Alvorada: How Social Change Is Shaping Brazilian Design and Creating Brazil’s Own Design Model
The model I see for design in Brazil, a country with a meager productive sector and a rampantly voracious population: one of pragmatic, flexible enterprises of meaningful manufacture.
Newfound political stability, economic growth, and increasing international clout are establishing Brazil as a twenty-first century superpower. This young, continental nation is also seeing unprecedented social mobility: roughly half of Brazil’s population, over 90 million people, are now part of its emergent “C Class,” or lower middle-class. This dynamic population is radically changing how Brazilians relate to consumption, entertainment, media, and politics. Alvorada, Portuguese for “dawn,” is a project that looks at how product and furniture design, or the thinking and making of consumer goods, reflect a country in transition. Addressing momentous issues such as class, national identity, manufacturing scale, and human resources, this thesis reflects upon the relation between the designer as a critical subject and Brazilian society as a realm of possibility and potentiality.
Casa Cláudia, Brazil’s oldest shelter magazine, is known for its uncomplicated, accessible approach to decoration and interior design. Instead of just featuring the homes of the rich and famous, its editors have, for the past 30 years, been actively educating readers on how to make the most of their homes, giving advice on trends, materials and products. Pedro Ariel, Casa Cláudia’s current editor-in-chief, was interested in knowing more about my research and invited me for lunch with fellow editors Lucia Gurovitz and Regina Galvão. At the table, we mostly talked about the “C class”—Brazil’s lower-middle class—and how also in design media its unprecedented ascension is dramatically changing things. Traditionally more of an A/B than C-oriented publication, Casa Cláudia is reacting to those changes and answering to an increased interest from its readers in local designers, manufacturers, materials and decorative references. This is something new. The A and B classes have customarily looked towards the northern hemisphere for inspiration, trends and taste, ignoring or despising local, regional or national references. So much so, I was told the Brazilian elite wanted to be Portuguese in the 18th century, French in the 19th century and American in the 20th century. In our century however, Made in Brazil products, brands, materials and symbols are being purchased and valued in a different way by a far larger segment of the Brazilian population. With more money to spend and a greater appreciation of their own culture, the people who make up Brazil’s lower-middle class are rising socially and economically at a time when, as Pedro, Lucia and Regina emphasize, they are proud of being, and buying, Brazilian. This is an historic opportunity for the design and large-scale manufacture of affordable products and furniture—the stuff more and more Brazilians want to find in the pages of Casa Cláudia. If there is someone who’s tapping into what people want to find in the media, but also in their homes, that person is Marcelo Rosenbaum. I meet him for the second time on a warm spring day in São Paulo, three months after we were introduced in Bento Gonçalves on a cold, August day, where we were attending the biannual furniture trade fair Casa Brasil Design. As we walked around the drafty fairgrounds after his talk, he kept on being stopped, talked to and asked to take photos. Not just by the people who heard him speak, but by everyone. He told me this doesn’t happen only in design-related events: people recognize and approach him pretty much anywhere he goes. Unlike Brazil’s most celebrated design exports, the Campana brothers, this architect and designer may be virtually unknown outside the country. But here, he’s really famous. His fame doesn’t come from the insanely colorful, visually busy stores, showrooms and São Paulo Fashion Week lounges his studio has been creating for brands such as Melissa shoes or Nova Schin beer. Nor from the products developed for Brazilian manufacturers such as Oxford (tableware), Tok&Stok (furniture), Ornare (an award-winning shelving system) or his own brand, Rosenbaum de Coração (Rosenbaum of the Heart). It’s also not from the sophisticated restaurant and residence interiors featured profusely in shelter magazines. Nor from the decorating tips he delivers on the radio from Monday to Friday. What he’s really famous for is his monthly TV show. “Lar Doce Lar” (Home Sweet Home) is a segment of the massively popular, Saturday afternoon show “Caldeirão do Huck” (Huck’s Cauldron) on TV Globo. The show itself is a kind of a local “Extreme Makeover” in which Rosenbaum and host Luciano Huck go around the country redecorating—and often rebuilding—poor families’ homes. Brazil being Brazil, this is a lively, emotional affair. But Rosenbaum manages to go beyond the touchy-feely part of design-on-TV. He doesn’t just spruce up people’s houses; he makes a real difference in their communities. As I sit down in his airy, eclectic living-room-style office in São Paulo, he tells me how excited he is with the house “Lar Doce Lar” completed in Rio last October. His studio turned a hairdresser/manicurist’s shack in the Santa Marta favela into a colorful, two-storey live-and-work house and hairdressing salon. What he was most excited about however was the set of steel-frame house typologies his studio and the show donated to the city’s Planning and Building Department. With this very public gesture, Rosenbaum contributed to improving life in favelas such as Santa Marta, already made better when in 2008 the shantytown was cleaned up from drug trafficking. Apart from his TV show and client-based work, Rosenbaum has also been taking part in designer-meets-community craft initiatives and is increasingly involved with students and NGOs. Such projects include temporary shelters in the southern region of Blumenau after massive floods devastated it in 2008, or the modular library system being developed with a charity to be implemented across the country. Rosenbaum