These Unconventional Brazilian Designers are Making Some of the World’s Most Inventive Furniture
One day in 2002, brothers and design partners Humberto and Fernando Campana came across a São Paulo street vendor selling stuffed animals, bought a bunch and promptly stitched them into a chair with stainless-steel legs. Soft, joyfully floppy and slightly surreal, the chair has spawned numerous editions and has become one of contemporary design’s most recognizable objects, with fans ranging from Kylie Jenner to the contemporary artist KAWS. But more than launching Estudio Campana to fame, their boundary-breaking audacity has paved the way for a new generation of Brazilian designers, giving them a global spotlight the country hasn’t enjoyed since midcentury furniture makers such as Joaquim Tenreiro and Lina Bo Bardi were on the scene.
This younger breed of artisans share their predecessors’ affinity for modernism and devotion to materials, but those woods are not the locally sourced examples that were the old guard’s calling card. Jacaranda, a dark rosewood that was a favorite of the midcentury designers, has been logged almost to the point of extinction, and the exportation of it is now highly restricted. Even so, Brazil’s deforestation of the Amazon is at a 12-year high. “The situation is really terrible,” says Virgilio Viana, the director general of the Amazonas Sustainability Foundation and one of the country’s leading experts on environmental preservation. “We’re coming very close to a tipping point, a point of no return beyond which the forest collapses.”
The 21st-century Brazilians featured here have responded by experimenting with everything from glass and rope to salvaged wood — in one case, from a famous forebear’s studio. Rather than a signature material, their constant is invention. In a fast-growing nation where independent creators still drive the design conversation, that approach is producing some of the most idiosyncratic and compelling furniture in the world.
Noemi Saga describes her childhood as one of parallel worlds. “I was born in Paraná, in southern Brazil,” she says. “My grandfather was a knight of the Imperial Guard in Japan. He played the shamisen, a three-string instrument whose sound conveys a lot of emotion, while my grandmother danced in a traditional Japanese dress. I remember him playing and the tears running, maybe remembering his life in Japan.” Saga credits these and other disparate experiences — going to Brazilian schools where Catholicism was the norm while practicing Buddhism with her family at home, for example — as the sparks that lit her imagination and inspired her to create.
She opened her atelier in 2013. After years of working on the design side of brand development, she wanted to design her own objects. The idea was simple: to create multifunctional pieces that are adaptable to diverse lifestyles. The Hermit lamp, for instance, is a small light you can set on your desk or nightstand, hang from a hook on the wall or carry around like an old oil lantern. You can climb up the Girafa hanger, as you would a small ladder, or throw your coat on it. Other pieces derive their power from unusual materials. To create the Nuno pendant light, Saga’s in-house architect, Fernando Ikeda, spent years studying yakisugi, a traditional Japanese technique that burns wood in order to preserve it, and adapted it to work on pine, rather than the traditional cedar. And that pine comes from southern Brazil — not the Amazon — and is sourced from responsibly managed land. Those familiar with yakisugi will immediately recognize it as such, while others may simply marvel at the blackened wood’s cracks and ridges.
“I’m excited by the multiplicity that exists in my country in many ways,” she says, referring to the resources available. “There’s a huge variety that naturally inspire and result in identity-laden and very fresh products. We have the fibers from the palm trees, ornamental rocks from the Bahia, Espírito Santos and Ceará regions, and soapstone from the Minas Gerais region.” Committed to “respect[ing] the raw material,” Saga notes that no two of her pieces are identical. “We do not consider this a difficulty, because raw materials manifest themselves in different ways,” she says. “And such ‘imperfections’ are welcome.”
Before she found glassblowing, Jacqueline Terpins wanted to be an artist. While studying visual communication in college, she took an independent course with Ivan Serpa, a Brazilian painter known for his works of geometric abstraction. Serpa put on a short film about glass workers in Poland, and Terpins was hooked. “I got so moved by it,” she says. “It looked like lava from a volcano. I mean, it’s a medium that’s absolutely organic, that moves with high temperatures.” She started investigating how she could learn, but it wasn’t easy. There were no vocational schools in Brazil that taught the craft. The only place to pick it up was at a glass factory, and in the ’70s, women weren’t welcome on the pro-duction floor and were relegated to polishing and etching. So Terpins proposed a trade. Her husband had connections to the Corinthians, one of Brazil’s soccer clubs, and she gave the workers signed T-shirts in exchange for informal training. She later studied the craft more formally in the US.
Glassblowing has informed her designs ever since, first in a practice she kept largely private and, since 2001, in her commercial studio. Now Terpins is best known for her glass objects. One of her techniques creates small and large “bubbles” within the glass, giving each piece the look of solid ice. It’s a sort of material paradox: On one hand, the glass has to be fired to over 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, but once it’s complete, you’d think it frozen.
Glass is not the only thing that Terpins melts and molds. She has also heated metal and Corian, an engineered material popular for countertops, in order to make them malleable. One of her wall objects, for example, is a metal panel that eschews the material’s often rigid appearance in favor of a more fluid form. Dubbed Epicentro, its center rises to a point, like the splash a drop of water makes when it falls into a lake or pond. Terpins achieves the effect by heating the metal, then carefully casting it like a sculpture. “I admire mediums that have this quality of transforming themselves,” she says.
