For Zanine Caldas' centennial, Amanda Beatriz Carvalho gives a panorama on the career and environmental involvement of the designer and architect

10 May 2019, 12:54 pm

José Zanine Caldas (1919–2001) was born in Belmonte, a small town in southern Bahia, situated on an inland plain between the Jequitinhonha River and the Atlantic Ocean. From a young age, watching builders working in his hometown fascinated him: they were performing the magic of making. He says: “Mud and wood have always been used to build humanity’s shelter. Belmonte’s houses are made of rammed earth and adobe, covered by terracotta tiles made in clay ovens powered by burning wood. It was exactly there, by looking at the process of making – mostly houses – that I also learned the practice of making.”

As an inquisitive, curious and multifaceted artist – known for his houses and wooden furniture – Zanine worked across multiple fields: as placard designer, architectural draftsman for the firm Severo & Villares, craftsman, sculptor, ceramicist, model-maker, designer, landscaper, architect, city planner and teacher. He travelled across Brazil and abroad in search of new experiences in his work, education and life. For Zanine, what mattered most was the joy of life and, in it, the joy of making. A man of extremely high personal standards, he was constantly striving to achieve his best. His body of work is vast, multiple and of exceptional quality.

Zanine’s motivation was the materialisation of ideas: the magic of transforming materials found in nature into objects that would help human beings enjoy their everyday experience. His curious and free outlook – which made him a keen learner of techniques and materials used by common people –, paired with his inventiveness, led to extraordinary outcomes. His production was very different from that expected of architects and designers of his time. Examples of this are his houses in Joatinga, Rio de Janeiro, and the recycling of deforestation waste in the construction of his “móvel denúncia” [“denunciation-furniture”].

In 1941, he innovated the production of architectural models by opening a model factory called Maquete Studio. Zanine added plywood to the creation of his models and used transparent film to distinguish door and window frames, allowing the viewer to see inside the work. With this technique, he transformed model making: from a volumetric representation made of plaster to a faithful representation of an architectural project. This triggered interest from the most prominent Brazilian architects of the time, including Oscar Niemeyer, Lúcio Costa, Oswaldo Bratke, Affonso Eduardo Reidy, Luís Saia and Alcides da Rocha Miranda. During this period, Zanine produced approximately 700 models.

With the knowledge he acquired through the use of marine plywood for model making, Zanine began designing furniture for his own house. It was at this point that he decided to open the furniture factory Móveis Artísticos Z.

Móveis Artísticos Z

The end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s were marked by the industrialisation of Brazil as a consequence of the two Great Wars and the increase in urban population, which led to the expansion of urban consumer markets. As a result, there was an increased demand for housing, which became the focus of discussion among major Brazilian architects. Residential apartments emerged as a response to expanding cities and led to a transformation in urban life, as city dwellers had to adapt to smaller spaces.

Zanine – as an important model maker for the leading architects of the time – was part of the housing discussion. Thinking about housing led him to think about furniture. The upsurge in the demand for housing (and, consequently, furniture), provoked by population growth, challenged traditional furniture manufacturing methods, as national production was no longer able to meet the increasing demand. Even though these issues were already present in the modern architectural debate of the 1930s and 1940s, innovations in terms of furniture industrialisation were very rare.

It was in this context that in 1949 Zanine founded – in partnership with Sebastião Henrique da Cunha Pontes and Paulo Mello – Móveis Artísticos Z, in São José dos Campos, São Paulo. This enterprise turned Zanine into one of the pioneers of furniture design and production and in the use of marine plywood in furniture in Brazil. According to researcher Maria Cecília Loschiavo dos Santos, the assembling of his pieces was extremely simple, which allowed him to use a non-specialised labour force. Both this aspect and the optimal use of plywood meant that Móveis Artísticos Z achieved a reduction of 70-80% in the price of furniture in relation to the same production using standard wood. The factory employed around 150 people and sales were high: “Every line of furniture was modular and allowed an arrangement to suit the client’s needs. Seats used zigzag springs and the upholstery was covered with seamless fabric – canvas or plastic materials incorporating blue, yellow, brown or stripes. They were secured from below with staples or pins roughly covered with a piece of plywood. The presence of colour and asymmetry in the composition of Zanine’s furniture pieces was innovative for the time, as up to that point, surfaces were mainly neutral, sombre and symmetric.”

The structure of Zanine’s pieces consisted of plywood, which was often cut into a Z or amoeba-like shape. He sought lightness in the furniture, allowing for its mobility and flexibility in the space layout.

