The gusto of Brazilian design.
By Theresa Rolen Long
Can a chair exemplify a nation? Is it possible for a country’s people, history, and resources—even its abstract spirit—to be personified by a single piece of furniture?
Working in his furniture shop in Rio, Sergio Rodrigues knew something needed to be done. It was 1960, the wars were over, and Brazil was experiencing a period of rapid industrialization and cultural growth. This economic boom was alluring to an entrepreneurial and creative class keen on the emerging mid-century Modernist movement. Architects like Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa embraced this confident and stylish urbanism, and were busy transforming the Imperial Portugese and Rococo-laden landscapes of Rio and Sao Paulo. Yet these exciting new Bauhaus-influenced creations were being filled with European furnishings of French and Swedish influence.
And it just didn’t seem…right.
Brazil wasn’t just a tropical Paris. It needed its own design voice, one to match the emergent sights of CinemaNovo and the fresh new sounds of Bossa Nova. It deserved a style unique to itself, reflecting the lighthearted fantasy of Carnaval, the boss attitude of its futbol team, and the authoritative tone of newly launched shelter magazines Casa e Jardin and Habitat.
So, working in his furniture shop in Rio, Rodrigues invented modern Brazilian style by making… a chair. From sturdy legs carved from the Bahia region’s jacaranda wood, and a thick base topped with overstuffed, friendly cushions, the iconic Mole chair was born. Clad in sun-tanned leather, the chair’s cushions hung, suspended over the frame like a hammock, by straps reminiscent of a southern gaucho cowboy’s saddle. This was a chair made solely from locally sourced materials, expertly crafted, and strategically embodying the antithetic spirit of the Brazilian people —rugged yet soft, enterprising yet laidback, luxurious yet practical.
Rodrigues’s ingenuity earned him the status of pioneer of modern Brazilian furniture. Adroitly blending natural and cultural resources with lasting craftsmanship, he maintained a great appreciation for native materials while giving voice to Brazil’s multi-cultural influences. Beautifully augmenting the country’s modern architectural movement, he filled contemporary buildings with sleek furnishings that appeared to spring from the country’s landscape, formed by the raw materials it yielded.
More modern furniture-makers quickly emerged. Design forefather Joaquin Tenreiro, along with Jose Caldos, perfected the process of laminating jacaranda with other local woods like peroba and imbue, a look that would become signature to Brazilian furniture. At the same time, architect Lina Bo Bardi was creating her Bowl chair, precursor to the ubiquitous papasan, after being inspired by visits to indigenous rainforest camps. A groundbreaking fever pitch was being felt among designers, and artisanal ideas were flowing like the Amazon.
Many of these makers started their careers building surfboards, and the surf culture lent an ideology to their craftsmanship —one of embracing and respecting nature and living a healthy lifestyle. The result was organic, body-conscious furniture. Some pieces were generously proportioned and sensuous, while others were brilliantly simple in their geometry. But one thing was certain: quality and longevity were never sacrificed.
Brazil’s complicated history of resource commodification sometimes yielded near-disastrous effects. Gold, rubber, and coffee markets contributed greatly to the country’s economic growth, but also adversely affected its ecology. Brazilians were keen on protecting their beautiful rainforests and resources, and were not buying into a “throw-away” mentality. So things were built to last, and this ethic became part of their design code.
Today, Brazil is experiencing a resurging and healthy creative class. Architects, fashion and graphic designers, photographers, and street artists are making their uniquely Brazilian mark, at home and internationally. Urban apartment complexes like Isay Weinfield’s Brutalist gem, the 360° building in Sao Paulo, continue to push the boundaries of modern luxury. And the Campana brothers are creating worldwide waves with their wildly unique applications of unusual raw and recycled materials in hotel design, furniture, and accessories.
In keeping with the foundation laid in the 20th century, Brazilian creatives are focused on sustainability. Jacaranda wood (more commonly known as Brazilian rosewood) can’t be used to make new furniture anymore as it’s close to becoming extinct. Vintage pieces made from this Brazilian wood are rare and valuable and treated like art investments. The use of recycled wood, industrial materials, and burnt scraps and roots from the rainforest are pushing artists and designers to the limits of their imagination, making for interesting and exciting creations.
Brazilians continue to be successful in creating distinctive architecture and interiors, populating their unique spaces with singular, unconventional furniture that truly symbolizes who they are as a modern country. Ultimately, an amalgamation of cultural influence (European colonialism, international immigration, Africans, and indigenous tribes), combined with a modern, industrial rationale, and implemented using natural resources is the formula that gave rise to Brazilian design style. A sophisticated, original style embodying a national pride, peppered with respect and admiration for the international community—not unlike the spirit of the Olympic games. And everyone can be inspired by that.