Report on the Seminar

The three formal presentations, followed by a commentary by Pat Kirkham, offered an introduction to the life of five pioneering twentieth-century Latin American women designers who through their writings, professional practice, and by educating the next generations of designers, contributed to define what is today’s Latin American design. Like the two previous Cisneros’ seminars, key questions correlated to the programs objectives outlined in May 2010 arose:

Some of the questions considered include:
How has gender influenced the formation of Latin American Modern material and visual repertoires?
How has their legacy contributed to contemporary Latin American design?
How the life and professional trajectories of this group of pioneer designers contributed to the big narrative of the history of Latin American modern design and material culture?

All the presentations approached their subjects as microhistories. Despite the fact that each lecture was limited to a single country –Brazil, Mexico, and Peru– and two of them were focused on one designer (Majluf and Mallet), it was possible to realize that notwithstanding the differences in each nation, similar processes were taking place in parallel paths across Latin America, and women had a relevant role in shaping design, and its teaching, as professional disciplines. However, even if they were very successful in doing so, those microhistories only portrayed fragments, vignettes of a more complex and historical moment. But like tesserae in a mosaic, all the parts together provided a grasp into the larger picture, that of the Latin American modernist movement and the search for a national identity through Modern art and design.
The lectures focused on women who were exceptional, and often unique, among their contemporaries. The remarkable female participation in design was an unusual phenomenon in the conservative, and gender segregated, Latin American societies of the period. Those women occupied, and developed, a space of their own in the professional market. They found in design, and design teaching, a small niche that probably because it was a new area, and perhaps not very promising one in economies without large-scale industrial manufacturing production, gave them an opportunity to participate in and shape it. Fine arts, architecture, and teaching studies clearly appeared as the education background for the group. Whether native to the country, such as Izcue, Portinho, and de Mello e Souza, or immigrants, such as Porset, and Bo Bardi, they developed a strong link with the pre-Columbian and colonial heritages of their respective nations, and used artifacts from those periods as a source of inspiration for modern designs that at the same time carried a recognizable component of national identity. Questions arose about the possible causes of their exclusion from the grand narratives of art history in their respective countries, and in the Latin American context, despite the fact that all of them enjoyed prestigious careers and received public acknowledgment during their lifetime. These talks successfully gave us an insight into a key moment in the formation of national and regional identity through design, and offered the opportunity to place those experiences in the general context of the Americas.