Intertwined Modernity: Brazilian Furniture in the 20th Century
24 May 2019, 4:01 pm
BY JAYME Vargas
The 20th century was a period of significant structural transformation in Brazil. An increasingly varied economic activity was combined with an ongoing process of urban expansion and diversification of the social fabric. In addition, a persistent search for more representativeness emerged from the often unstable and turbulent political landscape. These processes triggered an urgent desire for new ways of understanding and expressing reality within Brazilian cultural and intellectual production. As a result, the country embraced an active participation in the modernist project – which was also underway abroad –, giving way to an interesting strand of the movement, which lasted for almost the whole century.
Brazilian design furniture also followed and absorbed the modernist language of the time, incorporating themes that were specific to the country, such as the search for a national identity that contrasted to old-fashioned styles and propositions, which were deemed too academic, artificial and non-representative of local realities. This set of elements was closely linked to other areas of cultural production. A weak design market and the lack of formal training in the sector meant that the pioneers of modern furniture in Brazil had to concomitantly pursue other activities, particularly in the fields of architecture and visual arts.
It was only from the end of the 1920s and in the following decade that modern furniture began to emerge in a more consistent way in Brazil. The creations of John Graz, Gregori Warchavchik and Lasar Segall reveal a national production still attached to European influences such as French art deco and German Bauhaus.
In the 1940s, we see the emergence of Joaquim Tenreiro, a Portuguese designer and artist who moved to Brazil at a young age. His work introduced some of the issues that would later become central to Brazilian modern furniture. Tenreiro sought the use of building materials that suited the local climate in response to heavy styles and upholstery trends that were then the prevailing taste. In his designs, thick velvet fabrics were replaced with the lightness of jacaranda wood and straw. This sense of lightness was confirmed by the formal aspect of his pieces, and it would become commonplace in the subsequent national production.
Tenreiro used artisanal and semi-artisanal techniques in the fabrication of his furniture, which resulted in finely executed pieces that targeted wealthy consumers. Despite the non-mechanised nature of his work, the designer expressed the intention of incorporating industrial procedures to promote the popularisation of his products. However, this goal was never met. The industrialisation of furniture manufacturing in Brazil was only consistently implemented at the end of the 1950s, by designers such as Percival Lafer, Michel Arnoult and Geraldo de Barros.
The foundation of Brasília, in 1960, reflected the national consolidation of a modernist language. The new decade also marked the pinnacle of Brazilian modern furniture, which began to encompass a multitude of individual and corporate propositions that catered for a considerably broader consumer base.
However, from the 1970s, we see the exhaustion of modernist propositions – both in Brazil and abroad –, which were no longer considered fresh or relevant to the period. Culturally, this production continued to be perceived, in general terms, as an important legacy and as reference to the new generations. However, this was not extended to Brazilian modern furniture, which, after this period, went through a process of almost complete oblivion and began to be seen as simply out-dated. This period of ostracism was only reversed some time later, in the 1990s, with a movement of rediscovery of 20th century design influenced by a similar international trend. Surprisingly, that decade saw the emergence of a vigorous, diverse and high-quality production that, despite the technical limitations faced by national companies at the time, reached a rare degree of formal maturity.
From then on, new layers of meaning were added to Brazilian modern furniture, which began to be seen not only as utilitarian objects but also as something invested with historical significance, incorporating aesthetical fruition and collectible value. Therefore, we see the emergence of a new consumer public: from a restricted group to an increasingly broader class of consumers. The renewed interest in modern furniture in the country, which now included the search for knowledge about its history and the study of its proponents, led to the rise of a strong market for its remaining original items, which began to be traded by specialist design galleries in many ways similar to galleries devoted to the art market. This encouraged the re-edition of its most emblematic pieces.
It is worth noting that this essay is considering only the so-called ‘official’ re-editions, that is, items manufactured with the authorisation and follow-up of the original designers, their representatives or the estates in charge of managing and preserving their work. ‘Unauthorised’ re-editions or replicas are surrounded by uncertainty and unpredictability that hinders, to a great extent, the optimal understanding of the conditions and circumstances in which they are made.
Official re-editions are produced based on the original pieces’ design. If the original written design is not available – which is common – an original similar item is used as model. Even though re-editions – which are presumably faithful copies – and the original pieces share the same characteristics, there is also a dynamics of identification and differentiation – or approximation and distancing – between the two versions. This dynamics encompasses several different aspects, such as production processes, materials used, market circulation and distribution models and modes of appropriation by their users.
The significance attributed to the concept of authenticity is a point of convergence between re-editions and original pieces. The idea of ‘authenticity’ is always fluid, posing a problem that is intrinsic to the definition of its scope and magnitude. Here, the idea of authenticity can be understood as the effort to adhere to the project’s original features or to replicate – as faithfully as possible – its original proposition.
In the original pieces this effort was typically guaranteed by the personal intervention of the designer – who was often also the owner of the furniture company – and his or her interest in ensuring a faithful reproduction of their creations. In the re-editions, we see a similar process carried out by the designer (if still alive), their representatives and heirs or the estates responsible for the certification of the new editions. If the designer is absent, mediation and, therefore, complexity are added to the procedures that seek authenticity.
In the process of re-editing an original piece, a common obstacle is the fact that it is almost impossible to obtain the same materials used originally. Most of the timber used at the time is currently in extinction or almost extinct, such as the case of jacaranda: the iconic wood of Brazilian furniture. Similarly, several industrialised products and components previously used have had their production discontinued or their manufacturing processes have been significantly modified. This is the case of the steel tubes that Lina Bo Bardi used in her Tripod Chair, or the hardwood boards widely used by both Bo Bardi and José Zanine Caldas in the 1950s.
Re-editions are made with the most equivalent material that is available. A similar challenge is the reconstitution of original production processes, as most of them have become unfeasible due to technological and economic reasons or restrictions imposed by environmental laws. Consequently, the re-editions made in Brazil typically have limited numbers, which to a certain extent replicates the practice used at the time of their original making.
From the start, modern furniture introduced not only a renewed concept of style but also the proposition of a new way of living. At that point, its utilitarian or functional character was paramount. Today, the remaining original items and their re-editions have incorporated their historical perspective without abandoning functionality as its key aspect.
Even though current purchasing decisions involve an appreciation of relevant historical issues and the singularities of each designer, re-editions are mostly purchased because of their utilitarian attributes. Original pieces share a similar position: they are essentially seen as unique and historically valuable, but they are also practical. However, some of these items have gained a different purpose: they are seen as collectible objects. In Arcades Project (1982), German philosopher Walter Benjamin talks about the transition to a magic circle of items that have become part of a collection. Their acquisition frees them from the servitude of being useful. For modern furniture, this freedom is relative. The transition materialises a state of ambiguity: part functional item, part object of aesthetic fruition and contemplation.