Clara Porset: Revolutionary by Design
This article is part of AQ's debut culture supplement, Cultura. To see the rest of the issue, click here
Legend has it that the idea for Cuba’s national arts schools was born over beers and a round of golf between Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara in the early days of the Communist revolution. Walking the fairways of an abandoned country club in Cubanacán, the two discussed plans for a tuition-free consortium of schools for dance, music, visual and dramatic arts that they believed would provide cultural legitimacy to the new socialist agenda. The deserted country club, once a symbol of wealth and exclusivity, would serve as its site.
By the early 1960s, their vision appeared close to reality. Led by Cuban architect Ricardo Porro and Italian architects Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi, a vast complex that would house the national arts schools was taking shape, transforming those same patches of grass into an oasis of modern Catalan-vaulted structures. To furnish the interiors, Castro commissioned Clara Porset, a Cuban expat designer who had left the island decades before.
Although Porset was not part of Castro’s revolution, she sympathized with its aims and came to see her partnership with the new government as a patriotic endeavor, prizing her role in the birth of a new Cuba. But just as the construction of the schools would, by 1965, prove incompatible with changing Communist priorities, so too would Porset’s dream of a permanent return to her homeland collapse under the weight of revolutionary expectations.
Porset, born into a wealthy Cuban family in 1895, received a remarkable education for a woman at the time. She studied in New York, Paris, and at Black Mountain College in North Carolina with Joseph Albers. In Cuba she became a successful interior and furniture designer, sought after for furnishings that used indigenous materials well suited for keeping cool in the steamy Caribbean environment. But despite her comfortable position, Porset was outraged by Cuba’s corrupt leader- ship. She became an active militant in the resistance movement and eventually fled to New York in 1935, before settling in Mexico City in 1936, at the age of 41.
In Mexico, Porset reached the apex of her career. She married Xavier Guerrero, a Mexican artist and muralist who was also a leading member of the Mexican Communist Party. The couple’s travels throughout Mexico exposed her to the Pre-Columbian traditions and vast vernacular artistic practices of her adopted home. The experience led her to champion a new modern style that fused traditional handcraft with high European modernism. Porset became a key figure in the construction of a Mexican aesthetic that cultivated a nationalist agenda, her designs favored by the great architects of the time, such as Max Cetto, Mario Pani and Enrique Yáñez, but after living in Mexico for more than 20 years, Porset longed to return to Cuba, and when Fidel Castro took power in 1959, she recognized an opportunity.
By that time, Porset had already earned acclaim for her work, especially her butaque, a casual chair that would become emblematic of her legacy.
Thanks in part to this success, Porset was able to establish an important relationship with Castro. He personally commissioned her to design and build furniture for Ciudad Escolar Camilo Cienfuegos, now known as the University of Matanzas in the Sierra Maestra. She also created furnishings for the administrative building at the University of Havana, and, finally, the national arts schools.
Many of her designs for the schools were one-of-a-kind creations. The regime was so pleased with her work that Guevara asked Porset to help establish a school of industrial design, and in 1962 Porset closed her studio in Mexico City and with Guerrero moved to Cuba to oversee the new project.
But Porset’s integration into the new Cuba was never fully realized. Director- ship positions within the Communist Party were highly coveted, and doled out primarily to loyalists. In 1963, Porset was replaced as director of the design school by Ivan Espín, the brother of Vilma Espín, who had been a guerrilla fighter during the revolution.
The shattering disillusionment that followed led to Porset’s second departure from the island in 1963; she would never again return to Cuba. Nor would she see the design school open in her lifetime. By 1965, Soviet functionalism had engulfed the dreamy optimism fostered at the start of the revolution, and the arts school complex was deemed too ostentatious and illusory within greater national priorities. Construction ceased, the buildings left in various stages of completion and incompleteness. Even today, the crumbling, unused portions of the complex serve as a testament to what might have been.
Porset’s relationship to Cuba, too, is one of unrealized possibilities. Before her death in 1981, she lamented the tragic parting with her homeland:
“Now I feel more alone than ever. How is it possible that Clarita Porset must die so far from her country? I’m even considering writing Fidel to remind him that I was the one to make the first example of Cuban furniture produced in the Sierra Maestra. I don’t think he has forgotten me, nor the fact that I personally delivered the furniture for that extraordinary school for him. I also don’t think he has forgotten the furniture for Cubanacán, nor the attempt I made with El Che to create a school of industrial design.”
Indeed, Porset’s work is hard to forget. It remains nearly as influential in Latin American design today as it was in her time. But Porset’s butaque was also a deeply personal work, reflecting an internal negotiation between her native country and her adopted home. Her continual redesign of the chair was in many ways a melancholic exercise in which she was able to fuse her past with her present, and contemplate a future that never came to fruition. Perhaps the butaque served for her the token of a gone but not forgotten romance, kept long after moving on to a new love.
De León is associate curator at Americas Society.