Culture

Pedro Ramírez Vázquez: Eight Reasons the Midcentury Icon Deserves Your Attention

The late Modernist architect—the Frank Gehry of Mexico—makes a good cocktail-party mention this week, especially now that his furniture’s back on the scene

By IAN VOLNER

HE WAS A ONE-MAN midcentury design powerhouse in Mexico, an architect whose contributions—especially his stewardship of the 1968 Olympics—made him one of the country’s true talents. Pedro Ramírez Vázquez (1919-2013) combined a knack for buildings that have the formal daring and pop appeal of, say, Frank Gehry with the political clout and urban impact of New York master-planner Robert Moses. Here’s what else you need to know.

His biggest fan: Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius first met Mr. Ramírez Vázquez in 1952 in Mexico City and was smitten. “Young man,” said Mr. Gropius, “you’re going to soar.”

His most famous building: The National Museum of Anthropology—a concrete megalith built in 1964 that nodded to Mexico City’s monumental Aztec temples—was hailed by American architect Philip Johnson as “the best museum in the world.”

His life’s work, in 20 words or less: To give Mexico a reputation as a leading-edge architectural destination, combining elements of his country’s past with forward-looking European Modernism.

His gold medal: As president of the organizing committee for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, he left an indelible mark on the city, and, thanks to graphic designer Lance Wyman, gave the games its coolest logo.

His lowest moment: Also the 1968 Olympics. Ten days before the opening ceremony, dozens (and possibly hundreds) of student protesters were killed by soldiers of the Mexican government, Mr. Ramírez Vázquez’s biggest, most important client. In the minds of many, he was guilty by association.

His weakness: Sugar. “He always stole everyone’s dessert,” recalled his son, Javier. “But he was a wonderful grandfather.”

Why now: This week, newly launched Mexican furniture brand Luteca reissued his Equipal Chair, one of the best examples of his cultural synthesis—with its pre-Columbian-meets-Bauhausian vibe.

Next up: “Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955-1980,” organized by curator Barry Bergdoll at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, opens March 29 and will include several of Mr. Ramírez Vázquez’s architectural works.

Three years ago Swedish-Mexican designer Alexander Andersson happened upon a cache of cedar benches in La Lagunilla, Mexico City’s sprawling weekend flea market.

“They were so spectacular, I knew someone great had designed them,” Andersson says.

He went with his gut and bought all 12, hiring a truck to haul the massive pieces to his garage. The epiphany didn’t come until a year later during a visit to the city’s renowned anthropology museum. The exact same seats were installed in the main hall of the building’s iconic interior: “Of course,” Andersson realized. “Pedro Ramírez Vázquez.”

The famous Mexican modernist architect (1919–2013), who worked mostly in concrete, was behind a handful of Mexico City monuments: the Museum of Modern Art, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the National Anthropology Museum.

There’s no telling how the pieces Andersson bought were separated from the original set, which was made on commission specifically for the museum. Andersson immediately phoned the aged architect, then in his 90s, and asked whether he would authenticate the pieces, which he hoped to sell in art galleries. In a serendipitous moment, Vázquez invited him over to his studio space in the Jardines del Pedregal.

“He signed my certificates, and he gave me a tour of the house—and all of a sudden I saw this piece in one corner, that piece in another corner, and I thought, Everything is amazing. So I asked him, ‘Who has the license for your furniture?’”

Vázquez’s response: “License?”

And so a collection was born. Andersson took on the production rights to Vázquez’s designs that, until then, had been created only as prototypes or in limited editions for projects. Striking tables in polished stainless steel and brass are each made from single pieces of metal, cut and folded. A regal Equipal chair in leather and stainless steel is a modern riff on the emblematic wood-and-leather chair from Mexican history.

“It used to be the chair of emperors,” Andersson explains. “They say Montezuma had one.”

The reeditions of Vázquez’s furnishings join a collection of Andersson’s own designs to form Luteca, the brand that launched this week at New York’s Hotel Americano (not coincidentally designed by Mexican architect Enrique Norten) in Chelsea.

While Luteca's headquarters is in New York City, the real magic happens in the Mexico City design studio and workshop, where every item of furniture is made with traditional processes. Rather than welding, metal pieces are held together by tiny screws. Old-school joinery techniques are used on wood furnishings. To polish a single chair can take a whole week.

“The idea is to create contemporary products and preserve Mexican handcraft,” Andersson says, a calling both he and Vázquez have shared.

Pieces from the Luteca collection will be available starting next week at Twentieth, 7470 Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles, twentieth.net. Call Luteca for more information, 646-510-5244; luteca.com.

Luteca Spotlight Twentieth

The time has come for the Moooi founders Marcel Wanders and Casper Vissers to repurchase the remaining stake from B&B Italia, making them now fully owners of Moooi. Wanders and Vissers have been running Moooi since its launch in 2001; Wanders acting as art director and Vissers as company CEO. Ever since, they have collaborated intensively together. Moooi and B&B Italia have been partners since 2006, when B&B Italia S.P.A. acquired a 50% stake in Moooi B.V. To everyone’s satisfaction the synergy between B&B Italia and Moooi, under the full management of Vissers and Wanders, worked out very well. During this fruitful and meaningful eight-year collaboration, Moooi grew from 6 million euro revenue in 2006 to 23 million euro revenue in 2014. Giorgio Busnelli (Chairman of B&B Italia), Paola Centemero (CFO of B&B Italia) and all B&B Italia team members had a key role in Moooi's growth. Moooi’s steady growing business gained huge attention in the international design field, becoming a recognized luxury furniture and lighting brand that conquered an important position in the design industry (exporting now to 69 countries) with huge potential for further expansion and acceleration. A growing milestone has been achieved despite a challenging design market over the past two years. The coming years will represent strong continuous growth for Moooi. In addition to having conquered the European market, the USA market has also grown significantly. In May 2015 Moooi will open its first Showroom & Brand Store in New York, to which will follow a London Brand Store the beginning of 2017. All the above steps once again reaffirm Wanders and Vissers strong belief in the company’s value and immense potential.

