One of the trends in design is the recovery of popular culture, specifically furniture and objects of anonymous design, which are intervened to improve their materials and aesthetics, combining tradition and technology. An example of these objects is the so-called "Acapulco chair", which, with more than 70 years of existence, continues to be reproduced and used today, with some improvements in its materials and variants in its design.
This chair is of anonymous creation and was designed around the 1950s during the tourism boom in the port of Acapulco. However, it is common to find it on the Mexican coasts of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, as well as in several cities in Mexico and the world. Its structure is made of metal, with a rounded shape and a woven seat. It is normally found in exteriors, whether terraces, patios, or gardens. However, nowadays its use has also been taken to the interiors of homes, hotels, and restaurants in cities with diverse climates, in a more urban context.
Its anonymous origin is considered a key factor for the ease of its handcrafted production in the communities of the Mexican coasts for decades, and more recently for some designers to have improved its materials and shapes. What is behind this chair that has become popular beyond the Mexican coasts and has remained current to this day? What does it mean in the current context?
A brief review of Mexican object design
According to Dina Comisarenco (2007), one of the roots of Mexican design is constituted by popular art, where artisans were in charge of imagining the objects necessary for the proper performance of daily activities. Their anonymous and collective work created a vast repertoire of objects for everyday use, often referred to under the concept of "vernacular design". Handcrafted furniture such as the outfitter, hammocks, and rugs, the author continues, are examples of vernacular design, as they are still used by the ethnic groups that manufacture them and by most urban social sectors that adopt them for their comfort, practicality, and national symbolic value.
The design of the Acapulco chair can be placed in this concept of vernacular design, assuming that its origin was in the work of artisans of the Mexican coasts, as well as the fact that it continues to be used in those same localities and other urban areas not only in Mexico but also in other countries. Another possibility of the origin of this chair could have been given by the influence that the Bauhaus had in Mexico in the mid-twentieth century, which according to Comisarenco, promoted the meeting between artisans, designers, and industrialists to stimulate the production of design objects of high aesthetic quality that served a broad spectrum of the Mexican population, and especially the underprivileged classes.
Comisarenco adds that in the face of the latent loss of personality accentuated by the growing international contact, and continuing with the revaluation of popular handcrafted objects, initiated some time before, the designers of the forties and fifties began to show a marked stylistic personality and a great interest in recovering the forms of the rich handcrafted tradition of the country, as reflected by renowned designers of the stature of Clara Porset, who directed her gaze to the interior of the national territory to rescue and reinterpret the popular furniture.
On the other hand, "historically, design made in Mexico has been characterized by being composed of binomials that oscillate between the traditional and the modern, the artisanal and the industrial, as well as the aesthetic and the functional," writes Mallet (2011). The pre-Hispanic past, popular culture, religion, recycling, sustainability, and even the reinterpretation of tradition are already part of the theme of contemporary designers in Mexico. Mallet concludes that it is based on these themes and increasingly better quality, that today's designers are seeking to stamp a distinctive identity on Mexican design capable of competing on the world stage. It is in this context in which the Acapulco chair once again occupies a prominent place among Mexican design objects, where some designers such as Cecilia León de la Barra and Carlos Ochoa of Ocho Workshop, have influenced its recovery and validity.
According to Cecilia León de la Barra, during her time with the MOB collective, she contacted a supplier to improve the materials of this chair, the type of welding, and the range of colors, without changing the design, so that it would be a product that would reach a wider public. For its launch, she called it the "Acapulco" chair, as that was how she identified it. "Putting a popular and anonymously designed product on the market, giving people the option to have it, is what pleases me most," says Cecilia, "I just had to turn it around and then start making the benches, the planters, and all those woven objects, and that opens up a huge world, the joke is to start with something super popular, that belongs to everyone, to continue promoting it, like the Acapulco chair, which is already an icon that has become for everyone".
For his part, Carlos Ochoa became interested in the Acapulco chair seven years ago, when he found a pair of deteriorated chairs in his grandparents' house, to which he removed the rust and put new plastic. Not only did he love the result, but he realized that the design of this chair is timeless and looks good in any environment, as well as conveying relaxation and ease, due to the freshness and ventilation they provide to the users. These findings motivated him to manufacture them.
Carlos believes that the current boom of the Acapulco chair is due, on the one hand, to the trend to redesign or reinterpret objects that already existed but have been forgotten for generations, and on the other hand, to the global trend of design with a focus on sustainability, where this chair can be placed because it is handmade, which in turn is valued by those who acquire it. Likewise, he believes that the taste for Mexican objects with good design and the good quality of the same has favored the validity of the Acapulco chair. Finally, what this chair represents or symbolizes, in Carlos Ochoa's words, is the folklore and creativity of Mexicans, its different shape from that of a common chair, the use of bright and cheerful colors, as well as its association with the carefree atmosphere of Mexican terraces.
