Just like the music, influenced by the cultural diversity of this vast South American country, the design from Brazil has always had a unique appeal and a character all of its own. Despite following the international modernist movement of the mid-20th century, the great masters of Brazilian design stood out for their original vision, blending organic design, local materials and the skill of Brazilian artisans.
Besides the legendary Oscar Niemeyer and Pritzker prize-winner Paulo Mendes da Rocha, Lina Bo Bardi, Sérgio Rodrigues, Gregori Warchavchik, José Zanine Caldas and Jorge Zalszupin are some of the names behind the most iconic classics and which helped maintain an aura of exoticism and New-World charm around Brazilian design. Pieces like the cosy Bowl Chair by Bo Bardi, recently reissued by the Italian brand Arper, the curvilinear Rio rocking chaise longue by Niemeyer, the Pétalas coffee table by Zalszupin or the large Mole armchair, designed by Sérgio Rodrigues, exude a distinctly Brazilian language.
Despite its extensive history, Brazilian design isn't confined to the great masters of the last century, but also includes a group of contemporary figures who have surprised the world with their original creations over the last few years. One of the natural heirs of this magnificent legacy is the designer Zanini de Zanine, son of José Zanine Caldas. Having grown up watching his father working in his workshop, de Zanine worked under Sérgio Rodrigues, with whom he produced his first piece of furniture. Considered one of the most exciting figures of contemporary Brazilian design, de Zanine inherited his father's respect and passion for wood, his material of choice in many of his pieces.
This family connection was especially evident in the individual exhibition that the New York gallery Espasso, which represents Brazilian design exclusively, dedicated to the young designer in October 2013. Presenting some of José Zanine Caldas' most iconic classics side by side with his son's creations, the display provided insight into the evolution of Brazilian design over the last few decades, as well the continuous respect for local natural resources through the recovery of Brazilian hardwood to build furniture, as demonstrated in pieces such as the Espasso armchairs and the Balanço chaise longue.
Besides wood, de Zanine has experimented with other materials in his studio in Rio de Janeiro, producing a series of pieces in metal, plastic and methacrylate. The elegant Moeda armchair, for example, was made from leftover sheet metal webbings from the Casa da Moeda national mint. The original, experimentalist way in which de Zanine approaches design led to collaborations with international brands such as Cappellini, Tolix and Laufen, taking Brazilian design beyond the country's borders once again.
However, the brothers Fernando and Humberto Campana are ultimately responsible for the attention that Brazil has garnered in this field in the last two decades. Since their first individual exhibition in 1989, at the São Paulo gallery Nucleon, the duo have demonstrated a special predilection for working with unusual materials after presenting Desconfortável (meaning uncomfortable in Portuguese), a line of metal chairs that explored the poetry of the uncomfortable.
Inspired by the local culture but with a global language, the Campana brothers managed to create a unique aesthetic, a mix of design and art, where originality and surprise always play a key role.
Touching on themes such as globalisation and sustainability in a refreshing way, the designers use accessible or recycled objects and materials to create sculptural pieces, steeped in irony and social critique, and openly challenging the conventions of design.
With an intentionally contradictory and deceptively naïve attitude, the brothers blend seemingly distant worlds and produce luxurious pieces with references to poverty and the banality of everyday life.
One of the pieces that best demonstrates this bold spirit is the Favela armchair, conceived as an homage to the shacks found in the Brazilian slums. The result of more than a week of manual labour, the armchair is currently produced by Edra – a post-modern throne, it's a symbol of the creativity of the favelas and used in the décor of the most elegant households around the world.
Another creation that reflects their inspiration from Brazilian culture is the Multidão Mulata armchair. A nod to the country's colourful mix of ethnicities, the colourful piece represents a crowd of people through small handmade figures produced in the northern city of Esperança. The use of the artificial to represent the natural, or the blend of these two worlds, is also one of the dominant features of the Campanas' body of work. The Vermelha armchair, made with 500 metres of special rope, was inspired by the liana vines that encircle trees in the Amazon, whilst the Banquete armchair, made by hand in small series with cuddly toys, alludes to the natural world and establishes a bridge between banality and luxury. The Teddy Bear Banquete, for example, sold for $68,500 at a Phillips auction in 2012.
Celebrated as two of the great poets of contemporary design in exhibitions such as Projects 66 (together with Ingo Maurer) at MoMA in 1998-99, and Antikörper at the Vitra Design Museum in 2009-10, Fernando and Humberto Campana have left an undeniable mark on international design, encouraging a new generation of Brazilian designers to adopt their roots as a source of inspiration. Designers such as Felipe Protti, Humberto da Mata, Pedro Franco, Bruno Faucz, Carol Gay, Rodrigo Almeida and the duo Ana Neute and Rafael Chvaicer are the new faces of creativity from this South American country, forecasting a brilliant future for Brazilian design.
Originally published in Essential Macau Magazine