A sculptural expression of movement and wit, Palindrome chandelier is a malleable fixture that can fulfill any spatial and aesthetic need. Its looping form, driven by a sequence of shaped steel arms and cast glass heads, can be read forward or backward (much like a palindromic number or word) and if desired, folds into itself with ease. This kinetic chandelier's sand-blasted lamps diffuse LED light in a soft, yet powerful manner and can be rotated to further enhance atmosphere. Custom powder coatings available.

Available here: RBW Palindrome at Twentieth

BUILT FROM SCRATCH Samuel Amoia and Fernando Mastrangelo of AMMA Studio combine industrial and household ingredients into works of singular beauty

In the Brooklyn workshop of AMMA Studio, ordinary materials await alchemical transformations. Piles of salt, ground coffee, and other commonplace substances are mixed with clear resin, which binds the grains before they're joined with cement and molded into strikingly beautiful furnishings. For founders Samuel Amoia and Fernando Mastrangelo, using such unconventional media, rather than wood or stone, is a way to bring something new to the table—figuratively and literally. "I look at furniture all day long, and it's always the same stuff, made with the same materials," says Amoia, who has his own eponymous interior design firm as well. Mastrangelo, an artist, adds, "Our idea was to do something totally fresh. If you buy a slab of marble, you already have something gorgeous. But if you start with the everyday and elevate it, you can achieve something intriguing, something special." A drum stool, for instance, fuses baby-blue cement with pink Himalayan salt, producing exquisite strata of color and texture. A rectilinear side table is composed of a spare cement shell with a luminous silica lining. And a large-scale faceted mirror features a frame encrusted with navy-blue glass crystals. Although the pair just launched AMMA Studio in May—offering both limited-edition and custom-made creations—they've already received a string of notable commissions, among them pieces for Soho House in London and Berlin and for DeLorenzo Gallery in New York. The design establishment, meanwhile, is buzzing. "I love the concept behind AMMA," says AD100 decorator Stephen Sills, for whom Amoia once worked. "Their furnishings have such an elegant, minimalist quality." The duo, for their part, are just enjoying the crossover between their independent professions. "It's sculptural furniture that can be viewed as art but is fully functional," emphasizes Amoia. As Mastrangelo notes of the pieces' often soluble origins, "even if you pour water on them, they're not going to melt." ammastudionyc.com -TIM MCKEOUGH

Sculpture and furniture have a symbiotic relationship, both have a long history of re-contextualizing form and function while expanding on ingenuity and design. Materials have always been at the center of this ingenuity; wood, metal, plastic, stone, and marble, have been pushed to their absolute limits of creativity and utility. AMMA Studio is re-contextualizing form and function once again, only this time, with materials that are not in the traditional canon. Rock salt, sand, coffee, silica, and pink himalayan salt have never been thought of as materials for furniture, but with a unique casting process that also fuses more traditional materials such as cement or plaster, AMMA creates a body of work unlike anything before. Combining Samuel Amoia's vision for design, color, texture and furniture with Fernando Mastrangelo's conceptual use of materials, and original casting process, AMMA Studio presents an innovative, cutting edge approach to furniture and design.

President Obama sits behind a custom walnut desk of their design in his private study, and François-Henri Pinault and Salma Hayek’s Paris apartment is illuminated by their light boxes, but until now, the design partnership of Daniele Albright and Stefan Lawrence fell under the auspices of Twentieth, Lawrence’s contemporary furniture showroom in Los Angeles. Now, the longtime collaborators have launched Videre Licet (Latin for “to be able to see”), a new line of furniture and lighting, in conjunction with Twentieth’s sweeping new space on Beverly Boulevard. Designed using contemporary technologies but crafted entirely by hand — and priced accordingly, in the $20,000 range — the collection is daring, glamorous and a touch tongue-in-cheek, with sly references to Hollywood, modernism and the ’70s.

The BBC Table, shaped like a smoky, mirrored crystal, is equal parts disco decadence and L.A. New Age culture, while the Subtracted Cube’s flawless brass surfaces come thanks to its complex folded construction. The Abalone Lounge chair (which has a coordinating console) recalls the shape of the beloved beanbag chair, but is in fact made from cast fiberglass and resin with hand-laid, sustainably harvested abalone from the Philippines. The Woolly Bella is both the sexiest and the strangest piece in the debut collection: a curvy, comfortable chair with cast-bronze legs and long, glossy Mongolian goat hair more often used by fashion designers. It can be dyed, but Albright prefers the natural black and white. Unlike some contemporary designers who celebrate industrial precision, this team embraces the human touch and the unpredictability of organic materials. “With our shell pieces or the fur or the bronze,” says Albright, “you’re using this natural material that has its own characteristic, and you’re not afraid to not control that completely.” Of course, there are exceptions; they recently had to bring in a hairstylist to give a particularly unruly Bella a nice layered cut.

Albright — a world traveler and photographer whose work is featured in the Gypset series of lifestyle books — has been staging elaborate photo shoots with each piece in iconic California locations, from the beaches of Malibu to the mountains in Mammoth. “This cinematic element is something we can bring to it,” she says. And for Lawrence, who was the first to bring designers like Tom Dixon and Marcel Wanders’s Moooi to Los Angeles, the collection is a refreshing new way to contribute to the global design discourse. “After all these years,” he says, “it’s nice to be able to make our own statements.”

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