The Acapulco chair as a design object
The Acapulco chair belongs in the first instance to the generic object "chair", which according to the Dictionary of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language (2012) is defined as "seat with back, usually with four legs, and in which only one person fits". Already in this definition, we can see the object's performance, which according to Donald Norman (1988), refers to the perceived and effective properties of the object, which in the first instance determine how it could be used. Thus, according to Norman's explanation, a chair provides support and consequently provides a seat. Even if the Acapulco chair has only three legs and the seat continues in a circular form to form the backrest, its performances correspond to those of the chair object, as Norman puts it, and provide clear clues as to how it functions just by looking at it. Beyond the clarity with which the Acapulco chair makes visible to the user its basic function of serving as a seat, objects carry a meaning that intertwines with their emotional content; the latter can be decisive in the success of a product.
The emotional component of the Acapulco chair will depend on how it is used by each user and the meaning they attribute to it. Notwithstanding the personal character of the emotional component of the objects, and therefore, what they mean to the users, the subjective experience is permeated by convention, which makes it possible to identify the possible meanings of the Acapulco chair.
Looking at the Acapulco chair, what does it look like?
The description of the Acapulco chair upon observation is that of a chair with a metal frame, rounded shape, and a woven seat. The structure is made of carbonized steel and galvanized with zinc to avoid corrosion, from which vinyl, plastic, or PVC strings are detached, forming the weave, which is handmade and joins the center with the outer frame in a radial form. The weaving technique is the one used in hammocks. The chair is supported by three metal legs. Seen from the front, its shape is oval, which is why in some places it is called an "egg" chair.
The most common colors of the plastic ropes are turquoise blue, yellow, red, white, and black. There are also combinations of two or three colors. In an urban context, this chair can be seen in terraces or patios of houses, apartments, and restaurants, such as those observed in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City, where it can also be purchased in some design stores and the streets or parks. Also, on the Internet, there are several pages designed exclusively for sale in Mexico and other countries. It is also possible to observe the Acapulco chair on the web in texts or notes of several design and decoration blogs, as well as in printed design and decoration magazines where it frequently appears in images and texts.
And what is the meaning of the Acapulco chair?
From the observation and description of this object, some meanings that can be attributed to the Acapulco chair are the following: As an object of manual manufacture or craftsmanship, which implies tradition and expression of popular culture, which in turn reflects national identity. Likewise, handmade objects usually have a higher value in industrial production, as is the case of manual weaving, which is recognized in Mexico and the world.
As a light but resistant object, the Acapulco chair represents freshness and contact with the outdoors. Its metal structure in the simple lines of its design and the plastic rope weave reflects lightness and freshness. Also, galvanized metal and plastic ropes are considered strong and outdoor-friendly materials, which is why this chair's preferred location is outdoors. The warm and cheerful colors of the Acapulco chair reflect the Mexican style. The most common colors of its fabrics (turquoise blue, yellow, and red) are associated with Mexican warmth and joy.
The supposed creation of this chair in Acapulco in the 1950s carries a nostalgic air, and therefore the memory of the glamour of the golden age of this tourist port. This places this chair as representative of an era, which in turn means that it is a classic object with a trajectory of more than seventy years, worthy of preserving its relevance to this day.
The association of the Acapulco chair with rest refers to the experience of comfort, relaxation, and even a carefree or self-abandonment. Its design allows the human silhouette to adapt to its shape, leaving the back quite reclined on the backrest to provide comfort and inviting to let go or "spread out". One could say that the chair "traps" and envelops the user. From another angle, this chair has shown its ability to adapt to urban and modern interior environments, which means that it is current and contemporary, and fits in with current design trends.
Who are the users of the Acapulco chair?
Inhabitants of Mexican coastal towns, mainly from Guerrero and the Southeast, traditionally use this chair, which they call by different names.
Inhabitants of Mexican cities, mainly the Federal District and Guadalajara. Urban users do not have a tradition of using this chair, since its incursion into cities is relatively recent. Its use responds more to the relevance that this chair has recovered in current design trends.
International users. Reviewing the websites of foreign domains, the handcrafted and traditional Mexican character of the chair stands out, so buyers and users value these attributes. In Mexico City, specifically in the Roma and Condesa neighborhoods, areas of the city have recovered their cultural spaces and urban life, which has favored the increase of galleries, museums, cultural centers, restaurants, and design and fashion stores. In this context, the Acapulco chair is used on terraces and balconies of houses and apartments, as well as in restaurants. The same streets and parks serve as showcases for its exhibition and sale.