is adamant in telling me these projects are not seen as charitable work inside the studio—they have the same priority and get the same commitment as a forthcoming art gallery or a two-bedroom luxury hotel for the chic “design furniture” store MiCasa, which just launched his furniture line inspired by the Caruaru market in the state of Pernambuco. Both Rosenbaum’s affable, burly, tattooed persona and his sensual, maximalist vocabulary speak to a broad spectrum of Brazilians—from ladies who lunch and shop on Óscar Freire, São Paulo’s most expensive street, to the masses who watch him on TV. In eclectic, vibrant mash-ups of color, texture and materials, he takes the glamour of fashion to the masses and brings the inventiveness and complexity of Brazilian popular culture to the elite. Lowbrow regional folk art and craft elements are thrown together with highbrow design references in such disparate things as a 6-reais vinyl tablecloth, a Vogue magazine editorial or celebrity chef Alex Attala’s Dalva e Dito restaurant. One may say his use of excessive, populist ornament and cheap luxury renders him a mere decorator or a designer of surfaces destined to be consumed on TV screens and magazine pages. But by addressing the in many cases far-from-superficial needs and wants of people from both sides of a still delicate and very unequal social equation—and by actually designing stuff ordinary people can afford—Rosenbaum is contributing to the design of Brazil’s own social changes. His success across society owes a lot to his media presence, but it’s the unique sensibility for his country’s social zeitgeist that makes him the most influential designer in Brazil today. His work is not simple, subtractive or exclusive—attributes usually associated, including in Brazil, with the design establishment. Instead it’s multilayered, additive and inclusive—mirroring the baroque, miscegenated nature of his countrymen and their surroundings. (…) Portraying any kind of national identity in design always bears the danger, as Italian designer and writer Marco Romanelli warned in his June 1991, Domus magazine article “Brazilian Design: Travel Notes,” of “reducing a country to any defining formula.” He pointed out that designers and critics should “pick up the difference inherent in their socio-natural contexts, so as to build differentiated opportunities for formal expression,” adding that “There should be no trace of a declamatory, assertive effort, no nationalistic urge in the project, but only the steadfast and serene assumption of difference.” It was precisely these “assumptions of difference” that I was looking to find in my exploration of Brazilian design. Visiting Brazil almost twenty years after Romanelli, I expected to experience a different country from the one he saw. By 1991, and after “having virtually skipped twenty years of figurative updating.” says Romanelli, Brazil (i.e. Brazilian designers) found itself “in the ambiguous circumstance” of having to choose between embracing post-modernity or “taking up its last great tradition of the 1950s”—of what he considered the “Intensely Brazilian voices in the world” such as Óscar Niemeyer, Lina Bo Bardi and Roberto Burle Marx. He mentions how “in Brazil there was no real tradition of autonomous and autochthonous craftsmanship (craftsmen were of direct European provenance and hence laden with a dense store of memories), but only an indigenous, extraordinarily poetic pre-artisan heritage.” Because of it, he says, the “Bauhausian and Ulmian aesthetic application experiences” of the past were “bound to fail.” All that still rings true. Fernando and Humberto Campana, whose work Romanelli was the first to publish in an international magazine, were then part of the small, but vivacious design scene in São Paulo of the late 1980s and 1990s. The anti-functionalist nature of their earlier work manifested the brothers’ close relationship to contemporary art, but also their adoption of concurrent international design trends. But it was really by claiming their own “steadfast and serene assumption of difference,” through an idiosyncratic interpretation of their urban context, cultural references and material curiosities that the Campanas managed to craft a successful international design career, becoming the first Brazilian citizens of the so-called “design world.” One of the overall intentions of my research was to find what stands, in contemporary Brazilian product and furniture design, between the Campanas and the Havaianas (Brazil’s world-famous flip-flop brand). I was never concerned, however, with looking for, as perhaps Romanelli was, designers whose work would be successful or meaningful outside of Brazil. I started precisely from the opposite premise; given Brazil’s current economic and social framework, I wanted to know who was responding to the transformations within. I believe I found a few unique voices, most of which have been expressed here. As for a Brazil’s design model, I believe many of the interrogations I found point to a particular assumption of difference, to use Romanelli’s term, without having to claim a particular formula. From the professionals I talked to and the propositions I selected for this thesis, I did get a sense that right now—as this is no thesis about the future—to practice product and furniture design in Brazil is to engage in an exercise in tactics. As most designers either bypass or can’t access the country’s formal, established industry, they are finding ways of expressing their values and their beliefs by founding and managing their own manufacturing operations. Referring to the state of design in the United Kingdom, the American sociologist Richard Sennett recently said: “The world of craftsmen is especially a world of small businesses in origins: even if it eventually gets big—it all starts small. We are starving the productive sector. I see craftsmanship in small firms and small places as the real motor of economic development.” So perhaps that is the model I see for design in Brazil, a country with a meager productive sector and a rampantly voracious population: one of pragmatic, flexible enterprises of meaningful manufacture.