Mid-Century Modern Finds

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

mid-century modern designer

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: John Kapel

Christine Villalta

We've come across these Mid-Century Modern dressers by John Kapel for Glenn of California several times since we started collecting and selling vintage Mid-Century furniture, and every time we are so attracted to this set.

John Kapel for Glenn of California

John Kapel designed this line for Glenn of California in the 1960's. It also includes a taller dresser, an armoire, more night stands, and a headboard. These pieces are walnut with carved handles and black accents. They are modern, minimalist, and elegant. They are beautiful, but are also practical with details such as a magazine holder inside the night stands and a mirrored cabinet door inside the armoire. They were designed over 60 years ago, yet work perfectly in today's interior design.

Early Exposure to Design

John Kapel (born 1922) graduated from the Cranbook Academy of Art in Michigan, where other well known Mid-Century furniture designers also studied, such as Harry Bertoia, Charles and Ray Eames, and Eero Saarinen. Kapel trained briefly in Yugoslavia and worked as a general designer for George Nelson & Associates in New York for a few years before he made his move to California.

Left: John Kapel at his home in Woodside, CA. / Photo: C-Home.com. | Right: Walnut and leather armchair designed by John Kapel in 1958. / Photo: Pinterest

Studio Craft vs. Popular Design

Like his good friend, Sam Maloof, whose designs we also admire, John Kapel is considered to be a studio craftsman. He is a skilled woodworker and metalsmith and has created many of one-of-a-kind pieces in his basement workshop. He also built prototypes to present to large manufacturers and developed a partnership with Glenn of California that lasted more than 20 years.

Chair prototypes in John Kapel's workshop. / Photo: C-Home.com

Chair prototypes in John Kapel's workshop. / Photo: C-Home.com

A Craftsman's Home

It was unusual for Mid-Century designers to focus on both unique studio pieces and also design for large manufacturers, but John Kapel is practical and wanted to be able to afford a nice home. In 1959, he built his dream home with the help of architect, Jerry Weiss, in Woodside, California. His home is a wonderful example of his craftsmanship and attention to detail. Not only is it full of furniture that he built himself, but he also created many of the lamps and sculptures. 

My fellow craftsmen sure thought I was tainted. They thought of me as a sell-out. I didn’t care. I wanted to have a nice house and designing for a manufacturer allowed me to do that.
— John Kapel, Woodside Wonderland by Cat Doran, C-Home.com

Left: a work space in Kapel's home / Photo: LATimes.com | Middle: the exterior of John Kapel's home in Woodside / Photo: C-Home.com | Right: a cantilevered fireplace that divides the living room and entrance to the Kapels' home. The sculpture is also by Kapel. / Photo: C-Home.com

One-of-a-Kind Furniture and Art

We did come across a beautiful vintage rocking chair by Sam Maloof several years ago, but have not come across any of John Kapel's studio craft pieces. I am glad he also designed for large manufacturers, so that more design aficionados can enjoy his work.

John Kapel children's furniture on display at the Oakland Museum of California / Photo Credit: Esoteric Survey

John Kapel children's furniture on display at the Oakland Museum of California / Photo Credit: Esoteric Survey

Right: 'Bell Tower Wood Assemblage Sculpture by John Kapel / Photo:1stdibs.com | Middle: 'Mogul' in stacked laminate particle board by John Kapel / Photo: 1stdibs.com | Right: 'Counterpoint' by John Kapel / Photo: Reform Gallery/1stdibs.com

Bibliography: Leslie WIlliamson, "Handcrafted Modern: At Home with Mid-Century Designers", Rizzoli, NY, 2010

Designer Spotlight: Alexander Girard & La Fonda del Sol

Christine Villalta

Carlos recently picked up this book about Mid-Century designer, Alexander Girard, at an estate sale. It is a 15 pound 672 page compilation of everything Alexander Girard created in his lifetime, curated by Todd Oldham and Kiera Coffee and published in 2011. It includes his interior design, furniture design, images of textiles and wallpaper, sketches, folk art, interviews, and more. I would definitely recommend this book to any Mid-Century Modern collector.

'La Fonda' Chairs by Charles and Ray Eames

We have been especially curious about the life and work of Alexander Girard since we acquired these vintage Mid-Century bar stools with ‘La Fonda’ seats (the bases on these stools are Herman Miller secretarial stool bases) that were designed by Charles and Ray Eames in collaboration with Alexander Girard for La Fonda de Sol restaurant that opened in the Time & Life Building in New York City in 1960. 

