Cuban, professor, scholar, architect, designer, and artist are amongst many roles that Clara Porset played. Architect Clara Porset was celebrated for her achievements in architecture and design, especially in Cuba and Mexico, where she focused on industrial design and traditional Mexican culture. Porset devoted many years of her life to research and teaching rather than creating, which led her to a humungous compilation of historical texts of Mexican popular culture, from early pre-Hispanic settlements to the 1950s. Between 1930 and 1970, Porset carried out an arduous writing task focused on design, its essence, growth, and scope. Her ideas were widely disseminated in national and foreign media.

Life 

Clara Porset’s interest in design and art steered her to study at Columbia University, where she completed her Bachelor of Arts at the School of Fine Arts in New York in 1925. Years later, she continued to aspire to the world of design, which led her to travel to Paris where she got an opportunity to study at the National School of Architecture and Design, under the guidance of architect Henri Rapin from 1928 to 1931. Here she was a student at both La Sorbonne, for a course in aesthetics, and the École des Beaux-Arts, for art, architecture, and history classes. During this time she pursued her interest in furniture design in the atelier of Henri Rapin where she took on theoretical and practical experience. After her European journey, Porset returned to Cuba and built her career as an interior and furniture designer for homes and diverse establishments. At the same time, she started teaching at the Escuela Técnica for women.

Clara Porset: Ideology and Philosophy - Sheet1
Clara Porset_©Commune Design

Ideology

Alongside important commissions, Porset also tackled designs suited for the underprivileged. By 1940, she participated in “Organic Design for Home Furnishing”, a competition organized by MoMA in which she bagged an award for a collection of what she called “rural furniture”. Meanwhile, MoMA competitions continue to call on designers to showcase their most creative designs. Charlotte Perriand circa 1940 Low Chair was built with bamboo and exhibited during the 1941 “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” exhibit and Clara Porset’s circa 1950 chair for the “Prize Designs for Modern Furniture” international design exhibit were amongst the historic examples included in their 2019 exhibition. Under the guidance of architect Mario Pani, an ambitious housing project: the first Mexican Modern housing unit was developed for the low-income population of the city. The design comprised of a series of tall towers soaring in the southern area. This was between 1947 and 1949, at the same time the architect commissioned Clara Porset to design the interior furniture of the same apartments for sale. She was called on owing to her ability to highlight Mexican culture uniquely while making great quality furniture. This prompted the design of wooden and wicker chairs, armchairs, and desks for the apartments. This fact continues to give Porset fame as an unparalleled furniture designer for her potential to engage in low-cost designs in the same way as lavish projects in the country and abroad. The Centro Urbano Presidente Alemán, CUPA (1949), where she looked into the cost of the materials as well as the size, suitability, and multipurpose of the furnishings represented a perfect balance and made it is possible to say that we find here an integration, that is a coherent whole. In these designs, we can spot two types of basic fixtures, directed at a diverse clientele, one that’s related to the Modern Movement and the structure itself, and another that takes into account traditional concepts.

Butaque_©MoMA

Philosophy

Porset’s role was vital in achieving a balance between tradition and modernity in design. Some of her furniture took inspiration from the Caribbean and Mexican examples, profiting from the diversity of lumber and other natural materials such as wicker and cotton. In some cases, metal formed the frame but was always in perfect harmony with the organic elements. The amalgamation maintained the sensuality and richness of her designs. Simplicity was for her the principal virtue of contemporary design, with comfort and function integrated into the plastic emotion. The final ideal was to make these furnishings available to all. By 1971 she won a Gold Medal from the National Institute of Fine Arts, for her role as the pioneer of industrial design in Mexico. The boldness of Porset’s designs has made the appreciation of her work in the light of the 21st century possible and necessary. The renowned designer breathed her last in May 1981 at the age of 86 in Mexico City, leaving behind incomparable achievements of a woman architect of her time. Her innovations that keep in mind tradition, embody the very ideals of the Modern Movement and at the same time, she can be titled as one of the pioneers of Regionalism, for she took the responsibility of not only the elements for the production of furniture but the complete scope of comprehensive interior design.

Author

Sowmya is an architectural journalist and writer. In this column, Sowmya takes you through stories on eco-architecture, biophilic design, and green buildings from across the globe.

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