Christian Larsen looks back at the icons that defined Brazil in the midcentury


Brazilian Modern

By Christian Larsen

When Carioca designer Sergio Rodrigues  (1927–2014) introduced his Mole Armchair (later known as the Sheriff Chair) in 1957, it sat in the window of his interior design shop in Rio de Janeiro for months without much notice. Over the course of the next few years, however, examples circulated throughout Europe and received increasing media acclaim—culminating in first prize at the 1961 International Furniture Competition in Cantú, Italy. Danish architect Arne Jacobsen declared the masterful design to be "absolutely representative of its region of origin.” European approval echoed back to Brazil, and the chair became a national icon.

How could a piece of furniture such as the Mole become a symbol of Brazilian identity? And why was the postwar period especially favorable to the construction of Brazil’s modern image through design? In much of the furniture produced in Brazil at the time—the Mole in particular—the materials and forms were rooted in the country’s landscape and history, which made Brazilian modernist design stand out from other versions of modernism developed in the United States or Europe. The Mole’s turned, polished jacaranda wood structure embraces a low-set, thick sturdiness, deviating from the much more common midcentury taste for lighter, more attenuated European forms. The native jacaranda evokes the colonial furniture of sugar plantations of the Bahia region, alongside the leather's nod to the gaucho culture of the South. The strap supports and suspension details recall the hammocks of the Northeast, while the inviting, ample cushions suggest the laid-back mellowness—“mole” means soft and easy in Portuguese—of the Carioca lifestyle. In its overall attitude, the chair anticipates the international trend toward domestic informality and relaxed comfort that became a hallmark of design in the 1960s.

Design was one cultural export among many that distinguished Brazil as a rising, modern nation in the postwar era. In the midst of an economic boom in the 1950s, the country experienced rapid industrialization, including its first steelworks. By the 1960s, bossa nova was playing on international radios, and later, Cinema Novo invaded the movie theaters. The world became fascinated by the design and construction of Brasília, the new national capital built from scratch in accordance with the most contemporary modernist theories and aesthetics. Not coincidentally, Rodrigues furnished many of Brasília’s interiors, as well as the Brazilian embassy in Rome. It was Brazil’s unique take on modernism, especially in the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer and his compatriots, that signaled a new national confidence and style, often promoted by savvy marketing and educational strategies, publications, films, and touring exhibitions supported by Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Much of Brazil’s modernist design emerged expressly with the intent to harmonize with emerging directions in architecture.

Two designers—Joaquim Tenreiro and José Zanine Caldas —also pioneered modernist furniture in Brazil, imbuing it with the attributes that we continue to recognize today, namely a progressive reinterpretation of vernacular and colonial forms expressed through expert craftsmanship and fine woods. The furniture of Portuguese immigrant Tenreiro (1906–92) exemplified these attributes in small, workshop-based production. His expert understanding of the inherent qualities of Brazilian woods is showcased in his Cadeira de Três Pés. This virtuoso piece—first displayed in his store in Copacabana in 1947—achieves a visually light, playfully optical effect through the lamination of five different types of wood: jacaranda, imbuia, roxinho, pau marfim, and cobréuva.

Zanine (1919–2001), in contrast, created many pieces for mass production in addition to handcrafted works. Based on his research into laminated wood, which he developed into thin, pressed plates, Zanine founded the Movéis Z furniture company in São José dos Campos in 1948. His designs reduced the need for hand finishing, replaced sewn upholstery with fastened or tacked canvas, and enjoyed commercial success at more moderate prices.

In later years, he turned his creative skills toward the wasted and burnt lumber of the rain forests, reclaiming roots and discarded leftovers for his furniture. With his mission to encourage sustainable use of native wood, Zanine founded DAM (Foundation Center for the Development of Applications of Brazilian Woods) in 1983. His furniture showcases the Brazilian taste for generous proportions while maintaining a sensual relation to the body.

A preoccupation with the question of identity has been ever present in Latin American artistic and cultural forms Sketch of Hauner Sofa by Sergio Rodrigues Photo © Instituto Sergio Rodrigues Sketches of Bowl Chair by Lina Bo Bardi, ca. 1951 Photo © Arper Craft-based production, modernist aesthetics, and social responsibility were core principles at Unilabor , a Christian workers’ cooperative producing modernist furniture between 1954 and 1967. Founded by Dominican friar João Batista Pereira dos Santos, artist-designer Geraldo de Barros , engineer Justino Cardoso, and ironworker Antônio Thereza, Unilabor sought the creative, educational, and spiritual development of its workers through various programs, including courses, lectures, film screenings, and a theater group. Unilabor's furniture design was largely the work of de Barros (1923–98), whose artistic training in Paris and Bauhaus-inspired experiments in abstract photography informed his design aesthetic. His Estante Bookshelf draws on the minimalism of the German Ulm school and the geometric rigor of Concrete Art. Yet the utopian aspirations and social mission of Unilabor are entirely Brazilian.

Italian immigrant Lina Bo Bardi  (1914–92) embodies European influence transformed into something entirely new in Brazil. Bardi brought her experience working at publications such as Domus to her life in São Paulo, where she and her husband, art critic Pietro Maria Bardi, launched the arts and architecture magazine Habitat (1951–54). The Bardis attempted to found the kind of experimental design institutions in Brazil that Europe already enjoyed—the Instituto de Arte Contemporânea (IAC) at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (1951–53), for example. She manufactured furniture for her own architectural commissions through her design workshop, Studio Palma. Her interests increasingly turned toward the Brazilian vernacular and popular arts, leading her on trips throughout the country to study traditional materials and construction methods. Her Bowl Chair—with its minimal metal structure and organic, body-conscious upholstered seat—is a perfect synthesis of the industrial rationalism she imported from Europe and the whimsical and playful attitude she found in Brazil.

A preoccupation with the question of identity has been ever present in Latin American artistic and cultural forms. Like most of its neighbors in the hemisphere, Brazil has had to forge a hybrid identity that grapples with indigenous and African cultures, global immigrants from places as diverse as Japan, Italy, and Syria, as well as the legacy of European colonialism that persisted well into the 20th century. But in the decades following World War II, the country produced a series of design masters who assimilated this heterogeneity and brought forth a unique design language—harnessing natural and cultural resources, looking to the past as well as the future, and maintaining a tradition of craftsmanship with a deep appreciation for the particular qualities of native materials.

  • Text by

    • Christian Larsen

      Christian Larsen

      Christian Larsen is Associate Curator of Modern Decorative Arts & Design at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Currently a PhD candidate at Bard Graduate Center, he’s also held curating positions at the Wolfsonian Museum and MoMA. Past exhibitions have covered Jean Prouvé, Helvetica, Latin American modernism, Ettore Sottsass, and more. He has published and lectured widely.

More to Love