Great Grandpa’s Furniture
31 May 2019, 4:49 pm
by Mina Warchavchik Hugerth
Since early on, I realized that I didn’t live like my friends. The apartment where I grew up had doors and windows and walls and a ceiling, and it was quite normal to all effects and purposes. Except that my parents, just like my grandparents, aunts, and uncles at their respective homes, had taken over that standardized space in a different way than what I used to see elsewhere. Even without leaning over the subject to understand the reasons for such distinction, I entered an architecture college, and there, for the first time, I did not need to spell out my family name: being from Warchavchik lineage meant something, although I had never met the said modernist architect. I was obviously familiar with my great grandfather’s work, had admiration for his projects and world vision, but it was only later that I could fully understand what this descent meant in my formation and how it built a quite peculiar ideal of domesticity.
Some context becomes necessary. Gregori Warchavchik, the great grandpa, was born in Odessa, Ukraine (back then part of the Russian Empire), in 1896, and started his architecture studies in the local art school and later concluded them in Rome, in 1920. In 1923, he migrated to São Paulo to work at the Companhia Construtora de Santos, and soon got in touch with the modernist circles of the city, publishing an article-manifesto defending the principles of architectural modernism in 1925. Two years later, Warchavchik got married with great grandma, Mina Klabin, and that same year he designed the couple’s residency at Rua Santa Cruz. While this is considered the first modernist house in Brazil, it was only in 1930 that he organized the “Exhibition of a Modernist House,” so as to publicly present what would be like to live in the future. Held in the second house built by him, at Rua Itápolis, the architecture and the interiors he developed were complemented by works by artists such as Tarsila do Amaral, Di Cavalcanti, and Brecheret, in addition to tropical gardens never seen before created by his wife. That same year, upon invitation of Lúcio Costa, Warchavchik joined the faculty of the National Fine Arts School as professor, and inaugurated other projects in Rio de Janeiro between 1931 and 1932, with a new public exhibition of modern architecture.
Though Warchavchik’s early houses compose the best known chapter of his path, the architect would continue to act professionally over the following four decades. Taking some distance from the experimental constructions of his early projects, he was responsible for numerous residential and business buildings in São Paulo, also becoming an entrepreneur tuned with the urban changes of the city from the 1940s on. Over his career, Warchavchik promoted a modern, anti-conformist lifestyle, defending architecture as something greater than its purely material manifestation.
My great grandpa never designed furniture for the market. He probably would have done it if there were an audience interested in buying at the time, but his interest was mainly that of coherently occupying the spaces he created and lived in. It was the 1920s, Brazilian architecture and design were marked by the decor influenced by historical styles, which in turn carried certain cultural meanings. Yet, the architect’s pieces of furniture were devoid of decorative elements and conceived from the gathering and juxtaposition of geometrical shapes and plans, specially in dialogue with German modernism. Notwithstanding, even if they somewhat had the ambition to reach the industry, all pieces by Warchavchik were made in ateliers and handcrafted.
The pieces of furniture projected for the Rua Santa Cruz house were painted in black, and the ones of Rua Itápolis, in silver. I have already heard that this second finishing sought to emulate metal in a moment where it was only possible to produce pieces in wood, but I wonder if this explanation isn’t overmuch trying to functionalize a choice that was, above all, of aesthetic nature. The padding of the silver furniture pieces was navy blue, and placed in a light-green room with purple curtains. Little is mentioned about this due to the black and white records, but Warchavchik’s inside spaces went far beyond primary colors or a spartan minimalism.
The furniture pieces of Rua Itápolis ended up with journalist Geraldo Ferraz and are now part of the Adolpho Leirner collection. As for those of Rua Santa Cruz, each heir kept some, complemented by many other signature design pieces or commissioned for his future residencies. Over time, each piece by the architect earned for us a status of reference and reverence, as well as a sense of affection. They were no longer about avant-garde, but rather about tradition – which configures a contradiction of terms, for the original idea is subverted, even if its positioning is kept. That said, I never sat on a lion paw armchair or a flowery sofa, I did not admire cabinets filled with bibelots or Renaissance reproductions. On the other hand, I kept family albums on a bookshelf-table of superposed circles and tied my shoes in a chair made of two right-angled wooden plans connected by a metallic tube. Without any judgment of value, I did not live like my friends.
When invited to write about the memories of growing up surrounded by the furniture of my great grandpa, I recalled the time when I designed the W coffee table for Marcenaria Baraúna and took the prototype to my mother’s house. There, we took off the top of a Warchavchik table to put it over mine and to see if it worked. It did. Back then, I did not think about being in dialogue with my predecessor, but the very name I later ended up giving to the piece, belies it. I also wondered if I had become a design historian precisely for believing that the space we live in and the objects we choose to have around us deeply inform on our values and ambitions. Maybe Warchavchik taught me this lesson. Perhaps his legacy allowed me to reflect enough in order to raise the flag that design and even decoration are not a minor form of art or an occupation for dilettantes, but rather as vigorous as architecture and truly intimate. And, who knows, maybe for this specific nature, it is easier to illustrate its strength from the perspective of a personal experience.