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Chair portraits: Clara Porset’s ‘butaque’

by Daisy Silver • June 2024 • Journal article


Over the past decade, a mid-century chair has proved to be a surprising yet generative catalyst for three contemporary works of art. The object of the mutual fascination of Leonor Antunes (b.1972), Jill Magid (b.1973) and Iñaki Bonillas (b.1981) is a modernist update of a historic chair, known as a butaque, by the Cuban-Mexican designer Clara Porset (1895–1981) FIG. 1. Distinguished by its use of materials – often a woven wicker around a wood frame – and its low incline and high back, Porset’s signature butaque became popular in elite cultural circles in the United States and Mexico in the 1940s and has since become a canonical modernist object in the history of design.

Each artist approaches the butaque from a distinctive angle, drawing attention to specific elements in order to create a new work of art. Although appropriation is in no way new to art history, each artist’s mapping suggests a more involved form of citation and a complex act of cultural translation and transformation. In part, these differences are the product of the individual artist’s starting point; but also, as this article will show, they are a reflection of the complex history of the butaque. The basic design has endured several centuries and has bridged periods and movements as diverse as the pre-Columbian era, Spanish Colonialism and twentieth-century modernism. In its longevity, the chair has traversed timeframes in which the distinction between art objects and functional objects has varied or been non-existent. It is this unstable status of the butaque that resonates so strongly with the artists discussed here. The chair’s fluid nature becomes a vehicle for them to challenge established hierarchies and collapse categories, both disciplinary and chronological.


Clara Porset

In the 1940s and 1950s, Porset designed several versions of the butaque, producing specific commissions for interiors designed by prominent Mexican architects including Luis Barragán and Mario Pani. A photograph taken in 1952 by the architectural photographer Julius Shulman in his Los Angeles studio FIG. 2 shows several of Porset’s chairs; the two on the left are butaques, whereas the others are based on different traditional and Indigenous Mexican designs. These samples were exported to the United States with the intention of expanding to international markets.1 Shulman’s image demonstrates the range of Porset’s designs: some have a leather seat stretched on a wood frame; others are fabricated in natural woven materials such as ixtle and hemp.

In remaking the butaque, Porset drew on a Pan-American heritage and adapted it to industrial design principles. The colonial chair type (also spelled butaca) was first recorded in Latin American inventories in the seventeenth century and surviving examples date to the eighteenth century FIG. 3.2 It emerged as the Spanish Empire imposed a new social order on Indigenous Latin American populations and complex cultural exchanges occurred between the two. The scholar and curator Jorge Rivas Pérez has argued that the colonial chair’s shape and low height can be attributed to pre-Columbian Taíno wooden duho seats, while its rigid structure and joinery is taken from the designs of sixteenth-century Spanish chairs of state.3 In its hybridisation, the colonial object did not carry either the ritual or state identity associated with its parent types. Instead, it became a lounging chair. As colonial societies formed across the Americas, the butaque’s design travelled through Spanish trade routes, adapting both to local craft traditions and new colonial behaviours and habits.

Porset’s approach to modernising the butaque was to streamline its ornamentation. In 1951 the architectural historian Esther McCoy observed in Arts & Architecture that Porset’s aim ‘was to eliminate the high crown and baroque curve yet retain its gracious lines’.4 Porset would rework the butaque form throughout her career, finding in the design a perpetually fertile subject. She considered it an authentically Mexican piece of furniture and an exemplar of the nation’s hybrid identity, as it drew from both Indigenous and colonial constructive techniques. She pursued what she called ‘our own kind of furniture’, experimenting with native Mexican plant fibres and a range of traditional weaving methods.5 Her desire to update the colonial chair was born out of the progressive sociopolitical climate of Mexico City that spanned from the 1920s to the late 1940s, a period that the historian Mauricio Tenorio Trillo has called the ‘cosmopolitan Mexican summer’.6 During this time, the city became a centre for debating radical politics and culture as large numbers of Europeans and Americans moved there. Their vision was inspired by the tenets of the Mexican Revolution, and its primary belief that the country’s Indigenous cultural production should be the foundation for building Mexico’s new future.

