Roots of Brazilian Design: Identity and Modern Aesthetics, by Renato Anelli

30 May 2016, 5:48 pm

When interpreting, in their works, the technical innovations and cultural conditions of the current world, some Brazilian designers rely on the country’s modern tradition of furniture, architecture and fine arts to trail new paths. Looking back at modern design can thus be useful to understand the particularities of contemporary production in Brazil.

Modern design surfaced simultaneously with architecture revolution at the end of the 19th century, fruit of the tense relationship between art and productive modernization of society during the Industrial Revolution. After having been aesthetically valued by impressionist paintings, some technical and scientific innovations – like electricity and new constructive material possibilities, like iron, concrete and glass – were presented by art nouveau architecture in its new forms. Prone to individual artistic creation, however, artists and architects of this movement perceived industry as a threat.

In 1902, Henry van de Velde, from Belgium, gave an important step by proposing that the line – dynamic and abstract – was the foundation capable of guiding the creative process of architecture and of its interiors, regardless of any figurative representation of styles from the classic past or natural forms. Concurrently with Charles Rennie Mackintosh, in Glasgow, and Josef Hoffmann, in Vienna, van de Velde built his own formalization procedures to organize the entire setting designed, from small utensils to buildings. In his sophisticated art nouveau interiors, he executed the complete work of art, an objective pursued before by artists and romantic philosophers and now renewed by the first modernists.

The advancement of industrialization and the arrival of an average-standard market for the consumption of furniture and objects led to the reproduction of cheap copies. This reduced the distance between innovative original creation and trivialization into simplified styles to facilitate consumption. With the objective of improving the quality of industrial products, the German government gathered businessmen, artists and architects at Deutscher Werkbund [German Work Federation] in 1907, which collaboration would result in the first objects conceived by artists for mass production. Interrupted by World War I, this research resumed after the conflict ended. Bauhaus, the most famous initiative in this direction, came from the merger of the Grand Ducal School of Arts and Crafts and the Weimar Academy of Fine Art, headed by van de Velde until 1914.

This reconciliation between the fine arts, the applied arts and architecture occurred under the aegis of new industrial techniques. Mass production was the condition how projects developed conducted by designers, a new profile of artist/professional that surfaced at that exact moment.

Even if there was no longer the possibility of a single creative person aesthetically organizing the design of an entire setting, as intended before industrial mass production was accepted, the modern parameters of transparency, levity and spatial continuity governed the conception of objects, furniture and architecture. Obviously, a Marcel Breuer Wassily chair requires a transparent environment, like those conceived by Neue Sachlichkeit [New Objectivity] architects. This association between design and architecture would accompany the diaspora of German architects and designers throughout the world, fleeing from Nazism and World War II.

Brazil’s modernization process presents its own specificities in relation to the European, the main one being that here the intensification of urbanism and industrialization only occurred after World War II. Before this, in the 1920s and 1930s, modern art and architecture surfaced as a desire of modernization that would lead to the country’s industrialization, but still free from the pressure of its effects, unlike what occurred in Germany and England. The agenda was the construction of a modern and Brazilian culture, attesting a national identity in the midst of a social and productive modernization process that intensified after the Revolution of 1930.

Gregori Warchavchik, the first architect to build modern architecture works in Brazil, in 1928, complained about the lack of industrialized material available in the market. So he was forced to produce, in small workshops, the frames, ironwork and furniture, simulating industrialized components compatible with the geometric-abstract forms of his architecture.

In his Casa Modernista exhibition on Rua Itápolis, in 1930, it is possible to see that project control comprised the entire setting: furniture, details, objects, artwork, architecture and landscaping. Composed of native vegetation species, the garden was part of the project in Brazil, satisfying the program of the first generation of Brazilian modernists. Not by chance, Mina Klabin Warchavchik reproduced in the garden the landscapes designed by Tarsila do Amaral in her paintings, one of which hung inside the residence.

In other works by Warchavchik, his furniture sided with others conceived by John Graz, Swiss artist and decorator part of the local modernist artistic scenario. This type of professional, together with the first modern architects, would be responsible for the beginning of design in Brazil until World War ii. A few furniture imports from Europe combined with simplified reproductions and improvisations of furniture, seen through magazines, constituted the interiors of modern buildings built in the 1930s and 1940s by architects like Rino Levi, Oswaldo Bratke and Lúcio Costa.

The production conditions and materials used in these pieces of furniture are compatible with labor trained at the Arts and Crafts Schools in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Industrial Schools throughout the country or from other countries, in the case of immigrants. Wood, metallic pipes, fabric cover and leather were used in workshops based on designs prepared by architects or decorators, but far from achieving mass industrial scale, as propagated by modern precepts.

It was up to architects that came from Italy to give the crucial leap to the professionalization of modern design in Brazil. The first was Austrian Bernard Rudofsky, who in 1938 brought to São Paulo his work experience with Gio Ponti in Milan. Working here, Rudofsky participated and won the Organic Design competition promoted by the MoMA New York Museum, in 1941, with a furniture set made out of wood and metallic structure, incorporating natural fiber fabrics.

