Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 22, 2019
Wendy Kaplan and Staci Steinberger Found in Translation: Design in California and Mexico 1915–1985 Exh. cat. Munich: DelMonico Books-Prestel, 2017. 360 pp.; 243 color ills.; 104 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9783791356709)
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, September 19, 2017–April 1, 2018

As the migration of people across national borders becomes an increasingly contentious issue, Found in Translation: Design in California and Mexico, 1915–1985 offers a history of the impact of one specific geographic migration of people and ideas back and forth across the Mexico-California border. This catalogue accompanies an exhibition that took place at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from September 17, 2017, to April 1, 2018. The exhibition and catalogue were created to explore and complicate the history of design and architectural influence across the border and show the ways in which design and architecture in Mexico and Southern California was and is impacted by the cultural exchanges permitted across a shared border. As editor Wendy Kaplan notes in her introduction, there have been many scholarly examinations of artistic exchange between Mexico and California, but Found in Transition is the first one to explore its impact in design and architecture. The catalogue focuses particularly on the ways in which design and architecture create spaces for the construction of identity, whether that is national (particularly Mexico’s in the post-revolution period), civic, regional, or personal identity.

The catalogue is divided into four sections, “Spanish Colonial Inspiration,” “Pre-Hispanic Revivals,” “Folk Art and Craft Traditions,” and “Modernism.” In addition to its longer thematic essays, the catalogue is interspersed with shorter ones that examine the impact of designers or intermediary figures and specific objects or monuments.

In “The Spanish Colonial Solution: The Politics of Style in Southern California, 1890s–1930s,” Phoebe S. K. Young argues that California architects and boosters relied on what they called the Spanish colonial style because it created a distinct visual identity for California that carried with it a sense of history and thus power. California architects and boosters, “worked to sidestep or erase connections to Mexico, even when the architectural influences were undeniable,” favoring the state’s Spanish colonial past, evoked as a romantic and specifically European history—thereby defining California racially as Anglo rather than Mexican (48).

In her essay, “Mirror Gazes: Architecture in California and Mexico, 1915–1940,” Cristina López Uribe argues that Spanish colonial style also appealed to architects and artistic and political leaders seeking to differentiate post-revolutionary Mexico through a mestizaje (mixed) style, but that modernist styles also became popular because they were more affordable for the rebuilding nation. Both these revival and modernist styles traveled back and forth across the border and blended together in a vernacular modernist style that in Mexico took advantage of the affordable practicality of concrete. Mexican architects used color as well as handmade folk objects to make modernist and avant-garde styles, which were viewed by many as foreign, more reflective of Mexican styles and tastes.

Essays in the “Pre-Hispanic Revivals” section look at the multiple meanings given to citations and appropriations of pre-Hispanic cultures by designers in California and Mexico. James Oles emphasizes that Californians borrowed freely from multiple pre-Hispanic cultures in an effort to create an exoticized ancient past, while Mexicans were more deliberate in their choices by focusing particularly on the Aztecs whose vast empire’s capital was in modern Mexico City (129). Aztec references were used by the Mexican government to create a unified identity for the country, though one which often obscured the oppression of living indigenous people. Other essays in the section reveal the popularity of pre-Hispanic references in architecture and interior design in 1920s and 1930s California and trace the history of key exhibitions of antiquities from Mexico in California and their acquisition by California collectors. This section contrasts these evocations of exoticism with the Chicano movement’s uses of pre-Hispanic references in design and murals.  

In the “Folk Art and Craft Traditions” section, Ana Elena Maller and Staci Steinberger’s essay, “‘Fertile Ground’: Design Exchanges between Mexico and California, 1920–1976,” traces the interaction between an international group of designers in Mexico and the contested category of handcrafts in the 1940s and 1950s. In the post-revolutionary period (after 1920), “elites proclaimed living indigenous cultures to be the foundation of Mexican identity. Nonetheless, they forced individual cultures to abandon their distinctive practices by integrating them all into a single mestizaje (mixed race) culture, building on ideas put forward during the revolution” (185). Government-sponsored efforts to preserve handicrafts and use them to promote Mexico globally tended to rely on standard narratives of Primitivism and often resulted in the production of lower quality products. Designers like Cuban-born Clara Porset, on the other hand, saw traditional handcrafting as a site of innovation, blending local materials and handicraft traditions with modern aesthetics in her work. Maller and Steinberger shed light on figures like architecture writer Esther McCoy who promoted designers such as Porset as well as Mexico as a destination for modern design. By the 1940s and 1950s an international group of designers and crafts people developed a thriving industry marketing designed goods of all kinds to well-heeled tourists, especially American ones.