The main problem associated with its use is the shape of the chair since although it allows the back to recline on the backrest, providing comfort, its use is limited to recreational activities such as resting, reading, chatting, or sunbathing. This object does not facilitate the user's access to other implements located on tables, such as food or laptops. That is why it is commonly accompanied by low and side tables. Since its creation, the Acapulco chair has been reinvented through the creative work of several designers. Among the variations that respond to specific needs is the rocking version whose variant is in the legs, another for two people which extends to the sides. There is a trailer-like design with wheels on each leg and an avalanche-like design with wheels and a steering wheel. The miniature version is ideal for children.
Other variants respond to new reinterpretations such as the Condesa chair, which is more circular and less oval, or chairs made with other materials such as natural fibers, wood, and leather, both in their structure and fabric. The most sophisticated variations are the Sayulita chair, which is made with the same materials but in a square shape, and the "Moebius Chair" by artist Pedro Reyes. Like any design object, the Acapulco chair also reflects the social structure to which it belongs, and therefore, the beliefs and values shared in that structure.
The customs or objects that pass from generation to generation until today, preserving their essence, are valued and considered as something precious. Its trajectory of more than six decades and current validity, make the Acapulco chair an object of tradition, and therefore, valued today.
Objects that conserve their roots, faithfully maintaining their essential characteristics such as materials and design, are generally appreciated. Even though some designers have made variants of the Acapulco chair, most of its production retains its original design and materials.
Things made by the people are considered to be of the people themselves, they are closer and more accessible to the people. The anonymous origin of the Acapulco chair favored its appropriation and popularity mainly among the population of the Mexican coasts, now transcending to the big cities.
What is handmade is considered a work of greater value. The Mexican artisan tradition is highly recognized in the world. For this reason, the handcrafted manufacture of the Acapulco chair is appreciated not only in Mexico but also abroad. Mexicanity. Mexican style objects express the national identity and are distinctive of the Mexican people. The elements that make up the design of the Acapulco chair -handmade fabric and warm, striking colors- are characteristic of Mexicanness. Notwithstanding this peculiarity, its design with simple shapes and modern materials such as synthetic ropes, give it a contemporary air, which allows it to be adapted to current environments or design styles.
Rest are pleasurable experiences, and as such, desirable. The sunken shape of the Acapulco chair envelops the user, providing comfort and a sense of self-abandonment, bringing joy and pleasure to users.
Reflecting on the Acapulco chair as a design object based on the assumptions of symbolic anthropology, the anthropology of design, and the grammar of the object, provide some light to better understand what this chair means today that has regained its validity. From the above description, the Acapulco chair has several meanings.
The Acapulco chair represents an object of classic design and at the same time current. (contemporary classic). Its validity, seventy years after its creation, makes this object a classic worthy of being reproduced today and to be a source of inspiration to make variations and design other similar objects such as chairs, benches, and tables.
The Acapulco chair is considered an icon of traditional Mexican design. Its origin in the famous port of Acapulco and its common use in the Mexican coasts give this object its traditional character, and therefore, its transcendence to the present generation. This, together with its handcrafted manufacture and the use of warm and cheerful colors in its weaving, give the Acapulco chair a position as an icon of Mexican design. Its exhibition in fairs and exhibitions in cities such as New York, Berlin, and Mexico, as well as its participation in the recent exhibition Destination Mexico at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, endorsed the Acapulco chair as representative of Mexican design.
It is an object of quality craftsmanship. In the manufacture of the Acapulco chair, the hand-woven fabric stands out, an expression of the weaving expertise of Mexican artisans, recognized worldwide for its color and quality.
It is a representative object of Mexican popular culture. Its origin is the terraces, rooftops, patios, and public squares of towns in the state of Guerrero and the Mexican coasts, which gives the Acapulco chair a popular profile, and therefore, it is identified as an object that is within reach of the people, which belongs to the people.
It alludes to a chic or fashionable object. The versatility of the Acapulco chair to adapt to urban environments places it as a design object that can coexist with design styles that are in fashion, and at the same time be integrated into various places beyond the terraces as interiors of apartments, hotels, restaurants, and waiting rooms.
All of the above leads to the conclusion that the Acapulco chair has been part of the uses and customs in Mexico, that through the initiatives of artisans and designers, mainly, it has recovered its validity and has been inserted in new contexts, thanks to the symbolic value as an object, which as we could observe, beyond its function, the Acapulco chair represents a set of meanings and personal and cultural links.
Sources: Berrocal, A. (2014). Silla Acapulco: un clásico del diseño tradicional mexicano, Cuadernos del Centro de Investigación en Economía Creativa (CIEC), (8), January, Mexico: Centro de Diseño, Cine y Televisión.