urban designer Lucio Costa, commissioned furniture for the administrative buildings from Sérgio Rodrigues, Joaquim Tenreiro, Sérgio Bernardes, and Bernardo Figueiredo.

Roberto Stuckert Filho
Roberto Stuckert Filho/PR

While learning about this more official aspect of Brazilian design, I found a fascinating photograph of a living room furniture set designed by Sérgio Rodrigues for the lobby of the Palácio do Planalto (Planalto Palace), where the country’s president has his or her office. Rodrigues’s Poltronas Vronka or Vronka Chairs are made of local jacarandá wood and beautifully upholstered in warm yellow fabric. The formal set, including lounge chairs and ottomans, is arranged around a glass-topped coffee table over a rectangular carpet.

What is most dramatic about this image is the contrast between the intimate scale of this stylish living room, and the empty vastness of the surrounding lobby, with its slick marble floors and dramatically rising ramp.

Designers like Rodrigues attempted to create a bridge between human scale and the vast scale of these buildings so full of hope for the future. The recently elected Brazilian president Juscelino Kubitschek had promised “50 years of progress in 5.” Brasília, with its monumental vistas and futuristic architecture, rose at that moment of relative political and economic stability when modern styles and economic modernization were seen as inter-related paths to progress. Historical realities would show otherwise, yet the optimism of the moment is reflected in the modern lines of the furniture that both echo the sweeping lines of the architectural design and anchor the Planalto Palace to the human presence in its midst.

Modern furniture and architecture in Latin America, as in many other places, attempted to bring broader sectors of society into a new way of living. These two photographs show two different moments of that project, going from the private home as a site of experimentation for the emerging new modern styles, to the ultimate institutionalization of modernism in the centers of political and cultural and power.

Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela, 1940-1978 opens October 11 at the Blanton.

Florencia Bazzano, PhD, has recently joined the Blanton Art Museum as Curatorial Research Associate for Latin American Art. Previously she worked at the Cantor Art Museum at Stanford and at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. A graduate of UT Austin and the University of New Mexico, she taught Latin American art for many years.

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