Last year, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired its first piece of modern Brazilian design – Sergio Rodrigues’s Mole armchair and ottoman of 1957. ‘Mole’ means soft in Portuguese, an apt description of the chair’s character, despite its robust frame made of jacaranda, a hardwood. The chair’s plump leather upholstery eccentrically incorporates chubby cushions that flop informally over the wooden armrests. With its deep, squashy seat and embracing backrest, the capacious chair is inviting, primarily geared for comfort.
The design was a gift from Carlos Junqueira, founder of gallery Espasso, based in London, New York and Miami, which is committed to promoting 20th and 21st-Century Brazilian design. “Rodrigues was the godfather of Brazilian design and his Mole chair is the most famous chair in Brazil,” announces Junqueira proudly.
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Rio de Janeiro-born Rodrigues, whose career peaked in the 1960s, was one of the most prominent Brazilian mid-century designers, along with Joaquim Tenreiro and José Zanine Caldas. Rodrigues was architect Oscar Niemeyer’s interior designer of choice for the public buildings he created for Brasilia, Brazil’s new capital, founded in 1960.
If the Mole chair has become iconic, it is probably because it encapsulates many traits associated with Brazilian design, even today: its slightly sagging seat, cradled by leather straps to hammock-like effect, and curvy contours suggest a laid-back lifestyle and guilt-free indolence. Nature has proved a major influence on Brazilian design, which is typically made of indigenous materials, particularly wood, and looks organic and sculptural.
Compared with Mole, the hard plywood shell of US husband-and-wife duo Charles and Ray Eames’s 1956 Lounge Chair and Ottoman look rigid and formal. Long favoured by art directors, they bring to mind high status – despite Ray’s remark to Charles that they looked “comfortable and un-designy”.
According to Junqueira, there was a time when Brazil’s mid-century design heritage wasn’t appreciated: “In the past, we Brazilians didn’t value what we created. Appreciating design wasn’t a priority, especially during the economic hardships of Brazil’s military dictatorship [1964-1985]. And anything imported was considered more interesting.”
Asked what characterises Brazilian design, he replies: “It’s a country with a mix of immigrants, resulting in great cultural diversity. The furniture of Niemeyer and Rodrigues looks very different.” True, the designs of Niemeyer, who was of Portuguese and German descent, are more polished and streamlined, although like Rodrigues he prioritised comfort, typically creating chaises longues and rocking chairs. “Yet there is a visual connection between work by Brazilian designers – it’s rich in natural materials, although now no one makes furniture out of tropical hardwoods like jacaranda or rosewood. You can’t export it.”
A handcrafted approach allows for self-expression and freedom to experiment – Claudia Moreira Salles
Designers today, he adds, are widening their repertoire of materials, deploying metal, iron, stone, concrete and copper and more sustainable materials: “Designers now check the provenance of wood, using wood that’s reclaimed or from managed forests.” One Espasso protégé, Carlos Motta, who studied architecture in São Paulo and has worked as a cabinet-maker in California, makes furniture out of discarded reclaimed wood found on construction sites or in old buildings.
With their broad, sloping backrests and generously deep seats, Motta’s Asturias chair, rocking sofa and chaise longue are conducive to unhurried relaxation. Espasso also represents such names as Rodrigo Ohtake, Ronald Sasson and Gisela Simas. Brazilian designers have usually studied in the design departments of prestigious universities, such as the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of São Paulo, co-designed in 1961 by architects João Batista Vilanova Artigas and Carlos Castaldi.
According to designer Claudia Moreira Salles, who studied industrial design at the Rio de Janeiro State University, a key quality of Brazilian design is fine craftsmanship: “Although in the past 10 years, our furniture industry has grown and invested in new technologies, most designers rely on a hand-crafted approach that maintains a high quality. This also allows for self-expression and freedom to experiment, which is less possible when working in mass production.”
Those designers who favour industrial production tap into infrastructure provided by factories in southern Brazil, particularly in the states of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul. “My designs fuse my training in industrial design with my experience working with wood-workers,” continues Moreira Salles, who is inspired by Tenreiro and Polish-Brazilian Jorge Zalszupin, another mid-century designer.
The Favela chair celebrates improvisation
Moreira Salles’s work includes her minimal oak Canguru desk, incorporating a triangular compartment for storing papers and stationery, and Sintonia Fina lighting fashioned from copper and reclaimed woods, such as pine, ipe, peroba and barauna. The lights’ shades are made from niobium, a mineral found in Brazil that strengthens alloys such as steel used for gas pipelines. This is subjected to electrolysis that creates a colourful surface without use of pigments.
Brazilian designers are increasingly garnering international attention: at the recent New York trade fair ICFF, Brazil-based designers showed work under the aegis of Raíz Project, an organisation that promotes their designs abroad. They included Guilherme Wentz, Noemi Saga, Alessandra Delgado and Larissa Batista.
The work of the São Paulo-based Campana Brothers represents a major turning point in the history of modern Brazilian design. Their designs place an emphasis on the handcrafted, but their raw materials are often inexpensive or include found and recycled materials. Their Favela chair of 2002, now manufactured by high-end Italian brand Edra, was created with strips of wood chips that were collected in a fruit market, randomly glued and nailed together by hand. “The chair was born from observing how part of Brazil’s population construct their lives and homes,” the brothers told Dezeen. It celebrates improvisation and the idea that designers don’t need expensive machinery to create successful designs.
The brothers – now internationally renowned – have just shown their highly collectible work at the exhibition Hybridism at London’s Carpenter’s Workshop Gallery. “Our materials range from plastic figures bought in airport shops to tree branches found when I’ve been jogging,” says Humberto Campana. There is nothing rational about their approach – take their Noah table lamp, whose base is made of a mass of writhing plastic figures, sprayed gold.
“Their work, which plays with ideas of kitsch and taste, is unique,” says Junqueira. “They’re so influential that other Brazilian designers need to avoid being seen to be inspired by them.” Younger designers do freely acknowledge their influence, however. “The Campanas have had a big impact on Brazilian design; many others have adopted their use of ready-made materials,” Mariana Ramos, of São Paulo-based studio Rain, tells BBC Culture. The studio has gained exposure through showing at leading art fair Sp-Arte in São Paulo, which also showcases contemporary design. Rain’s playful, interactive pieces include Swimming Pool tables – glass-topped tables with ladders that the user can hook on to them wherever they like. The piece seems to reflect the value Brazil places on leisure and relaxation.
The colourful, Pop-influenced work of another former Sp-Arte participant, Humberto da Mata, marks a departure from the traditional Brazilian preference for natural materials and forms. “I feel good in a world of varied references that can come from fashion, sculpture, everyday objects,” he says. His work includes his Morphus vases, spattered with glazes, and Trama stools, upholstered with interwoven strips of fabric. By contrast, Guilherme Wentz harks back to the passion felt by the Brazilian modernists for nature. His Solo vases unite nature with artifice, allowing a single leaf or flower stem to slot into a glossy, minimal copper pipe.
“Even in big cities like São Paulo and Rio, nature is so present,” he says. “A connection with nature, how to bring it into an interior, is what interests me the most.” And consciously or not, his monolithic Folha tables in solid wood recall the armchairs with chunky wood frames that once made the likes of Rodrigues and Tenreiro giants of the Brazilian design scene.
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