Another modernity: Latin America

At MoMA New York, the exhibition “Crafting Modernity: Design in Latin America, 1940-1980” analyzes how modern design has been absorbed, transforming six countries in Central and South America

Roberto Burle Marx, Ibirapuera Park, Quadricentennial Gardens, project, São Paulo, Brazil, 1953. The Museum of Modern Art

In recent years we have seen an opening of the world of design to new narratives and perspectives. There is a tendency to get beyond the single vision created in the 20th century by a few key figures (mostly from the western world) who have written the history of design, and to listen to many other voices that have never been much heeded before. In short, a trend towards acknowledgment of the value of thought that reflects diversity, pluralism and a multicultural overview is now also being applied to the design disciplines.

Antonio Bandeira, The Museum of Modern Art
Brigadas Ramona Parra, The Museum of Modern Art

This is the attitude taken by MoMA New York in the exhibition “Crafting Modernity: Design in Latin America, 1940-1980,” the first show in a major US museum to examine modern design in this region. The coverage focuses on six countries – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela – which have been the protagonists of the development of design in Latin America. 

The intention of the curators – Ana Elena Mallet, guest curator, and Amanda Forment, assistant curator in the Department of Architecture and Design – is to demonstrate that design in Latin America can be a valid platform from which to examine and understand the wider political, social and cultural transformations of the region. “

With this exhibition, we hope to introduce audiences to the ways in which the field of design in Latin America, especially design for the domestic sphere, reflects the multivalent and complex visions of modernity taking place in the region,” says Ana Elena Mallet. “Through the study of objects, material culture, and other forms of expression, a more nuanced vision of Latin America can emerge.

Visitors will find over 100 objects on view, including furniture, graphics, fabrics, ceramics and photographs, sourced from MoMA and from public and private collections in the United States, Latin America and Europe. 

Roberto Matta, Malitte Lounge Furniture, 1966, The Museum of Modern Art
Emilio Ambasz, Flashlights, 1983, The Museum of Modern Art

The case studies presented are many and various: they include the Casa de Vidro by Lina Bo Bardi and the house of Alfredo Boulton at Pampatar (Venezuela), with furnishings by Miguel Arroyo. The show also features the curious case of Grupo Austral, who update the classic Tripolina chair with a new structure in metal tubing.

Then comes the story of designers like the Mexican Clara Porset and the Venezuelan Clara Porset, who trained in the United States and then returned to their homelands to develop hybrids of cultures and design methods. Visitors can also see materials related to the famous competition held by MoMA in 1940,  “Organic Design in Home Furnishings,” in which Latin American designers were encouraged to “local materials and methods of construction.”

Oscar Niemeyer “Module” Low Table, 1978, The Museum of Modern Art

The time span analyzed, from 1940 to 1980, is a period of sweeping transformations and rapid (but often disorderly) modernization. In the 1940s, while World War II raged in Europe, the countries of Latin America replaced the goods that had usually been imported with items produced closer to home.

The materials thus made available led to exponential growth of national industries, generating many work opportunities for local designers. At the end of the 1970s a series of economic crises had repercussions across the region, marking the end of an era, the end of this tumultuous period of regional growth. In the exhibition, design is applied as a lens through which to examine the specific history of these six countries. A privileged vantage point from which to observe the complexity of the real world.

Installation view of Crafting Modernity: Design in Latin America, 1940–1980, The Museum of Modern Art – Photo © Robert Gerhardt