Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

Winter 2017/18

On Found in Translation

Design in California and Mexico, 1915–1985


Architecture, Art, Articles, Design, Esther McCoy, Taco Bell

When Robert L. McKay, the architect best known for designing and founding the first Taco Bell, died in early October, news of his passing spread nationwide on the AP Wire. The Los Angeles Times ran an obituary, as did Fox Business and news outlets in Kansas and Nebraska – places that were unlikely to have flocked en masse to hard shell tacos before McKay opened his doors in 1962.

In 2015, McKay’s original building was moved from the Los Angeles suburb of Downey to Taco Bell’s corporate headquarters in Irvine, California. Images from that migration reveal his early vision for a hacienda-type fast-food eatery: mission-style arches across the facade, red Spanish tile roof. Riding down the freeway – doublewide on the back of a flatbed truck – the lowly taco stand merged dogged American entrepreneurism and classic Mexican design. Taco Bell is not on the curatorial checklist of Found in Translation, an exhibition on view until January 2018 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) about the design influences between LA and Mexico, but it could be. Or, given how a fast-food restaurant best known for stoner Meximelt binges and questionable slogans – “Make a run for the border” – transmitted Mexican design imagery across the country, it should be.

The show is one of five the museum has mounted as part of The Getty Museum’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA. This sprawling initiative explores Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles and takes place in some 70 cultural institutions across Southern California. Found in Translation is one of few entries into that dialogue that tackles the design and architectural implications of this cross-border exchange. Culled mostly from LACMA’s large collection of design objects, architectural drawings, furniture, and graphic design, it is also one of the most polite and non-polemical exhibitions of PST: LA/LA. By contrast, the exhibition The US-Mexico Border: Place, Imagination, and Possibility is on view just a block away from LACMA at the California Craft and Folk Art Museum, featuring activist artists and designers, including architect Teddy Cruz. Continuing a curatorial interest in feminist practice, the Hammer Museum presents Latina and Chicana artist in Radical Women: Latin American Art, 19601985. Within the context of LA/LA, disobedient subjects are the norm, not the exception.

The same week that Taco Bell’s McKay passed away, president Trump created an immigration Catch-22 by demanding that any legislation addressing the country’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients – people who arrived illegally into the US as children but essentially grew up in the country – also include funding for his plan for a border wall between the two nations. A border town four hours from the US/Mexico crossing in San Ysidro, Los Angeles is a sanctuary city in a sanctuary state, meaning that governmental bodies will offer support to protect immigrants who are there illegally, while also providing limited assistance to federal US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. Although Wendy Kaplan, curator and head of LACMA’s Decorative Arts and Design department, and Staci Steinberger, assistant curator of decorative arts and design, argue that geographic, cultural, and economic connections between California and Mexico transcend modern political borders and go back centuries, at this point in Los Angeles’ history, the city is a place where looming administration crackdowns, both political and infrastructural, darken any discussion of exchange.

Found in Translation is an audience-friendly exhibition broken into four clear-cut sections: ‘Spanish Colonial Inspiration’, ‘Pre-Hispanic Revivals’, ‘Folk Art and Craft Traditions’, and ‘Modernism’. School children may marvel at an intricately carved mission bench or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mayan textile blocks (in our current moment likely most familiar as the inspiration behind Syd Mead’s set design for Blade Runner), yet the choice to divide the exhibition by historical style dulls the experience into a chronologic slog. This choice of encyclopaedic progression is no real surprise from LACMA – it’s the default for the museum’s curators on the rare occurrences when LACMA explicitly focuses on architecture and design, as evidenced in the 2011 PST exhibition California Design, 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way and the expansive Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900–2000. And so, with Found in Translation we begin not in Los Angeles or Mexico, but in Chicago with the origins of the Mission Revival and the California State Building designed by architect Arthur Page Brown with Willis Polk and A. C. Schweinfurth for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Here, as with our Taco Bell, we see white stucco walls, endless arches, and red roofs.

But how to interpret this translation? Brown, an Anglo, would later introduce this style to Santa Barbara, setting off a citywide romance with Mission or Spanish Revival designs. This aped architecture, a mash-up of motifs lifted from the Franciscan missions that stretch up and down California’s 600-mile long El Camino Real was meant to present a bold new identity for the state – one that would separate it from its western neighbours. As the style was adopted in the US for public buildings and residences, however, the darker side of Spain’s colonial history dropped away, leaving what the curators call a “fantasy heritage”. By the time of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, a fair that architecturally celebrated the most baroque expressions of the Spanish Revival, any symbolic overtones suggesting the violent spread of Christianity and erasure of indigenous populations had been bleached from the architecture, as had widespread discrimination against people of Latin American descent. The curators of Found in Translation point out that in post-revolution Mexico, this same revival was called neocolonial and served as a mechanism to forge a common identity (as in California), as well as act as a foil to the rise of European eclecticism.

