Cuban-born furniture and interior designer Clara Porset (1895-1981) is best known for modern designs inspired by the local traditions of Mexico, her adopted homeland.
Porset was educated in New York at Columbia University's School of Fine Arts, as well as in Paris, where she studied with the architect Henri Rapin and attended classes at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, the Sorbonne, and the Louvre. She traveled widely in Europe, and, in 1934, spent a formative summer at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Here, she took a course taught by Josef Albers (modeled closely upon the course he had taught at the Bauhaus school). Porset would maintain a lifelong friendship with Albers and his wife, Anni, and would remain indebted to the tenets of the Bauhaus throughout her career.
Porset returned to Cuba in 1932, and began working professionally as an interior designer, designing for both private and public contexts. Always committed to education, she gave many lectures with the goal of educating the Cuban public about the principles of modern design. She also worked actively to promote her profession, arguingthat the role of the interior or furniture designer was just as important as that of the architect.
Porset quickly rose to prominence; however, her career was interrupted when her support for and participation in the Cuban resistance movement led to political exile. Porset ultimately settled in Mexico, where she would remain for most of the rest of her life. She (along with her husband, the painter and muralist Xavier Guerrero) became a part of a large and energetic group of creative people, all working towards defining what a modern, post-colonial Mexico would look like. Porset was fascinated and inspired by Mexico's craft traditions, and began looking to traditional forms in order to create designs that would meld modernity with local tradition. Indeed, she is perhaps best known for her variations on the butaque, a low, graceful chair with a long history in Mexico. In a similar vein, an ancient Mesoamerican sculpture inspired the look of her Totonaca chairs and sofas, considered landmarks of Mexican furniture design.
While Porset was committed to fine craftsmanship, she was equally committed to the idea that well-designed furnishings could be made affordable. In the 1950s, she developed a highly successful range of furnishings for IRGSA (then Mexico's foremost manufacturer of furniture); the range would continue to be mass-produced for many years. Porset also designed interiors for Mexico City's first large-scale public housing project.
The recipient of numerous awards and honors within Mexico, Porset also gained recognition abroad. In 1940 she won a prize in MoMA's Organic Design for Home Furnishing contest, and in 1946 Artek-Pascoe exhibited and sold her work in New York. Articles about Porset appeared in Arts & Architecture and the Los Angeles Times Home Magazine.
After the Cuban revolution, Porset returned briefly to her country of birth, and worked on several institutional projects. Because of the shifting political climate, her welcome was short-lived, and she returned to Mexico. The repercussions of her association with Castro's regime meant that she would devote the end of her life to teaching, continuing in her long-held post as professor of industrial design at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, where she would shape the next generation of Mexican and Latin American designers.