In this climate, Porset worked to translate the cultural project of the Mexican Revolution into the realm of interior design and the modern living environment. She believed that the objects and spaces that one surrounded themselves with could cultivate the individual in positive ways, through better living standards and quality of life. Porset’s prominence, however, extended beyond furniture: she wrote extensively for both magazines and newspapers in Mexico and the United States; taught design courses at universities in Mexico and Cuba; and oversaw an exhibition of design in 1952 at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City.7 Porset’s belief in the potential of Mexico’s design landscape is demonstrated in the catalogue for the exhibition, El Arte en La Vida Diaria (Art in Daily Life), in which she wrote, ‘Culture is not a passive legacy to be kept intact, but an incitement to movement, that is progress’.8 She saw domestic space as an important site in which the nation’s issues of class and cultural differences could be repaired.9



In taking Porset’s butaque as their motive or subject, Antunes, Magid and Bonillas represent rather than simply document the chair’s associations and historical reception. The artists follow two main tactics: displaying particular aspects of the butaque’s design and exhibiting them with other works that recall relevant artists and art movements. In doing so, they create new situations for the butaque to inhabit, emphasising different narratives of the chair’s long history. Despite their different approaches, they all convey a similar intention. As they reimagine the chair – and, as a result, its historical and contemporary associations – each artist presents a more concentrated understanding of the contingent nature of art and design histories.

In 2016 Bonillas installed Secretos (Secrets) at Casa Luis Barragán, Mexico City. The exhibition responded to the site – the home of Barragán from 1948 until his death in 1988 – by concealing works of art within existing spaces. Many were reproductions of works by European modern artists. For example, Bonillas positioned a copy of one of Lucio Fontana’s ‘spatial concepts’ in an alcove painted a near-identical shade of yellow FIG. 4. Tones of yellow and gold appear throughout Barragán’s projects, notably at the Capilla de las Capuchinas Sacramentarias, Tlalpan. The colour also recalls the gold painting by the German-Mexican artist Mathias Goeritz (1915–90) that hangs above the staircase landing in Casa Luis Barragán. Through such subtle mirrorings Bonillas is able to uncover the various historical ‘tenants’ that dwell within the design of the house.

Bonillas works primarily with photography, which he uses as a tool for reimagining past objects and histories through their reframing. The artist has described himself as an ‘attic photographer [...] someone who’s more attuned to the residue of what someone has forgotten in the darkroom, of what someone has abandoned, of the things that are in disuse, or obsolete – that is, materials that have gone unnoticed’.10 This approach can be seen at Casa Luis Barragán in the series of abstract photographs titled Huellas (Footprints) FIG. 5, which were hidden in the drawers of the architect’s dressers. The subjects of the works are initially hard to identify; some resemble microscopic images of organic matter, whereas others recall aerial landscape photographs. The title, however, makes clear that they document the impressions made by the furniture in the carpets throughout the house.

One photograph from the series FIG. 6 shows two square sections of flattened carpet, likely made by the feet of one of Porset’s butaques, which were commissioned for, and remain on permanent display in, the architect’s house. In emphasising the impact of the chair on the floor, Bonillas suggests the object’s ghostly presence. The photographs serve to define the chair by its absence, as though it exerts a physical and historical pressure on Barragán’s architecture. This becomes a three-way conversation, or collaboration, not only between Porset and Barragán but also between Bonillas and his modernist ghosts.

By translating the presence of the chairs into geometric shapes, Bonillas is also able to connect Porset’s design with the history of abstraction. In particular, they echo a silkscreen imitation of Josef Albers’s series Homage to the Square, which Barragán hung in the living room FIG. 7. It is one of two that the architect owned, which he allegedly bought for a dollar each at a retail outlet in the United States, preferring the way the gloss prints fitted the scale of the house over the originals.11 However, the silkscreens are not copies of specific paintings by Albers; rather, they merely feature the same colour and compositional properties of the artist’s Homages.12 Bonillas’s appropriation of the visual lexicon of Albers’s colour experiments recalls the close relationship that the German artist and his wife Anni formed with Porset after she visited Black Mountain College in the summer of 1934. Porset also encouraged many of the couple’s trips to Latin America.13 By framing these objects in relation to each other, Bonillas recalls this formative relationship and their shared consideration of the contemporary potential of traditional Mexican art and design.


