Mid-Century Modern Finds

A Curated Selection of Mid-Century Furniture, Lighting, Art & Accessories

design history

Designer Spotlight: Clara Porset & the Butaque Chair

Christine Villalta

Carlos recently found these butaque chairs in his quest to find beautiful Mid-Century designs that we can offer to others through Mid-Century Modern Finds. We think they would look great in a number of interior design settings, but especially love the idea of using them in a modern home.

As we always do with new finds, we scoured the internet and books to figure out their provenance, which led us to a post about Mexican Modernism and furniture design on the Don Shoemaker website/blog (another favorite Mid-Century designer of ours who was an American born Mid-Century designer who lived and worked in Mexico) with a photo of these butaque chairs by Clara Porset in an exhibition at the Museo Franz Mayer in Mexico City in 2006.

Pair of butaque armchairs by Clara Porset in an exhibition at the Museo Franz Mayer in Mexico City, 2006. Photo credit: donshoemaker.com

Pair of butaque armchairs by Clara Porset in an exhibition at the Museo Franz Mayer in Mexico City, 2006. Photo credit: donshoemaker.com

Clara Porset and the Butaque Chair

Like Don Shoemaker, Clara Porset was not originally from Mexico, but adopted it as her home and immersed herself in the culture. She is best remembered for her reinterpretation of the butaque chair in the 1940's and 1950's, a low, curved lounge chair with a long history in Mexico. The butaque chair is an example of the mestizo culture in Mexico; it is a design that came from Mexico's Spanish conquerers and was adapted by local artisans to become a representation of Mexican nationalism.

Clara Porset with husband, muralist, Xavier Guerrero. Photo credit: un día | una arquitecta / Living room of Clara Porset and Xavier Guerrero in Chimalistac, Mexico City. Photo credit: una vida moderna

Mexican Modernism & Political Activism

Clara Porset was fascinated by the country's craft traditions and travelled around Mexico with her husband, Mexican muralist Xavier Guerrero, studying Mexican art, culture and craft. She then experimented with different shapes, sizes, and materials to create furniture designs that would blend European modernism and Mexican heritage. She removed ornate details to achieve modern simplicity. Clara Porset was part of a group of politically committed architects, designers, and artists who combined modernist style with the use of local materials and techniques to create a distinct Mexican post-revolutionary nationalist style. The use of murals and sculptures depicting rural, indigenous, or industrialist themes was also part of this movement.

Clara Porset's work was favored by several great architects of Mid-Century Mexico, Max Cetto, Mario Pani, Enrique Yáñez, and Luis Barragán. In the 1940's, Clara collaborated with Luis Barragán on many designs for his home and furnishing proposals for his architectural projects.

Left to right: Butaque chair designed by Luis Barragán and Clara Porset in 1945. Photo credit: donshoemaker.com / Clara Porset lounge chairs. Photo credit: ADN Galería / Clara Porset lounge chairs. Photo credit: 1stdibs / Chair by Clara Porset. Photo credit: Galería Julio de la Torre

From Cuba to Mexico

Clara Porset (1895 - 1981) was born in Matanzas, Cuba to a wealthy family, which enabled her to travel to many countries in her youth. She studied at Columbia University's School of Fine Arts in New York, and then in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, the Sorbonne, and the Louvre. She travelled to Germany where she met Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus Movement who later encouraged her to study at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she studied under Josef and Anni Albers. Clara lived in Cuba in the 1930's, working as an interior designer and giving lectures on modern design. She also wrote many design articles for the magazine, Social.

Porset's career in her native Cuba was interrupted when her support for the Cuban resistance movement led to political exile. In 1935, she moved to Mexico City where she remained for the rest of her life. In Mexico, Clara became friends with creative leftists such as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Lola Bravo, and in 1938, married Xavier Guerrero, founding member of the Mexican muralist movement and the Mexican Communist Party. Her designs, such as the butaque chair gained acclaim, and she became one of the pioneers of Mexican modernism.

Clara Porset / Photo credit: un día | una arquitecta

Left to right: Exhibit designed by Clara Porset, 'El Arte en la Vida Diaria', in the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, 1952. Photo credit: Core 77 / Patio furniture by Clara Porset. Photo credit: b22 / A butaque chair by Clara Porset. Photo credit: una vida moderna / Iron chair with woven seat and backrest. Photo credit: una vida moderna / Sling chairs designed by Clara Porset in 1957. Photo credit: una vida moderna / Patio furniture selected for exhibition at MoMA in New York City. Photo credit: b22 

School of Industrial Design

After the Cuban revolution ended, in 1959, Clara Porset was invited back to Cuba to design furniture for schools and institutions, commissioned by Che Guevara, the Minister of Industries. She had plans to start a School of Industrial Design in Cuba, but it did not work out. She eventually returned to Mexico, where she helped launch the School of Industrial Design at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Clara Porset taught there in the years that followed, and before her death in 1981, Porset donated her home and library of work to establish a scholarship for women who score at the top of their class. The Clara Porset Library at the Faculty of Architecture is considered to be the best design library in Mexico. In 1993, the School of Industrial Design created the Clara Porset National Industrial Design award.

