Despite the movement of Latin American design and artistic pedagogy away from models based in Europe and the United States, young designers continue to have a particular infatuation and affection for classic icons of modern design such as the bentwood chairs of Michael Thonet (1796–1871), furniture by Charles Eames (1907–78) and his wife and partner Ray Eames (1912–88), Eero Saarinen’s (1910–61) Panton, and designs by Ettore Sottsass (1907–77). Venezuelan artist Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck captured the spirit of Postmodern homages to contemporary art and design in his Eames Derivative, an installation created in collaboration with Media Farzin that features a timeline tracing design and technology in the twentieth century, and “portrays the dominant influence of modern technology and the fragility of the financial systems that keep the world going.”
Caracas is a vibrant city of designers, artists, and museum curators who cope with economic challenges and restrictions with a remarkable spirit and aplomb, embracing an improvisational approach in their work. Some of this energy is fueled by the chaotic— yet oddly rhythmic—organization of the city’s poor areas known as ranchos, which dominate the hills rising above the city and influence Venezuelan artistic production. The ranchos have inspired the work of artists such as Pepe López, whose almost algorithmic patterning of the buildings in the ranchos found expression in his wall works and tapestries. He grafted different photographic views of the ranchos for compositions such as Geometria marginales, a wall installation that isolates the geography of these poorer neighborhoods in Caracas, thereby dealing with social and political developments in the city through minimal, geometric expressions. This urban segmentation also became the basis for Panton Catuche and Panton Vias, part of a series in which Deborah Castillo and Carolina Tinoco transformed a series of repurposed chairs in the style of the classic S Chair conceived in 1960 by Danish designer Verner Panton (1926–98) into an installation in shades of white, black, and gray, and decorated them with linear patterns based again on diagrammatic views of the ranchos.
Via the topography of Caracas and its interaction with its citizens, López, Tinoco, and Castillo navigate the strong legacy of geometric art by such famed modernist artists as Carlos Cruz-Diez (b. 1923) and Gego (Gertrude Goldschmidt, 1912–94). In the 1940s, Cruz-Diez documented his own interest in rural and vernacular culture in black-and-white photographs, while Gego’s abstract, linear drawings and prints echo in the work of later artists. The works of Cruz-Diez and Gego may be said to have effected a realization—or reaffirmation—of the initial idealism of the Russian Constructivists, the Dutch De Stilj group, and the German Bauhaus. The presumed nonspecific, nonobjective nature of the geometry they pursued moved toward a universal idealism, beyond any national boundaries. That this style might be an alternative signifier of Latin American art—in opposition to fantastic surrealism—is an irony not lost on López, Tinoco, and Castillo, and other contemporary makers, who are creating a hybrid expression through modifications of classical modernism with local nuances. What connects the generations in this engagement with everyday culture is a lingering commitment to projecting a national image embodied in the vernacular as well as in indigenous and working-class life. Hints of Gego’s legacy can be seen in the networking of Rodolfo Agrella’s Isidora Friendly hanging system, which also references the biomorphic shapes of acoustic panels by American sculptor Alexander Calder (1898–1976). Designed in 1952–53, Calder’s panels are installed in the Aula Magna auditorium at the Ciudad Universitaria de Caracas.
Another aspect of homage can be seen in the furniture of Venezuelans Bernardo Mazzei and Jorge Rivas. These designers have married modernist vocabularies to narratives in the history of their home country. Mazzei’s Anauco Aalto references both a signature chair by the Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto (1898–1976), and the butaca, a low-seated chair whose history reaches to precolonial Venezuela. In this one form, Mazzei mediates the principles of modernism and celebrates the heritage of the Cumanagoto people. Rivas’ own Banco alludes to the traditional form of the Ye’kuana culture. In his work, Rivas links Venezuelan material tradition and modern design with references that include pre-Columbian cultures, the art of the colonial period in Latin America, Venezuelan design of the mid-twentieth century, geometric abstraction, and modern design. He is also one of the many designers for whom the Casa Curuba workshop in the small city of Quíbor, Venezuela (under the ownership of Dennis Schmeichler) served as a conduit between designers and small artisan communities.
Compelling examples of the next related biome on the theme of conversations with artistic and design legacies can be found in Mexico, where sculptor Edgar Orlaineta translates his fascination with twentieth-century design into sculptures that both reconstruct and re-present the works of designers as Charles and Ray Eames, Thonet, and Sottsass. Like his contemporary Courtney Smith, who works between Brazil and the United States, Orlaineta uses existing furniture as templates for investigations on the meaning of form in the context of modernism. The forms provide vehicles for postmodern explorations through parody, pastiche, alteration, and assemblage.
Cogent homages, references, and remakes of iconic modern designs are also apparent in the works of Brazilians Leo Capote, Lattoog, Guto Requena, and Studio MK27. Through Postmodern elegies, they make historical forms irrevocably their own. Capote revisits the design of Tulip Chair (1956) by Saarinen, as well as Panton’s S Chair, reconstructing them in upcycled hardware. Similar to Tinoco and Castillo, Lattoog (led by Leonardo Lattavo and Pedro Moog) pays homage to Panton and Charles Rennie MacIntosh (1868–1928) in Pantosh Easy Chair. The Giraffe Chair (1987), designed by Italian-born Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi (1914–92) with Marcelo Ferraz and Marcelo Suzuki, has been given a digital update through 3-D printing by Guto Requena in his Nóize St. Ifigênia chair, whose forms are derived from the sounds of the Grajau, Tiradentes, and Santa Ifigênia neighborhoods of São Paulo.
Another nod to the vernacular forms that attracted Bo Bardi can be seen in Prosthesis and Innesti, a series of furniture by São Paulo–based Studio MK27 (founded by Marcio Kogan) in collaboration with Milan-based Manuela Verga and Paolo Boatti. The pieces of furniture were appropriated by the designers from the restoration work site located in an Italian castle. For each piece in this series, Studio MK27, Verga, and Boatti made minimal “gentle interventions,” changing an element while preserving imperfections in the materials, or adding ironic embellishments such as gold leaf or blown glass. This project was inspired by Studio MK27’s earlier series Prosthesis and Grafts, in which furniture from the construction site of the firm’s building for the furniture store Micasa in São Paulo were modified through similar interventions and later exhibited in the store once construction was finished. Created by construction workers, the furniture is “predicated on speed and available material.” Interestingly, despite the pride of craftsmanship, most makers of the original furniture were reluctant to take individual credit for their creations. In a spirit mirroring his contemporaries in Caracas, Kogan saw no reason to deny his elders by noting the similarities between these projects and Bo Bardi’s work, thereby showing his willingness to “pay homage to their work while moving forward.”
André Bastos & Guilherme Leite Ribeiro
in collaboration with Media Farzin
Leonardo Lattavo & Pedro Moog
Studio MK27 in collaborations with Isay Weinfeld, Manuela Verga and Paolo Boatti