The Mexican design team of Michael van Beuren, Klaus Grabe and Morely Webb submitted a chaise of this design to the Museum of Modern Art's 1941 competition, Organic Design in Home Furnishings. The much celebrated and widely publicized piece won one of the first prize awards in the Latin American section of this ground breaking competition.
In the 1930s and '40s, with artists such as Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, Frieda Kahlo and Clara Porset in residence, Mexico was a vibrant avant-garde artistic center. In addition to these local artists a number of faculty and students of the Bauhaus school, exiles from the war in Europe, chose to reside in Mexico City. Among the relocated bauhauslers, in addition to former director Hannes Meyer and his wife Lena and faculty Josef Albers and his wife Anni were van Beuren and Grabe.
Once out of Germany and residing in the U.S., van Beuren traveled first to Mexico for a short term job, assuring his good friend Bertrand Goldberg that upon his return they would embark on a business partnership. However, captivated by the artistic spirit of Mexico, van Beuren took up permanent residence in Mexico City and partnered instead with Grabe and Webb. Together they established Domus which, at the time, was considered among the most progressive and creative furniture manufacturers in the country.
The head of the Museum of Modern Art's newly founded Industrial Design department Elliot Noyes (who had himself been a student of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and alumnus Marcel Breuer), was well aware of the exciting arts community developing in Latin America. Noyes' interest in the area would most certainly have been bolstered by Philip Johnson, MoMA's Department of Architecture and Design Director from 1932 to 1934 (and then again from 1949-54). Johnson, through his visits to the Bauhaus in both Weimar and Dessau, developed lasting friendships with a few of the students and faculty who later ended up in Mexico, among them van Beuren and the Albers.
In 1941 the inter-American competition "Organic Design in Home Furnishings" was the Industrial Design department's inaugural event. The competition had two sections, one for the Unites States and the other for residents of twenty Latin American countries including Mexico. The prize winning designs were to be produced, marketed and sold by Bloomingdales and twelve other major department stores from key cities around the US.
The response to this first collaboration between retailers and a top museum was phenomenal. Entries flooded the museum from all over the U.S. as well as from seventeen of the twenty Latin American countries. In the U.S. category, a number of significant award winning entries came from two recent Cranbrook Academy graduates, Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames. (Among other pieces, the two presented their revolutionary series of chairs with seats made from plywood shells.) In the Latin American category, five awards were given, one to van Beuren, Webb and Grabe.
Their chaise, advertised after the competition by Bloomingdales at the cost of $69.98(1), was extremely well received and prominently placed on the patio of a "modern house" mocked up by Bloomingdales. During the first half of 1941, the Mexican team's chaise was seen in ads or articles in, among many other publications, Retailing, Newark News, New York Herald Tribune, New York Times, Women's Wear Daily, Pencil Points and Decorative Furniture.
As noted by the tag on the back, the here offered chaise was manufactured by the design firm Domus. It also retains its original leather webbing (the version presented at MoMA in 1941 had a woven mecate tape seat and back). This elegant chaise is a choice example of the inspired modern design being created in Mexico in the '30s and '40s. With its combination of a strong, seemingly simple form and robust materiality, it reveals both its Bauhaus heritage as well as its South American origin.
1. Curatorial Exhibition Files, Exh. #148. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
For images of other related examples:
C. Porset and Museo Franz Mayer, Clara Porset's Design: Creating a Modern Mexico, Mexico City, 2006, p. 76 .
M. A. Staniszewski, The Power of Display: A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art, Cambridge, MA, 1998, p. 172.
E. Noyes, Museum of Modern Art New York Organic Design, New York, 1941, pp. 39-41 for information on the Latin American design competition and a drawing of van Beuren, Grabe and Webb's design for this chaise.