When Le Corbusier visited Rio de Janeiro for the first time in 1929, his impression was that Brazil was a fascinating country but rather provincial. Although he gave a few lectures, these were reserved for a privileged, highly educated circle that was able to follow his talks in French. Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer were among these few; they would later come to define “Brazilian Modernism”. Both, Niemeyer and Costa made a stunning entrance with the “Brazilian Pavilion” at New York World’s Fair in 1939, followed in 1943 by the ‘Brazil Builds’ exhibition at the MOMA and later on, with a touring exhibition of the same name in Europe.
Today Oscar Niemeyer is considered one of the most important names in international modern architecture. Niemeyer’s architecture serves as the singular visual reference for Brazilian modernism worldwide, with the most iconic example being his full-scale design of the capital city, Brasilia. Much like his architecture, Niemeyer’s furniture designs were meant to evoke the beauty of Brazil: the exceptional local craftsmanship, the sweeping organic curves imitating the female form and the hills of Rio de Janeiro, and the use of rich native materials like leather and Brazilian hardwoods. Oscar Niemeyer´s “Rio Chaise Lounge” is his most famed furniture design and embodies all that is Brazil.
Joaquim Tenreiro, Sergio Rodrigues, Jorge Zalszupin, Percival Lafer, Jean Gillon and Michel Arnoult are the pioneers of the Brazilian Modernist movement. Using natural resources, tropical hardwoods, cane and understanding the need for comfort and beauty, these architects and designers produced furniture for everyone. Gillon, Lafer and Arnoult were at the forefront of Ready-to-Assemble furniture that was made of solid hardwoods, like Goncalo-Alves (Tiger wood) which resembles Jacaranda (Brazilian rosewood) and utilized leather upholstery. Below I have put together a brief portrait of the most influential Brazilian furniture designers that have contributed to Modernism in Brazil:
Rumanian born Jean Gillon moved to Brazil in 1956. 2 years later, in 1958, Gillon founded “Italma Wood Art” and began to solidify his reputation as one of the top Brazilian furniture designers. His most famous design is his “Cadeira Jangada” Chair and Ottoman, also called ‘Captain’s Chair’. Gillon did not limit himself to furniture designs; he also worked with textiles producing highly collectible tapestries. Designing primarily in Brazilian rosewood during the mid-century, Jean Gillon could not have anticipated at that time that his materials of choice would become a CITES* listed endangered species. (Brazilian rosewood is now illegal to trade).
*The pre-eminent rosewood appreciated in the western world is best known as “Brazilian rosewood”, but also as “Rio rosewood” or “Bahia rosewood” (now a CITES – listed endangered species). This exotic wood has a strong sweet smell, which persists over the years, explaining the name “rosewood”.
French born Michel Arnoult is recognized as one of the fathers of the Ready-To-Assemble furniture (RTA) and the flat-packaging. He arrived in Brazil in the early 1950’s and made friend with modern architect Oscar Niemeyer and painter Cândido Portinari. At this time, modern architecture and its applications in the field of social housing reach their peak and Arnoult realizes that there is no suitable furniture for the smallest dimensions of these new interiors. He decides to design simple furniture and focuses its researches on the concept of RTA furniture. Arnoult becomes the first businessman of RTA furniture in Brazil and sets up in 1952 his company “Mobilia Cotemporânea” in Curitiba. This company was one of the very first companies in the world to be devoted exclusively to RTA furniture design and manufacture. It was the premises of the current Cash & Carry. One of the best examples of this concept is his armchair “Peg Lev” literally “I take and I carry”.
Percival Lafer took over his father’s furniture company The Lafer Co., founded in 1927. The factory was named “Lafer MP”, the initials MP meaning “Moveis Patenteados”, Portuguese for Patented Furniture. The Lafer Co. has become synonymous with high design, often employing some of Brazil’s most famous designers and architects to create furniture pieces. Percival Lafer dedicates most of his time working on new products.
Graceful lines, strong use of local woods and a combination of impeccable woodworking and classical detailing mark Jorge Zalszupin’s furniture. Polish born Zalzsupin founded the design collective “L’Atelier”, which consisted of architects, engineers and craftsmen. With the birth of the utopic Brasilia during the 1960’s and 1970’s, virtually no public building was left unmarked by the brand’s creations. L’Atelier designs stand as benchmarks of modernism to this day.
Portuguese born furniture designer Joaquim Tenreiro took a different approach by creating furniture that was an exercise in lightness. His furniture designs all made use of the indigenous Brazilian woods that are known for not only their beauty, but also their strength. With the help of his major client, architect Oscar Niemeyer, he was able to experiment on his ideas to create furniture that was “formally light”, a lightness which had nothing to do with weight itself, but with graciousness and the functionality of spaces. His exquisitely crafted pieces evoke a refined coexistence of traditional values and modern aesthetics, strongly bound to the Brazilian cultural milieu. With an unparalleled acuity for form, scale, detailing and craftsmanship he helped steer his generation of designers away from copies of traditional European furniture to a “new look” that embraced Brazilian culture and emerging modern preferences. In spite of his success and his professional recognition, sometime in the late 1960’s Tenreiro decided to close up his shops – retail and manufacturing. The Father of the Brazilian Modernist Design Movement had decided to concentrate on his painting and sculpture – activities in which he had been engaged privately for many decades.
Architect of Italian origin Giuseppe Scapinelli ran a furniture shop in Sao Paolo in the 1950’s, from which he sold his own designs. He remained anonymous for many years until his recent rediscovery and first appearance in the “Brazilian Modern” exhibition at the Oscar Niemeyer Museum in Curitiba. His style is characterized by curvy lines and soft shapes, very much away from the mainstream designs of his fellow retailers.
….to be continued in Part # 2
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