Tracing forms

Magid’s translation of the butaque is meticulously documented in the film, Tracing Albers’ Chair FIG. 8. Key to her narrative, as indicated by the film’s title, is the fact that these chairs are not copies of Porset’s butaque but rather of one that Albers fabricated himself. On a trip to Mexico he noticed one of Porset’s designs in her living room and asked to trace its dimensions so that it could be reproduced at Black Mountain College. Aided by Porset’s advice on the technical principles for crafting the seat structure, Albers would go on to make two chairs for his home and several others, which were used by students in his drawing classes.

Magid’s project continues Albers’s process by outlining one of the North Carolina school’s copies and creating a subsequent reproduction. At RaebervonStenglin, Zurich, in 2014 FIG. 9 Magid paired her reproductions of the butaque with replicas of Albers’s Homage to the Square, echoing Barragán’s preference for imitations. The multiple legacies of Magid’s chairs are signified by their title: Butaca Chair, After Josef Albers, After Luis Barragán, After Clara Porset. While the term ‘after’ suggests a response or ‘homage to’, each iteration described in the title is a copy, or version, of the one prior.14 By placing the butaque in a similar context as these ‘afters’, Magid extends and retells the chair’s history of appropriated design in a discontinuous series of mediations.

In Tracing Albers’ Chair the paper acts as an intermediary, recording Magid’s transferral method. The camera follows her as she shifts the chair across the paper FIG. 10, charting the specific dimensions of the object. On the right side of the diagram are four drawn squares, which correspond to the feet of the butaque. As in Bonillas’s photographic series, the chair is translated into two dimensions: here, it becomes sculpture, while simultaneously registering a persistent relationship to drawing, as another ghost in the machine. 

In the film, one can observe the chair edges worn down from repeated encounters with the floor, the wall or perhaps the actions of a restless student. By contrast, Magid’s reproductions of the chair are pristine. Although this might initially appear to be an agent of erasure of the chair’s rich history, such a reading is at once undermined by the film’s close, almost forensic recording. It documents the removal of the abrasions of Albers’s copy, but it also serves to reinstate its relationship to the chair through the act of recording it. In this way, the butaque is represented as a graphic process.

Magid’s reproduction of the school’s butaque also recalls the authorial erasure that occurred when Albers copied Porset’s version. When the reproduction was added to the classroom at Black Mountain College, it became known simply as ‘Mexican Chair’.15 Magid’s subsequent copy and its title crucially reframes the butaque in relation to Porset. It is worth noting here that Magid has made several works focused on Barragán and the historically limited access to the architect’s personal and professional archives.16 Such projects parallel her wider practice, which is often aimed at questioning institutional structures of power, knowledge and authorship. 

Magid’s installation and its consideration of the role of appropriation within modernism raises questions concerning the impact of Albers’s replica of Porset’s chair. In Magid’s practice, reproduction itself is interrogated as a form of engagement. As discussed above, Porset made several modernist versions of butaques and other traditional chair types. Her approach to design sought a plurality of materials and techniques that would in turn emulate the vibrancy and diversity of Mexican identity. And yet, Albers decided to recreate only the leather seat version.

Although it is impossible to know how Anni Albers would have replicated Porset’s butaque, it is interesting to consider how a textile artist might have approached the chair differently. How might Porset’s chair have been recreated if it had been understood as a textile-based object, rather than as a structural chair design? Perhaps she would have expanded the catalogue of weaves and materials that Porset selected, adding to the complexity and variety of Latin American techniques. Here, in the absence of Albers, one can turn to the work of Antunes, which demonstrates how a sensibility for weaving can inform approaches to Porset’s chair.


Discrepancies with

Antunes’s installation also uses titles as a way to establish a connection between a work of art and its reference point. The title of her 2018 exhibition Discrepancias con C.P. Leonor Antunes (Discrepancies with C.P. Leonor Antunes) at Museo Tamayo, Mexico City, combines Porset’s initials with the word ‘discrepancy’ in order to establish both a distance from and relationship with the designer’s work. For the exhibition, Antunes translated Porset’s designs into a series of woven sculptures, which restaged elements of the chair’s design, including the use of materials such as bamboo, tule and ixtle. Despite the loss of some design features, the relationship between Antunes’s sculptures and Porset’s butaque is evident in Clara 3 and Clara 4 FIG. 11. These sculptures also evoke other designs by Porset, such as her outdoor chairs for the Hotel Pierre Marqués in Acapulco made in 1957 from woven wicker around a bent bamboo frame.

