Mid century modernismo (Privatair)
In the heart of the well-groomed Jardins district of Sao Paulo, tucked away in the shadows of an otherwise non descript street, is South America’s most celebrated restaurant. Dinner at Alex Atala’s D.O.M is a Really Big Deal. Reservations are highly prized, and everything about a visit suggests an extraordinary event, from the double-height, Disney-theatrical front-door to the couples frantically taking pictures of their pretty, floral, green tomato gel salads. Instead of a granita palate cleanser, a waiter spins potato and Gruyere dough over each table, and unfurls it into a perfect swirl on each plate. This is the new Brazil: luxe, a little avant-garde, with incredible attention to detail. And when you visit this new Brazil, you dine on vintage, modernist Sergio Rodrigues chairs, with hexagonal split cane panels. They’re the same chairs that chef Atala has at home, and the same chairs that the first dignitaries to visit the sci-fi white concrete domes of Brasilia sat on. 21st century Brazil is passionately embracing its modernist design heritage. And there’s a lot to love, from the work of Gregori Warchavchik, who built the first modernist house in the country in the 1920s, to Etel Carmona’s meticulous licensed reproductions of pieces originally created by the architects behind the seminal Branco & Preto store in Sao Paulo at the start of the 1950s.
Brazilian modernist furniture from the middle of the last century to the 1970s has, for years, been something of an insider interiors secret. Now it’s gaining momentum and visibility, with vintage pieces by the likes of Rodrigues becoming sought after at auction, classic pieces going back into production, and new designers channelling the aesthetic. Manahttan hotelier and champion of modernist design Andre Balazs furnished his SoHo loft recently with several vintage Rodrigues pieces, which now sit next to original artwork by Bacon, Schnabal and Warhol. “I’ve become very interested in South American design,” he says. “Rodrigues’ work has incredible detail.”
Brazilian design specialists Espasso in New York City and Los Angeles, and Silvia Nayla in London, attract clients who have an attachment to the quietly flash and au courant mid-century modern aesthetic, but who want something less obvious than the usual Scandic suspects. Brazilian modernism has an organic and seductively tropical element to it that makes it unique. And unlike its international cousins, it hasn’t been done to death. If there’s an equivalent to the Eames lounge chair, it might be Rodrigues’ generously upholstered Poltrona Mole, which first appeared in 1957. When it won first prize at the Concurso Internacional do Móvel in Cantu, Italy in 1961, Arne Jacobson – one of the judges – hailed it as “the only model with up-to-date characteristics… not influenced by passing whims, and absolutely representative of its region of origin”. But even the Poltrona Mole, for all its awards and recognition, hasn’t ventured near the precipice of design cliché. There is no bargain basement “inspired by” copy available online, just the $10,150 model, made to order via Espasso. Pieces by key Brazilian designers run at a premium through their scarcity. Isay Weinfeld’s Huguinho bar sells for $20,500, while Warchavchic’s Leque magazine holder goes for $18,600. This is serious investment furniture.
You can still customer order Rodrigues’ work direct from his atelier in Rio de Janeiro, and select from myriad models, leathers and finishes. He’s still there, larger than life, with his iconic Yosemite Sam moustache, working on new designs in his Botafogo workshop. In the late 1960s, his work become more playful, and he switched from being a master of modernism, to a practitioner of post modernism. His more recent pieces – like the 2002 Diz chair, which appears on the balconies of the Hotel Fasano, the chicest beachfront property in Rio – pay homage to both movements. But it’s still all distinctively Rodrigues. “I don’t care if people say postmodern or modernist, I just do what I like,” he says. “When I create a piece, I’m my own client. I always think that if I like it, then someone else will.”
Rodrigues’ style is organic and slightly wild. It is passionate and sensual – the Mole chair invites you to spread out and sprawl. If there are shades of the sharpness of Italian modernist Gio Ponti in some of Rodrigues’ work (and indeed in the work of much of the Brazilian modernists), then there are also more savage hints of horn and tusk-shapes, and pure Amazonian spirit in their wooden frames. “I’ve always worked with wood,” he says. “When I was a child, my uncle was a carpenter, and I studied with him. We had so many types of tropical wood at our fingertips, and it became a major feature in my work. Even if I work in metal, I still add wood to it, because it changes the meaning.”
Most of Rodrigues’ early pieces were crafted from jacaranda, but from the 1980s onwards – when the sub-tropical tree neared extinction from over-logging – he shifted to eucalyptus, cinnamon, cedar and ivory palm. A walk around the Ipanema branch of Arquivo Contemporaneo, the multi-levelled store and definitive showroom for Brazilian design in Rio, confirms that wood remains the focus for most of the country’s designers. There are the svelte and bow-legged chairs by Aristeu Pires and Jader Almeida and squared-off tables and sofa decks by Bernardo Figueiredo. All are crafted in wood. Then there are the pieces from the Etel collection, produced by Etel Carmona – Warchavchik’s aforementioned 1930 magazine holder, the Poltrona MF5 from 1950 by Branco & Preto, and the beautifully ornate Cacos console by Carmona herself.
There is a strong eco-slant to much of this work. Carmona established the Aver Amazonica factory in Xapuri in 2002, founded on the principle of producing pieces from sustainable sources, in an ecologically sound manner, and in a way that was respectful and supportive of local communities. It’s an ethos shared by many of the key Brazilian brands. “Most of our current designers work in wood, and all of them use only ethically sourced materials,” says Cassidy Hughes, the manager of the Silvia Nayla store in London. “There is something magical about so much of their work, as if they’ve been pulled from an enchanted forest. Hugo França’s pieces highlight the beauty of wood in its natural state, yet each one is still a completely functional piece. And Paulo Alves’ Pedra stools combine traditional wood carving techniques with modern technology.”
The key strength of Brazilian modernism – both vintage, from the 1950s and 1960s, and the current modernism redux – is that it fits into the most contemporary of environments in such a fresh and sophisticated way, even in the case of the more directional pieces. Carlos Motta, who is one of Rodrigues’ favourite designers, is the superstar of the contemporary scene. He lives in a beach house on the Brazilian coast that he describes as “very hippie”, surfs regularly, and works entirely in wood certified by the Brazilian Forest Stewardship Council. His work has a truly Latin beauty to it: his raw-surfaced rocking chairs and lounge pieces have a recycled appearance coupled with visual heft, while his Horizonte desk is one of the stand-out pieces at Espasso. He’s one of the most in-demand brands at Arquivo Contemporaneo, and the Museu Oscar Niemeyer staged an exhibition of his work last year in Curitiba. The cover of the exhibition catalogue was a detail of his Mesa Não Me Toque (“Do Not Touch Me”), a glass coffee table with the most extraordinary wooden base consisting of a polished globe covered with immense, menacing, mace-like spikes. It’s a statement piece in more ways than one. Motta created it when he was invited by IBAMA (the Brazilian Department of Natural Resources) to create a piece for a show they were curating. They provided the wood, which Motta discovered was not certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. “I was furious,” he says. “So I created a piece that no one could touch to make a point.” While the Mesa Não Me Toque is an absolute one-off, it’s a testament to Motta’s genius that many potential customers have enquired about orders. This particular school of Brazilian design is absolutely about integrity as much as beauty.