Set of four vintage Mid-Century stools with 'La Fonda' seats by Charles and Ray Eames and Herman Miller secretarial bases (model EC123-36), offered at Mid-Century Modern Finds.

La Fonda del Sol - Mid-Century Modern Restaurant Design

Alexander Girard designed every aspect of the Latin American themed restaurant from the matchbooks and menus to the space planning, tableware and waitstaff uniforms. Charles and Ray Eames were friends of Alexander Girard and were asked to design the 'La Fonda' chairs. They were similar to the Eames fiberglass shell chair, but Girard requested that they be lower, so that the tables could be seen.

La Fonda del Sol had a meandering layout that Girard used to create separate spaces for the customers to enjoy, a combination of open lively spaces and enclosed seating, staggered niches containing pre-Colombian artifacts and folk art mixed with modern chairs and tables and bold, colorful typeface on the walls. Alexander Girard created an exuberant experience with his design of La Fonda del Sol that contrasted with the conservative modernism of the time.

The most important statement, more durable than the totality of the planning, the props, or the color was the assertion that the prime concern of environmental design was how people feel in a space. This is Girard’s message and main contribution. At a time when modern architecture was rapidly becoming a larger, more standardized aspect of the corporate establishment, the success of La Fonda whetted our appetites for more romantic, diversified spaces.
— Jack Lennor Larsen, textile designer | from the Alexander Girard book

Top left: La Fonda del Sol / Photo: Time | Top right: La Fonda del Sol with Girard's bold typeface on the wall / Photo: Pinterest | Bottom left: Ceramic dishware designed by Alexander Girard for La Fonda del Sol / Photo: New Mexico Museum of Modern Art | Bottom right: Waiter wearing a poncho designed by Alexander Girard / Photo: Pinterest

Folk Art, the Sun Motif & Mid-Century Modern Design

Alexander Girard had a love of folk art that he was able to explore and celebrate in his design of La Fonda del Sol. He created over 80 sun motifs used throughout the restaurant on menus, matchbooks, carts, waitstaff jackets and more. Throughout his life, Girard and his wife, Susan Needham, amassed a large collection of folk art that they displayed in their homes in Santa Fe, New Mexico. They also donated over 100,000 pieces to the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe where Girard designed a new wing of the museum to house the collection. 

La Fonda del Sol matchbooks designed by Alexander Girard. Left photo: @objctshop via Fab.com | Right photo: Design_is_fine.org

I believe we should preserve this evidence of the past, not as a pattern for sentimental imitation, but as nourishment for the creative spirit of the present.
— Alexander Girard | girardstudio.com

Left: Vintage Poster of Girard's Folk Art Collection at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico / Photo: eBay | Right: Alexander Girard and Susan Needham in the living room in Santa Fe / Photo: Vitra

Mid-Century Modern Graphic Design, Textile Design & Furniture Design

In addition to Alexander Girard's interior design/branding projects such as La Fonda del Sol, L'Etoile, and Braniff International Airways, he was also well known for his Mid-Century Modern graphic design, textile design, and furniture design, much of which has been reissued and can be purchased today at Herman Miller, Vitra, and Maharam. You can find vintage items by Alexander Girard at 1stdibs.com.

Left: Girard Color Wheel Ottoman / Photo: Herman Miller | Middle: Arabesque by Alexander Girard, 1954 / Photo: Maharam | Right: Black and White Girard Environmental Enrichment Panel / Herman Miller

Vintage Mid-Century sofa and chair designed by Alexander Girard for Herman Miller offered by Retro Inferno Modern Furnishings through 1stdibs.com. Originally designed for Braniff International Airways in 1965 and only available to the public through Herman Miller from 1967-1968. Photo: Retro Inferno Modern Furnishings | 1stdibs.com

Alexander Girard in his home studio in 1948 in Gross Pointe Michigan. Photo: Charles Eames | Vitra Design Museum | Alexander Girard Estate

The Life & Work of Alexander Girard

For a brief overview of the life and work of Alexander Girard, you can read this article in Hyperallergic about the 2016 Alexander Girard exhibit at the Vitra Design Museum in Germany. For even more information and countless images, you can purchase the Alexander Girard book directly from Ammo Books.