In other pieces on display, such as Clara 1 FIG. 12, Antunes’s references to Porset are more veiled. Here reduced to no more than a series of taut strings, very little remains of the butaque. Nonetheless, the connections are clearly embedded in the work and its intimate title. Such distillations and more elaborate distortions draw attention to the materiality of the sculptures and the nature of their fabrication. As the scholar Bill Brown suggests, understanding the ‘thing-ness’ of an object only becomes possible when its function is rendered useless.17 When such disruption occurs, one observes an object outside of the historical, social or cultural associations it previously disclosed, understanding it instead through its parts, construction and materiality. However, it would be an error to suggest that Antunes’s sculptures simply reduce Porset’s chairs to ‘things’. Rather, she employs sensorial experience as a way of reinforcing a connection to her chosen subject, opening up Porset’s chairs to further readings and associations.

The dimensions of Antunes’s sculptures are carefully adapted from Porset’s designs in order to establish a tangible relationship with the exhibition space in which they are displayed. The scale of the works, therefore, occupies a realm between the two, creating a series of elisions and slippages between the historical form and the contemporary environment. These variations are left for the viewer to experience as they move around in the space: not to be interpreted as inaccuracies or inadequacies, but rather as confirmations of the new meanings created through relocation.

Antunes’s practice intentionally draws upon a wide range of source material, motivated by a desire to bring to light underrepresented yet historically significant artists and designers in the history of twentieth-century modernism. She recalls these various figures by drawing on a similar sculptural vocabulary across her exhibitions. As Antunes accumulates, layers and embeds these references, the exhibition space becomes, as Briony Fer has written: ‘the artist’s domain, that is, the realm the artist can operate in to claw back a space of reflection on the object-world that we inhabit, and its histories’.18

At Museo Tamayo, Antunes staged brass constructions titled discrepancias con textil oaxaqueño I and II (discrepancies with Oaxacan textiles I and II) FIG. 13, surrounding the Clara sculptures. These works transform the patterned designs of woven textiles of south-western Mexico into delicate, angular constructions that descended from the ceiling to the gallery floor. Antunes has also incorporated brass wire into works made after Anni Albers FIG. 14 and the Venezuelan artist Gego (1912–82), evoking the significance of textile production for both artist’s practices – in particular their respective elastic conceptions of medium and subversions of the grid as an emblem of modernism. Whereas Gego’s malleable metal wire constructions, known as Reticulárea, explore the concept of a drawing suspended in space, Albers’s weavings evidence a means to transpose the representational capacity of painting.

This repeated visual lexicon does not necessarily suggest that Oaxacan textiles have a directly reciprocal relationship with Gego or Albers’s practices, but emphasises their presence within a more transnational conversation. This allusion also recalls one of the tenets of Porset’s design theory: the inclusion of Indigenous cultural production in the modern Mexican interior. It is also worth noting that Porset was especially inspired by the butaques of Tehuantepec in Oaxaca. By replicating these sculptural gestures and staging them alongside pieces after Porset’s butaques, Antunes inserts Indigenous culture into the discipline of art history generally and, more specifically, into the dialogue of modernism. In so doing, Antunes reclaims Porset, crediting the designer without diminishing the contributions of other figures and histories.



Each artist’s project isolates and distils elements from the butaque’s vast historical narrative, as well as its place within modernist design histories. Although they have different focuses, each presents a rejection of the erasure that can occur when art or design is consumed within functional or modern modes of production. Where Antunes meaningfully engages with Porset’s relationship to Anni Albers and Indigenous weaving patterns, Magid’s project reminds us of Porset’s contributions in light of her professional relationships with Barragán and Josef Albers. For Bonillas, Porset’s butaque is positioned in relation to its connection to European modernist thought. The artists’ ability to speak to these diverse figures and histories relies on the chair’s fluid nature as a global, cross-disciplinary object. For all of them, the butaque acts as a metonym for its various fabricators and associations. Each artist’s work contributes to the object’s labyrinthine history, inviting us to think more openly about the liminal space between art and design.


About the author

Daisy Silver

is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of Art at University College London. Her doctoral research is focused on modernist art and design in Mexico and California.