In “Journeys to the Land of ‘Colorful Handcraft,’” Steinberger examines designers and craftspeople such as Anni Albers, Ruth Asawa, and Mary Tuthill Lindheim who learned from indigenous craftspeople in Mexico. These essays document the networks of designers, craftspeople, dealers, consumers, and tastemakers who promoted Mexican crafts and folk art on both sides of the border. Steinberger states, “for Californians of all backgrounds, the alien yet somehow instantly relatable iconography of folk art provided a model of whatever they craved most—spontaneity, creativity, commitment, identity” (242). Steinberger also traces the important work of Chicano activists whose work revealed the profound power imbalances between indigenous and European and American designers and craftspeople.  

In the final section, “Modernism,” Keith Eggener’s essay “Good Neighbors Make Glass Houses: Design Dialogues in Mexico City and Southern California, c. 1940–1960,” explores the transfer of modernist aesthetics by architects who traveled back and forth across the border in the postwar period. The chapter focuses on the relationship between the Jardines del Pedregal development in Mexico and the Case Study houses in Southern California. In “Jet-Setters and Power Players: Cross-Border Design in the Postwar Era,” Jennifer Josten examines resort architecture as well as the impact of car culture on architects in both California and Mexico. Josten argues that the pioneering work of Mexican artists and designers who created murals, signs, and public sculptures geared toward drive-by viewers was not only fundamental to the groundbreaking approach to marking place in the design for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City under the leadership of Ramírez Vázquez, but also influenced Deborah Sussman’s design for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

What this catalogue does best is to expose the strong connections between the Californian and Mexican design communities throughout the twentieth century. It reveals that influence not only flows from California to Mexico, but also from Mexico to California. It complicates outmoded narratives that assume Mexico’s version of modernism was simply a copy of European and American styles. It also demonstrates how the cultural specificities and unique landscapes of these two regions impact the design produced in them, as did the unique histories of two places trying to define themselves as, on the one hand, a modern nation and, on the other, a distinct and modern American region.

The book weaves many familiar figures into its story—Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles and Ray Eames, Anni and Josef Albers, Richard Neutra, Frida Kahlo, and Diego Rivera—but connects them to a larger cross-border culture enriching our understanding of their work. The catalogue also highlights many lesser-known figures who deserve more attention in the United States. While fashion and jewelry are a recurring theme, the essays are largely focused on architecture and objects of interior design. The stories of designers William Spratling, Tachi Castillo, and Agnes Barrett, among others, are present, but it’s unfortunate there is not a stronger narrative that further unpacks the exhibition’s fascinating wearable objects by exploring the meanings these garments and accessories had for those who wore them. In the context of architecture and interior design, the unique functions of fashion tend to get flattened out. This might have also provided space for an exploration of the zoot suit included in the exhibition, which was absent from the catalogue text.

While the catalogue delves into the racial and post-colonial politics at work in these cross-border exchanges, it might also have taken a more concentrated approach to highlighting the voices and experiences of indigenous designers, architects, and craftspeople. Readers largely encounter these figures in the book through non-indigenous people, which is somewhat limiting. Overall, however, this catalogue makes an important contribution to broader reappraisals of modernism and the importance of cross-cultural interactions in the history of design. The essays offer numerous opportunities to enrich traditional narratives in the history of design and ways to consider the significance of Mexico as well as California in that history. In a period in which border crossings are increasingly contentious and for certain groups fraught with danger, this book shows how vital they have been in both US and Mexican history. 

Victoria Pass
Assistant Professor, Maryland Institute College of Art

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