The Clara Porset Library at CIDI/UNAM, Mexico City. Photo credit: donshoemaker.com

Clara Porset's entry for a MoMA international design competition for low cost furniture, circa 1950, Photo credit: cubamaterial.com

Designer Spotlight: Gaetano Sciolari

Christine Villalta

One of our most recent Mid-Century Modern finds is this unique floor lamp by Gaetano Sciolari for Stilnovo, Milan. We have come across a few lamps by Gaetano Sciolari over the years, and they always impress us with their unique forms and use of detail. There are many lamps being made today with the Mid-Century look, but Gaetano Sciolari's designs have an inimitable quality. I would love to collect them all.

A Sudden Career Change

Angelo Gaetano Sciolari (1927-1994) graduated with a degree in architecture and then went on to train as a filmmaker. He had a sudden career change in 1949, when his father passed away, and he took over Sciolari Lighting at the age of 22. His family owned Sciolari Lighting since 1892, only 13 years after Thomas Edison patented the first light bulb. 

Sciolari Lighting

Sciolari was not only an amazing lighting designer, but also a wonderful entrepreneur. Under Gaetano Sciolari, the Sciolari Lighting business expanded tremendously and became the first Italian lighting manufacturer to sell in the United States through Lightolier. Sciolari lamps were also manufactured by Stilnovo in Milan, Boulanger in Belgium, and Stilkrone in Germany.

Italian Lighting Manufacturer's Association

In addition to building up the Sciolari Lighting business and contributing so many wonderful lighting designs, Gaetano Sciolari was also the founder and president of the Italian Lighting Manufacturer's Association.

Design Contrasts

I love the contrasts in Gaetano Sciolari's designs. They can be simplistic and futuristic, but also intricate and glamorous. He mixed materials such as brass and chrome and also juxtaposed different finishes such as a polished finish alongside a satin finish. His use of glass and crystals is cool and sparkly, but also gives off a warm glow when the lamps are turned on. He executed all of this in harmonious configurations of geometric forms that are like glowing sculptures.

Sciolari's Mid-Century Modern Lamp Designs

Some of the names of Sciolari's lamps are ‘Club’, ‘Futura’, ‘Cubic', 'Ovali' and ‘Sculpture’. Below are two chandeliers we have sold by Gaetano Sciolari, an 'Ovali' chandelier on the left and a 'Club' chandelier on the right. These are definitely more 'classic' than many of his designs. A few 'Cubic' chandeliers are pictured above on the right and left. I'm not sure what the middle chandelier is called, but I would guess 'Futura'. Which do you prefer?

Sciolari Lamps in Interior Design Today

Gaetano Sciolari's lamps are unique statement pieces in any room. Here are some examples of his vintage Mid-Century lamps being used in interior design today.

Designer Spotlight: Bertha Schaefer

Christine Villalta

We recently acquired a set of eight unique dining chairs from a collector that sparked our interest in the designer, Bertha Schaefer.  Carlos and I are both impressed with her sculptural dining chairs, desks, and tables; and I, as a woman, am always curious about Mid-20th Century female designers. After digging deeper, we learned that Bertha Schaefer was not only a furniture designer, but also an interior designer, art gallerist, and innovator.

Bertha Schaefer and Will Barnet (left) at the 14 Painter-Printmakers exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1955. Photo credit: Archives of American Art

Bertha Schaefer and Will Barnet (left) at the 14 Painter-Printmakers exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1955. Photo credit: Archives of American Art

Bertha Schaefer Interiors & Bertha Schaefer Gallery of Contemporary Art

Bertha Schaefer (American, 1895-1971) was born in Mississippi and later moved to New York where she got her diploma in interior design at Parsons School of Design.  She opened Bertha Schaefer Interiors in 1924 and Bertha Schaefer Gallery of Contemporary Art in 1944, both in New York City. Bertha Schaefer Interiors designed furniture and interiors for private residences, hotels, restaurants, and also projects such as the interior of the Temple Washington Hebrew Congregation (1954).  Her art gallery launched the careers of many American and European painters and sculptors and also featured American furniture design. Schaefer, a proponent of the Bauhaus Movement, believed that economical design should possess both craftsmanship and beauty, and in 1947-1948, she curated a series of exhibits called “The Modern House Comes Alive”, which expressed this vision.  Schaefer also believed in functional and economical lighting and was using decorative interior fluorescent lighting in her designs as early as 1939.

Bertha Schaefer Furniture Design for Singer & Sons

From 1950-1961, Schaefer designed furniture for Joe Singer of Singer & Sons, who was intrigued by her innovative design and her ability to mix the fine arts with the commercial arts. Singer & Sons introduced many Italian designers, such as Gio Ponti, Carlo Mollino, and Ico Parisi, to the American market. In 1951, fifteen of Bertha Schaefer’s designs were debuted along with twenty-one pieces by Italian designers in a week-long trade show in a showroom that was designed by Schaefer and Richard Kelly, a well known lighting designer.

Awards & Recognition

Schaefer’s ideas and contributions to American Mid-Century design were well recognized, and she received many invitations to participate in discussions and design juries sponsored by museums and universities.  She won design awards from the Museum of Modern Art in 1952 and the Decorator’s Club of New York in 1959, where she served as president from 1947-1948 and 1955-1957.

Photo credits: Bertha Schaefer Coffee Table. Photo: The Exchange Int/1stdibs | Bertha Schaefer Desk. Photo: Case Antiques/1stdibs | Bertha Schaefer Nesting Tables. Photo: Archive/1stdibs | Bertha Schaefer Sofa. Photo Wright Auction | Bertha Schaefer Desk. Photo: Patrick Parrish | Bertha Schaefer Dining Chairs. Photo: Mid-Century Modern Finds