In 1941, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City organized "Organic Design for Home Furnishings," a competition opened to design teams from Latin America. The winning submissions earned the prize of having their designs industrialized and sold by the Bloomingdale's department store. As detailed by the auction house Christie's, one of the winning entries in the competition was a chaise longue designed by a team from Mexico made up of Klaus Grabe, Morely Webb, and Michael Van Beuren.
The team, led by Van Beuren, made a splash in the U.S. with its stylish lounge chair, Christie's notes on a page for an original Van Beuren chaise that sold for more than $18,000 in 2009: "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."
The chair even showed up in photos by Julius Shulman of homes in Southern California.
By then, Van Beuren, born in the U.S. in 1911 and trained at the influential Bauhaus school in Germany, was already making its mark on home furnishing design on a broad scale in his adopted country, Mexico. That history, little-known outside design circles, is the subject of a new exhibit at the Franz Mayer applied-arts museum in Mexico City, "Footprints of the Bauhaus."
The show brings together more than 100 pieces, including letters, sketches and photographs, that demonstrate how Van Beuren altered the course of interior design in Mexico in the post-Revolutionary period. Ana Elena Mallet, the exhibition's curator, said that "Footprints of the Bauhaus" speaks to a historical moment in which an emerging middle-class in Mexico sought to express stability and modernity after the long upheaval of the revolution, which ended roughly by the start of the 1920s.
"[Van Beuren] realized that he could build a furnishing industry here, that there was a new middle-class seeking to separate itself from European-style furnishings that were popular in late 19th Century and Mexican rustic-style furnishings that accompanied the nationalistic discourse in the 1920s," Mallet said in an interview in the exhibit hall this week.
"This new middle class wanted to break away from these ideologies, and he is the one who generated an entire furnishing line directly tied to modernist movements that were then sweeping the world," she added.
Van Beuren, trained as an architect, moved to Mexico in 1937 and was commissioned early on to design the interiors of the bungalows at the famous Flamingo Hotel in the resort city of Acapulco. Like other former members of the Bauhaus school, he found in Mexico a "fertile territory" to pursue new experiments in art and design, Mallet said.
Many, such as Anni and Josef Albers, sought to incorporate pre-Hispanic influences into their work. Van Beuren did as well, although in a more subtle manner than the Albers. One example is his version of the butaque chair, a scooped design set low to the ground that was present in Mexico before the arrival of the Spanish. In other furnishings, Van Beuren applied the foundational Bauhaus concept of merging "form with function," such as in tables with adjustable heights and tops.
For decades after he opened a showroom in Mexico City's Juarez neighborhood and a factory in the suburb of Naucalpan, Van Beuren helped reshape interior design across Mexico with industrial and affordable furnishings that found their way into countless homes and offices. The designer sold his factory and brand in 1973, and passed away in 2004 in Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City.
"In the end," Mallet said, "Van Beuren in Mexico was the first brand that was recognized by the public, that produced quality design in series, at reasonable prices."
As evidence of that historical reach and a new contemporary interest in Van Beuren's legacy, an estimated 1,300 people attended the opening of the "Footprints of the Bauhaus" exhibit last week, when only about 300 were expected. "They were mostly young people, people who said, 'I grew up with this furniture,' " Mallet said.
-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City
First photo: A lounge chair by Michael Van Beuren's design team. Credit: Tomo.com.mx / Second photo: Interior showroom display with Van Beuren furnishings, circa 1941. Credit: Franz Meyer Museum / Third photo: An adjustable Van Beuren table in the "Footprints of the Bauhaus" exhibit. Credit: Daniel Hernandez / Fourth photo: A Van Beuren butaque-style chair. Credit: Tomo.com.mx