  • For an in-depth reading of Porset’s professional endeavours in California, see A.E. Mallet and S. Steinberger: ‘“Fertile ground”: design exchanges between Mexico and California, 1920–1976’ in W. Kaplan, ed.: exh. cat. Design in California and Mexico 1915–1985: Found in Translation, Los Angeles (County Museum of Art) 2017, pp.182–213. footnote 1
  • J.F. Rivas Pérez: ‘Transforming status: the genesis of the New World “butaca”’, in D. Pierce, ed.: Festivals & Daily Life in the Arts of Colonial Latin America, 1492–1850, Denver 2014, pp.111–28, at p.119. footnote 2
  • Ibid. footnote 3
  • E. McCoy: ‘Chairs’, Arts & Architecture (July 1951), pp.34–35, at p.34. footnote 4
  • C. Porset: ‘Diseño viviente: hacia una expresión propia en el mueble’ (‘Living design: towards a self-expression in furniture’), Espacios: Revista integral de arquitectura y artes plásticas 16 (July 1953), n.p. footnote 5
  • M. Tenorio Trillo: ‘The cosmopolitan Mexican summer, 1920–1949’, Latin American Research Review 32, no.3 (1997), pp.224–42, at p.224, footnote 6
  • See Z. Ryan: ‘There is design in everything: the shared vision of Clara Porset, Lola Álvarez Bravo, Anni Albers, Ruth Asawa, Cynthia Sargent, and Sheila Hicks’, in idem, ed.: exh. cat. In a Cloud, in a Wall, in a Chair: Six Modernists in Mexico at Midcentury, Chicago (Art Institute of Chicago) 2019–20, pp.20–64, at p.28. footnote 7
  • La cultura no es un legado pasivo que se guarda para conservarlo intacto, sino una incitación al movimiento, que es progreso’, translation the author, C. Porset: ‘El diseño en México’ (‘Design in Mexico’), in idem and E. Yanez, eds: exh. cat. El Arte en la Vida Diaria: Exposición de objetos de buen diseño hechos en México (‘Art in daily life. Well-designed objects made in Mexico’), Mexico City (Instituto Nacional De Bellas Artes) 1952, pp.13–17, at p.17. footnote 8
  • See R. Sheppard: ‘Clara Porset in mid twentieth-century Mexico: the politics of designing, producing, and consuming revolutionary nationalist modernity’, The Americas 75 (2018), pp.349–79, at p.361, footnote 9
  • Iñaki Bonillas, quoted from I. Ruiz: ‘The shadow and the flash’, Aperture 236 (fall 2019), pp.93–101, at p.95. footnote 10
  • See E. Diaz: ‘Jailbreaking geometric abstraction’, in T. Hansen and M. Hoegsberg, eds: exh. cat. Josef Albers: No Tricks, No Twinkling of the Eyes, Oslo (Henie Onstad Kunstsenter) 2014, pp.49–63, esp. p.59. footnote 11
  • C. Steinberg: ‘Jill Magid’, Tank 86 (spring 2021), available at, accessed 25th May 2024. footnote 12
  • For example, in 1934 Porset invited Josef Albers to host a series of three lectures at the Lyceum Club, Havana, see B. Danilowitz: ‘“We are not alone”: Anni and Josef Albers in Latin America’, in idem, ed.: exh. cat. Anni and Josef Albers Latin American Journeys, Bottrop (Josef Albers Museum Quadrat), Lima (Museo de Arte Moderno), Mexico City (Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso) and Madrid (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía) 2007–08, pp.17–40, at p.20. footnote 13
  • The butaques in Barragán’s house are larger than the chair Albers copied, as Porset adapted the design to accommodate the architect’s great height. footnote 14
  • R. Erikson: ‘A. Lawrence Kocher: stool and side table’, in H. Molesworth, ed.: exh. cat. Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957, Boston (Institute of Contemporary Art), Los Angeles (Hammer Museum) and Columbus (Wexner Center for the Arts), 2015–17, pp.142–45, at p.142. footnote 15
  • See Steinberg, op. cit. (note 12). footnote 16
  • B. Brown: ‘Thing theory’, Critical Inquiry 28 (2001), pp.1–22, at p.4, footnote 17
  • B. Fer: exh. cat. Leonor Antunes: the apparent length of a floor area, Edinburgh (Fruitmarket Gallery) 2023, p.43, emphasis in original. footnote 18

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