After the war, in 1947, recently-arrived Lina Bo Bardi conceived the foldable chairs in wood and leather for the auditorium of the new Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo (Masp), complaining that she was unable to find any modern chair in production in the city. A short time after, as if giving reason to the architect, Rino Levi developed his own chair project for the auditorium of Teatro Cultura Artística, except that it had a tubular structure and was retractable to facilitate movement between rows.

In 1948, Lina Bo Bardi established a partnership with Giancarlo Palanti at Studio de Arte Palma for interior design and furniture projects, which were produced at Pau-Brasil Ltda. shop. Through the use of native fibers and wood worked with great care and a small production scale, the artists tried to point out that such works were in tune with the country’s reality.

Not by chance, the article about the chairs published in Habitat magazine, in 1950, started out with a picture of an old river boat on the inside, where the hammocks of native Indians were used as seat and bed for long trips. With fabrics hanging from wood or tubular structures, the three legged chairs interpret this popular habit as a peculiar version of the sitting on air, a characteristic of chairs designed years before by German Bauhaus designers.

The specialized production of modern furniture in Brazil disseminated throughout the 1950s, as modern architecture became consolidated, in a process that would culminate in the construction of Brasília.

Two lines polarized Brazilian design in those years. One was faithful to the national, Brazilian and modern identity, with roots of modernism from the Modern Art Week of 1922, represented by the architecture of Lúcio Costa, Oscar Niemeyer and their followers. The other was aligned with concrete art and design of the Ulm School of Design, in Germany, then headed by Max Bill and geared to mass industrial production.

A good example of the first line was Joaquim Tenreiro, with his refined furniture made with native woods and braided wicker seats. The second line we can refer to the concrete artist Geraldo de Barros, who at Unilabor developed in his furniture (progressively industrialized) the geometric-abstract forms of his paintings and photographs.

In the early 1960s came a new position of national-popular nature, based on production practices found in inner country ethnographic research. The works of Lina Bo Bardi at the Nordeste exhibition held in Bahia, in 1963, represent a political inflection of work in consonance with the contra culture of the 1960s and 1970s, which would lead her to criticize the dominance of consumerism values in industrialized contemporary design. Thus appeared a pioneer avant la lettre posture of environmental sustainability in the field of design.

The pioneering spirit to develop designers in Brazil came from Masp’s Institute of Contemporary Art, which in 1951 created the first industrial design course in the country, unfortunately closed down in 1953. Only in 1962 would come two other initiatives to develop designers: Escola Superior de Design, in Rio de Janeiro, and the sequence of Industrial Design at Faculdade de Arquitetura e Urbanismo of Universidade de São Paulo, in São Paulo.

The development of Brazil’s industry, incentivized by protectionist policies until the late 1970s, demanded projects for all sorts of uses from these young designers. Without forgetting to service the market of modern sophisticated furniture with small editions, designers busied themselves designing home appliances, stereo equipment, automobiles, and even the first computers that sparked the consumption dreams of the middle class during Brazil’s economic miracle.

The economic crisis that came at the end of this decade gave new meaning to research in the contra culture, in consumerism and environmental lines, which surfaced in the early 1960s. Recycling and reutilization, interaction with communities and worker cooperatives, certified native wood, low energy consumption in production and use became internationally recognized values. When what was alternative and peripheral took on a central position in contemporary culture, Brazil assumed a trajectory of its own that placed it once again in the spotlight of the international scenario.

But Brazil’s design doesn’t only survive on sustainability. Even with the huge competition stemming from globalization, many designers were able to enter several segments of industry, significantly transcending the furniture and print areas which characterized the field for many years.

The spotlight during this period, however, went to designers who deepened their interaction with fine arts. If, in the 1950s and 1960s, there was an alignment with concrete art, since then, it was updated through the interaction with pop art, conceptual art and other contemporary art productions. As these art movements moved away from modern art, particularly aspects of functionality and seriality, many objects conceived recently by designers cannot be identified as furniture or other use that serves as reason. They get mixed up, on purpose, with sculpture, in formalization procedures and use of materials. More recently, with new information and digital production technologies, the notion of industrial production also changed, no longer having the need for mass repetition of components and objects.

The definition of a disciplinary design field is undergoing structural changes that move it away from its modern origins, placing it in the creative industry environment. The design of furniture and certain industrial products has become only a part of the field that encompasses fashion, print, digital animation, information technology, production of equipment and vehicles, etc.

Perhaps due to this huge scope, the redeeming of modern design principles in Brazil has generated more attention, not only pointing out roots, but reviewing values the validity of which may not have yet expired.


Renato Luiz Sobral Anelli is an architect and urbanist. With a Master’s degree in History from Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp) and a PhD in Architecture from Universidade de São Paulo (USP), where he is currently head professor, Anelli conducts research on modern and contemporary architecture in Brazil. With vast bibliographical production, in 2002, he won the award of best publication from Instituto de Arquitetos do Brasil (São Paulo chapter) with his first book: Rino Levi, arquitetura e cidade (Romano Guerra, 2001). His latest book, Architettura Contemporanea: Brasile, was published in Italy (Motta, 2008/2012) and France (Actes Sud, 2009). As director of Instituto Lina Bo e P. M. Bardi, he coordinated several commemorative activities for its 100th anniversary in 2014, providing support to exhibitions in Munich, Zürich, Rome, Tokyo and New York, among other places.