For Lattoog, design is simple math. What does one Panton chair by Verner Panton plus one Willow chair by Charles Rennie Mackintosh equal? The Pantosh chair, a piece that merges the curved silhouette of the former with the straight, rigid lines of the latter. The twisty wooden seat is from Lattoog’s Fusions series, hybrids that combine two disparate masterworks — in both name and design — to create new dialogues. The Temes blends Charles and Ray Eames’s La Chaise lounge chair with Joaquim Tenreiro’s Curva seat; Netoia melds pieces by Harry Bertoia and George Nelson. “We wanted to design pieces that have a story behind them, a certain narrative,” says cofounder and principal Leonardo Lattavo. “We didn’t just want them to be comfortable or pretty.” Even “Lattoog” is a portmanteau, a mashup of the names of its founders and principals: Lattavo, an architect, and Pedro Moog, a designer.
Friends for many years, the two would build furniture together for fun before deciding to make a business out of it in 2004. Although they now operate on a much larger scale, that idea of making design on their own terms and for their own enjoyment remains integral to their practice. “When we started, we were thinking about whether we were going to specialize in one type of material,” says Lattavo. “In Brazil, it’s very common for designers to specialize in woodworking, for example. We didn’t want that.”
Their oeuvre runs the gamut from an upholstered, knot-shaped sofa to a series of geometric glass side tables. But they recognize that many collectors still equate Brazilian design with jacaranda and the like. When they first started showing abroad, Lattavo recalls, “we realized that the pieces that have more wood and more natural fibers perform better. The world looks at Brazil and relates it to nature.” The team has responded with pieces such as the tactile Vidigal chair, with a backside resembling a thatched roof. Covered in handwoven natural fiber rush, an indigenous water plant that’s considered a weed in some locales, the piece didn’t sacrifice a drop of style on its way to winning the Planeta Casa sustainability award in São Paulo.
Like many great ideas — and some dubious ones, too — MoBu Atelier’s origins can be traced back to a weekly poker game. Founders Gabriel Bueno and Gustavo Moreau ran in the same larger group of friends and so saw each other there every Tuesday night. One thing led to another, and soon Bueno, who had just earned a master’s in interior design from London’s Royal College of Art was offering to build a woodworking studio for Moreau, a former chef. The two shared the workshop (and for a time were joined by a third partner, Fabio Bueno Santos). It was slow going at first. “We had customers, we were selling, but we were selling one table to one guy, two stools to another person,” says Bueno. “We weren’t doing anything different.”
They went back to the drawing board. Instead of following what other artisans were doing, this time they drew from their own experiences — in particular, Moreau’s background in gastronomy. “We decided to merge cooking and design,” says Bueno. “We thought of one of those Italian tables that you serve polenta on with the sausage, and everyone shares it, and they eat without any plates.” Soon, the Mesa+ table was born. The piece has a small, concave circle in the middle designed to hold a pool of olive oil for dipping bread. The idea was to eliminate the noise of plates and flatware, creating greater intimacy among the people breaking bread together. Plus, after serving, you could spread the oil on the rest of the table, helping to maintain the quality of the wood. The partners considered Mesa+ more of a conceptual or conversation piece than a purely commercial one, and it helped focus their practice.
Bueno and Moreau, who, again, place a strong emphasis on ethically sourced materials, designed their Maritime bench, inspired by a small Brazilian raft called a jangada, so that it’s held together entirely by ropes — no glue or screws — using a Danish weaving technique. The goal, Bueno explains, was to create an object “that would get its tension from itself.” But it’s also a prime example of how they continually tweak and perfect their work. The version they’re selling now is the fifth iteration, and they’re not making any promises that it’s the last. Says Bueno, “The development of a piece lives eternally.”
ZANINI DE ZANINE
Some contemporary artisans attempt to swerve from Brazil’s rich design history. For others, that legacy is impossible to ignore. Such is the case for Zanini de Zanine. The son of José Zanine Caldas, among Brazil’s most revered midcentury designers, Zanine is continuing the family tradition as one of the country’s most lauded talents, having won the Designer of the Year award at Maison&Objet Americas in 2015.
Unlike many of his peers, Zanine Caldas was always very invested in environmental issues. He even dubbed some of his later pieces “outcry furniture,” claiming they were a form of silent protest against the destruction of the rainforest. He passed down this tradition of using only reclaimed wood to his son. “Since a very young age, I learned with my father that the respect with the wood is the most important part of a project,” says Zanine. “This factor is always present, in one way or another, in the pieces that we produce.”
Zanine operates two separate design practices. The first, his atelier, produces limited-edition pieces that look like a direct evolution of his father’s work. Some even use reclaimed wood from Zanine Caldas’s old studio. The rest are made of locally sourced timber, most salvaged from old farms and demolished houses. Thanks to their modernist DNA, they’ve performed very well internationally, having hit the auction block in New York, Chicago and elsewhere. Design gallery R & Company is planning a solo show of his unique works in Manhattan, though the date is
in flux because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s Studio Zanini. Here, Zanine and his team make pieces for big brands, creating design concepts that are then mass-produced at factories abroad. His Flora lamp, for instance, takes inspiration from Monstera deliciosa, a tropical plant native to Central America, with a sphere of dozens of metal “petals.” The fixture is produced by Slamp at the brand’s manufacture in Italy. For Zanine, Flora’s European construction does not overshadow its genesis in Brazil. “The foremost point I learned with my father was to give importance to our country’s culture,” Zanine says, “so that everything will be created with a direct relationship to our roots.”