Zanine believed that industrialisation would foster an improvement in quality of life for the majority of people. To some extent he achieved his goal: to reduce the cost of furniture in comparison to the furniture produced by the School of Arts and Crafts of São Paulo and other modern furniture factories of that period. His work meant that
Móveis Z reached vast numbers of people in Brazil.

Despite this achievement, Zanine’s experience with the factory did not last long. In 1953, he fell out with his partners, left the business and burned all his drawings.

We can perceive Zanine’s line of thought throughout his whole career. The architect insisted on the need to enjoy life and live well, which for him depended on a harmonious coexistence with the environment. This concept led him to experiment with other furniture making techniques in the 1970s in Nova Viçosa, Bahia.


When Zanine arrived in Nova Viçosa, a small town in southern Bahia, he came into contact with a large timber and laminated plywood producer – Elecunha – where he found forestry waste such as tree trunks and roots. He also met highly skilful canoe builders: craftsmen who knew how to sculpt a canoe from a tree trunk.

When he noticed the large quantity of wood that was wasted, Zanine was appalled by the lack of care for nature and the possibility that the industry could eventually drive the whole forest into extinction. He decided to use leftover wood products in the manufacture of furniture as a way of denouncing deforestation: he created his “denunciation-furniture”. According to Zanine, the initiative would preserve the existence of discarded wood that was likely to become extinct in the future.

The furniture was produced in small runs, from 1:10-scale models made by Zanine himself. According to the carpenters who worked with him at the tim, the fact that they used the remnants of deforestation meant that instead of working with one specific type of timber, they handled any type of wood they could find. Zanine chose and sorted the wood that would be used for each piece of furniture. The architect was in charge of making the necessary markings and instructing his carpenters, who eventually produced each item on a 1:1 scale.

His tête-à-tête rocker Namoradeira – a piece from this period – can be found in several homes. However, there are differences in the design of the earlier and later Namoradeiras that are the result of a gradual technical development. The first pieces were made from a single tree trunk. Over time, the production changed: the arms were sculpted separately, using different timber from the rest of the chair, and attached to the main piece at the end. Production was simpler and faster, while at the same time optimising the use of raw material. Zanine also prioritised comfort: “He always asked us to sit down and check if it was comfortable because people are often keen to produce but don’t understand how comfortable it is for the person sitting on it. You need to sit down and feel comfortable on a wooden sofa like this. It needs to have the right shape to support your back. ”

With regards to the sculptural form of the furniture developed in Nova Viçosa, it is worth noting the rounded forms typically found in canoes made with a tool called an enxó (a local type of adze). In many cases, Zanine emphasised these forms in his furniture, creating movement. Timber was also used in its natural form, as we can see in many of his tables. In one piece, an upside-down tree trunk with the root facing up is used to support a glass panel. In another, the slice of a tree trunk becomes a table-top.

With his “denunciation-furniture”, Zanine developed a design connected to local knowledge as an effort to value and preserve regional techniques, rather than importing procedures and machines from industrialised places.


Love and Respect for the Environment

Zanine believed that emotion was able to subvert logic in mass production, to make us rethink the structures of economy, pointing to a future where human beings and nature would be part of a whole. In his own words: “Wood is part of the wealth that nature gives to men. We do not have the right to destroy or waste it. The more people there are in the world, the more we will have to make the most out of wood.”

Zanine was at the forefront of the sustainable use of raw materials in the construction of furniture and houses. He was also a great defender of Brazilian forests. He had a comprehensive career: from model maker to landscaper, from designer to architect and urban planner. He was rejected by many Brazilian architects for not having a diploma. But despite it all, in 1991, Zanine was awarded the title of Honorary Architect by the Institute of Architects of Brazil. The prize was delivered by Lúcio Costa, a great admirer of his work. His contribution was also acknowledged outside Brazil. In France, in 1989, his body of work was celebrated with the exhibition Zanine – L’Architecture et la forêt at Musée des Arts Décoratifs of Musée du Louvre. He was also awarded a Silver Medal by Collège d’Architectes.

To commemorate the centenary of Zanine’s birth in an era of climate change, atmospheric and water pollution and deforestation, is to remind us that life is conditioned by the environment we live in and which we transform. In order to overcome environmental issues, we must rethink the
way we build cities and objects and the way we move around; we must reconsider the use of certain materials and learn a different way of living. To revisit Zanine’s ideals – a Brazilian pioneer in caring for nature – can contribute towards this goal, reviving other ways of designing and producing and developing new solutions for our current challenges.

Amanda Beatriz Palma de Carvalho is a PhD student at the Post-Graduation Design Programme of Faculdade de Arquitetura e Urbanismo, Universidade de São Paulo, under the supervision of Maria Cecília Loschiavo dos Santos.

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