Long live Brazil! Discover the icons of its modern furniture
When it comes to choosing a good seat from which to enjoy the Rio Carnivals (unfortunately canceled for the second year in a row due to the COVID-19 pandemic), few can match the Mole chair and its plush leather cushions, adjustable leather straps and lustrous jacaranda wood frame that make it synonymous with comfort. In his new book, Brazil Modern: The Rediscovery of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Furniture (Monacelli Press), Aric Chen argues that both this armchair and its mid-century companions, some of which we highlight below, deserve a prominent place - in addition to the samba, Copacabana or Amazonia - as icons of the country.
In the introduction to Aric Chen's book, Zesty Meyers, co-founder of the New York design gallery R&Co., explains why Brazilian furniture pieces are unique. He asserts that one of the main influences they received was immigration and the resulting combination of European furniture-making techniques with indigenous and African influences.
Leve Chair, 1942
Aric Chen, design critic and curator of architecture and design at Hong Kong's M+ museum, includes in his book brief biographies of the most important Brazilian furniture designers of the mid-20th century.
One of them, Joaquim Tenreiro (1906-1992), learned the art of carpentry from his father in Portugal and subsequently moved to Rio in 1928. At first, he worked for studios specializing in traditional European-style luxury home furnishings, such as those seen in Chippendale and Louis XVI homes. Then, convinced that these ornate style pieces were out of place in his adopted tropical country, he began to experiment with simpler forms.
In 1942, Joaquim Tenreiro's work caught the attention of Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who decided to commission him to furnish a house he was building. According to Aric, these pieces were heavily influenced by Italian, Scandinavian, and Bauhaus influences. That same year Joaquim Tenreiro created his most innovative design: the Leve chair. This piece stands out for its upholstered cushions floating on an elegant frame made of ivory wood, imbuia (similar to walnut) or jacaranda, and embodies Joaquim Tenreiro's ideal of modern Brazilian furniture: "They must be light in form. A lightness that has nothing to do with their weight, but with the elegance and functionality of the spaces".
Três Pés (three-legged) chair, 1947
"The history of design in Brazil has its origins in Brazilian wood," Aric
argues. At first, Portuguese colonizers were particularly interested in the species Caesalpinia echinata, which they called pau brasil, due to the bright red dye it generated ("pau" means "stick" in Portuguese, and "brasil" supposedly comes from "brasa"). Later, it became a highly prized wood for its strength and flexibility, especially in the manufacture of violin bows.
The Três Pés chair showcases what Aric describes as Tenreiro's unparalleled skill in cabinetmaking with brightly colored, fine-grained Brazilian woods. In this version, five types of hardwood shape the fluted back and seat, which rest on three slanted legs. According to an article published in Cultured magazine, these chairs were exceptional pieces for Joaquim, who always considered them an original design and reserved them for those who gave him important commissions.
Bola chair, 1951
Another hallmark of Brazilian design is its relaxed attitude. Aric notes, for example, that Joaquim reduced the height of tables to make them more comfortable. Architect and designer Lina Bo Bardi (1914-1992) soon made her star appearance with the Bola chair: a tightly stretched piece of leather tied to an iron frame topped by two brass orbs. She created it expressly for Casa de Vidro, a São Paulo residence she designed for herself and her husband, art critic Pietro Maria Bardi.
The couple had moved to Brazil from war-torn Italy, where Lina had worked with Gio Ponti, in 1946. "I felt I had landed in an incredible country where everything seemed possible," she recalled of her arrival in Brazil. "I was happy, and Rio was not in ruins."
A year later, Pietro Maria Bardi became a co-founder of the São Paulo Museum of Art, which he would direct for the next five decades and whose glass and concrete building Bo Bardi designed.
The Bowl chair, 1951
In both her architecture and furniture pieces, Lina Bo Bardi always sought the essential, not only through her passion for native customs but also through the importance she attached to the person in architecture. "Until man enters a building, climbs the stairs, and takes possession of the space in a 'human adventure' that unfolds as time progresses, architecture does not exist," she once clarified.
The revolutionary Bowl chair, his best-known piece, encourages interaction. Its half-sphere-shaped upholstered seat fits into a steel ring from which its four legs protrude so that it can be reclined at the occupant's will (and even removed). At the time, Bo Bardi designed only two versions: one in black leather that appeared on the cover of Interiors magazine in 1953 and another in transparent plastic.
Lina was not widely recognized throughout her life-her first major exhibition did not occur until 1989. However, in recent years, the woman whom British critic Rowan Moore considers 'the most underrated female architect of the modern era' has been featured in several museums and art galleries in North America and Europe. In addition, in 2014, the exhibition was held on the occasion of the centenary of Lina's birth, Arper lanzó su Serie Limitada de 500 Sillas Bowl of Lina's birth, with some in black leather and others upholstered in seven colors. The proceeds went to the Instituto Lina Bo e P.M. Bardi Institute in São Paulo.
The Mocho stools, 1954
Aric Chen points out that the first generation of Brazilian modernist designers made furniture artisanal. However, that changed with Sérgio Rodrigues (1927-2014), whom he describes as "probably the most Brazilian designer of all."
Born in Rio into an artistic family, Sérgio Rodrigues was introduced to furniture making by his great-uncle and later studied architecture at university. According to Aric, in Brazil at the time, interior design was a budding field compared to architecture, and it became Sérgio's focus of study. His first piece was the Mocho stool, acute reproduction of a traditional chair used for milking. Its hole and bulbous shape became his hallmark.
In 1955, Sérgio founded the Oca furniture company, whose name alludes to an indigenous thatched dwelling, reflecting his designs and the relaxed Brazilian lifestyle. At its peak, Oca had a vast factory, stores throughout the country, and a branch in Carmel, California.