Throughout the early 20th century, the repeated stylisation of Mission and Spanish Revival designs is less about what is found in translation, and more about what is lost. Included in LACMA’s exhibition is a construction drawing by architects George Washington Smith and Lutah Maria Riggs of the wall and entry gate of Meridian Studios in Santa Barbara, a series of artists studios opened in 1923. Rendered carefully in graphite on tracing paper are two sentry pillars (called out as plaster) from the space, as well as an elaborately filigreed ironwork gate. A lone figure seemingly draped in a serape and topped with a sombrero features prominently in the elevation. His presence, more so than the fairly generic historicist architecture, alerts us to the cross-cultural lifting. The exhibition’s wall text tells us that in 1922 Smith and Riggs traveled to Mexico, where Riggs took hundreds of photographs for reference. Riggs outlived her mentor by several decades and during that time her own practice produced an abstracted version of the revivalist aesthetic: a proto-modernism. Critic Ester McCoy would later write of Riggs, “Removed from the excesses of the Italian and French eclecticism, she came to depend more on proportion, on light and shadow, than applied ornament.” Walls became blanker, arches and windows more elemental.

This act of translation from Mexico to California played out similarly throughout the 20th century. The exoticism of neocolonial architecture, pre-Hispanic artefacts (in the case of Wright and his Mayan Revival residences), or indigenous rituals and handicraft (in 1957 the Eameses and Alexander Girard made a film about Dia de Los Muertos for the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico) are repeatedly lifted and abstracted. The extent of mutation from original sources can be seen in one gallery at LACMA where the iconic black-and-white graphic from the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City and an opening ceremony costume are placed alongside three colourful cardboard sonotubes from the 1984 Olympic Games held in Los Angeles. The designs from both games follow a narrative of a non-Mexican designer mining local culture for inspiration and then extrapolating motifs into a contemporary mien. New York City–based Lance Wyman and Peter Murdoch won the competition for the design of the ’68 games after traveling to Mexico City and seeing a graphical link between the Aztec and Mayan stone reliefs on view at the Museum of Anthropology and the 1960s craze for OpArt. Graphic designer Deborah Sussman, who created the motifs of the ’84 games, had worked in the Eames Office and had been the photographer in the research group that toured Mexico to research the Day of the Dead film. By her own account, it was her travels in the country, as well as in India and Japan, that inspired the “celebratory colours” of the ’84 games: vivid shades of aqua, magenta, and vermillion that speak as much to the postmodern aesthetic of that time as they do to any cross-cultural fiesta.

Although works by famous Mexican architects Luis Barragán, Juan O’Gorman, and a few others hang in the LACMA galleries, Found in Translation can’t seem to help but give off condescending whiffs in its treatment of Mexican design. Too often the exchange privileges the northern state. Perhaps it is the nature of translation, where one language is considered more authentic. Or maybe it is typical of a cross-border dialogue – especially one as touchy as US/Mexico when, at this moment, eight prototypes for a fortified border wall stand in San Diego as ominous sentries while they undergo testing – that one side ultimately exploits the other. This condition is hardwired into the exhibition, no matter if the museum has translated its wall texts into Spanish in an appeal to broaden its audience.

Still, there are moments in the exhibition where there is more equivalence. These points occur when both mother tongues are reckoning with a third language: modernism. The designer and editor John Entenza, working with McCoy, produced not one, but two issues of Arts and Architecture dedicated to Mexican modernism. McCoy, who was clearly a fan of the country and the designers she befriended there, was the subject of an exhibition at Museo Jumex in Mexico City earlier this year. Entitled Passersby 02: Esther McCoy, the show unpacked her uncanny connections to the landscape around Cuernavaca via her friendship with botanist Helen O’Gorman. Unlike the expansive Found in Translation, the smaller exhibition allows for mediation on the complex interweaving between countries vis-à-vis personal connections and design ideologies. Both LACMA and Museum Jumex feature Clara Porset’s butaque chair, first created by the Cuban-born designer for a home by Barragán. McCoy tried to find a US producer for Porset, and saw in her furniture and domestic designs a radical mixing of Mexican history and craft with the tenets of modernism. In the eclectic work of Mexican architect Francisco Artigas (one of the few Mexican architects to build in the US), McCoy identified the influences of LA émigré architects Richard Neutra and R.M. Schindler, writing, “[Artigas’s] form of expression did not gradually evolve, but rather expressed parallel trends in time and separated in space.”

Neutra visited Mexico frequently during the 1930s, a time when he was still beholden to the modernist movement’s continental dictum and not yet embracing what would later be called California Modern. In his travel writings he noted that different strains of modernism developed in the two places – the modern expression of the “prima donna” architect in LA and the more revolutionary socialist veins of producing form in Mexico. To document this shared search for a regional expression, Found in Translation offers up a Spanish edition of Survival Through Design, Neutra’s 1953 treatise on building with nature. His influence is seen in Jardines del Pedregal, the Mexico City garden suburb planned by Barragán. The collection of sleek residences with large glass facades that open onto generous outdoor patios homes, not unlike the Case Study Houses that dot Los Angeles, represents modernism at its most domestic and aspirational.

In preaching the good life for those who can grasp it on both sides of the border, Found in Translation finally gives us a common architectural language. Yet that gospel comes at a price: the reduction of political sensibilities into an Esperanto-esque singular style. Maybe the history of design exchange between Mexico and Los Angeles isn’t about what is lost or found in translation, but rather is Spanglish – a language of friction and opportunistic borrowing, like the culinary mash-ups on the Taco Bell menu.