Sao Paolo: Design Melting Pot

Sao Paolo: Design Melting Pot

Brazil’s largest city is home to an array of cultures and influences that are helping create a new class of handcrafted work.

São Paulo is a city of 20 million people and a microcosm of Brazil, a country larger than the continental United States. Brazil has the largest population of Italians outside of Italy, the largest population of Japanese outside of Japan, the largest population of Africans outside of Africa. It’s big, bustling, confusing, and very, very alive.

Art and craft influences abound, but homegrown makers and designers face a major obstacle: Most Brazilians see products from other countries as superior. Bauhaus design outranks traditional architecture; a dining room with a slick, glass table from Miami is better than a rough-hewn dining table from the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, set with ceramics from RosaPinc studio. Handmade pieces are the options of the poor. Imported design is for the upper class, and the middle class, if they’re lucky. From the hub of São Paulo, many are working to change that – marrying design with craft, natural resources with natural talent, producing, coordinating, and curating homespun products that all Brazilians can embrace.

For instance, in the mid-2000s, FAF Brazil, an organic coffee plantation in the countryside near São Paulo, commissioned designer Renato Imbroisi to develop embroidery with the female plantation staff. Imbroisi tapped specialists to guide the aspiring makers, who were accustomed to handwork. A historian taught them about coffee’s role in Brazil. A botanist explained organic techniques used on the farm. Textile artists taught them embroidery techniques and natural dyeing processes. Today, the group has expanded into Café Igarai, a collective of makers who work at plantations around the area. Their handmade products provide substantial income to many families, and the partnership helps connect these rural makers with audiences in urban areas, both in Brazil and abroad.

Increasingly, Brazilian craft also thrives in the city, most notably in the boutiques and galleries of São Paulo’s Vila Madalena neighborhood. The leafy, quirky area became a favorite of artists in the 1980s, but as rents have risen, bohemian art studios have given way to high-end homes, trendy restaurants and, of course, great shopping and art. There’s a Saturday arts and crafts fair on Benedito Calixto Square, and another on Sunday, in República Square in the city center, though there are those who say the quality of the city’s outdoor markets has declined in recent years. Many veteran artisans who used to show at the weekly fairs now have storefronts of their own, such as Rebeca Guerberoff, whose colorful jewelry is as vibrant as the area. Brothers Humberto and Fernando Campana run a studio closer to the city center; their furniture, made from reclaimed materials, has found success abroad and, more and more, at home in Brazil.

Contemporary art and craft galleries in the neighborhood worth visiting include Galeria Vermelho, Galeria Millan, and Galeria Fortes Vilaça, all well regarded for their collections, which integrate sculpture and installations with paintings, prints, and photography. Galeria Brasiliana in the nearby Perdizes neighborhood offers a collection of folk art and work by indigenous people.

Another must-see, especially for textile and fiber art, is A Casa Museu do Objeto Brasileiro, in the Pinheiros neighborhood, adjacent to the Vila Madalena neighborhood. A Casa is part foundation, part museum, exhibiting both established and emerging talents in the artisan world. Just a few blocks south, Museu da Casa Brasileira, run by the São Paulo Cultural Office, shows off Brazilian-born design and architecture.

São Paulo has long been a hub for art and craft events. The Luxo Para Todos (“luxury for all”) show brings together artists, architects, and designers each summer to exhibit handmade or small-batch pieces created from humble materials. The event’s organizer, designer and businesswoman Marisa Ota, hopes to broaden the definition of luxury by placing value on the creativity of an idea or its execution – even when made with inexpensive items. For more handmade products and contemporary design, wholesale buyers from around the globe attend the Paralela Gift Fair and the Craft & Design fair, both held annually in the city.

The city also hosts the second-oldest art biennial in the world. (The Venice Biennale is the oldest.) The most recent exhibition, which continues through December 9 at the Ciccillo Matarazzo pavilion in Ibirapuera Park, includes sculpture, installations, and 2D works from many Brazilian artists, as well as more than 100 international artists, from Angola to Venezuela. The park is also the site of São Paulo Fashion Week, the largest fashion event in South America, which takes place each January and June. Fashion Week has a strong connection to craft and traditional makers through designers such as Walter Rodrigues and Ronaldo Fraga.

In the mid-2000s, Rodrigues was paired with eight lace makers from rural fishing families by arts consultant Silvia Sasaoka and curator Susana Avellar. He developed four lace pieces for his summer collection debut at São Paulo Fashion Week in 2004. Then he designed a lace dress for First Lady Marisa Letícia Lula da Silva to wear at her husband’s second inauguration in 2007. Fraga, one of Brazil’s best-known fashion designers, gleans inspiration from traditional Brazilian ceramic patterns, embroidery, and lace, and contracts with rural artisans from across Brazil to create many of his designs.

Sasaoka runs Tudo a Mão, a program that pairs Brazilian artisans with designers. One of her most successful endeavors connected the rural lace makers with students from the Design Academy Eindhoven in The Netherlands. The students designed a variety of fresh, updated jewelry pieces that took full advantage of the lace makers’ intricate skills, and the jewelry hit big on the fashion market, selling thousands of pieces nationally and internationally. The lace makers, known today as the Associaçäo das Rendeiras Bilro Morro da Mariana, number 120 members, and the association has digitally catalogued more than 1,000 bobbin-lace techniques to preserve this craft for generations to come.

Within the Pinheiros neighborhood, two studios exemplify the convergence of Brazilian art and design. At Marcenaria Trancoso, Silvia Mecozzi is the artist and Roberto Maya coordinates both in-house production and out¬sourced pieces from artisans throughout Brazil. At their retail store in São Paulo you’ll find Brazilian textiles designed and silkscreened in-house, wood platters roughed out by wood¬workers in the state of Bahia, then painted and textured at the studio by Maya’s crew, as well as stack-laminated stools and tables created from layer upon layer of plywood by Paulo Alves.

At Estudio Manus, Daniela Scorza and Caio de Medeiros have been inspiring each other throughout 14 years of marriage. Their joint aesthetic is instantly recognizable, and it runs through every project they touch, be it custom display furniture for a jewelry store, a terrarium of flowers at a wedding, or a lamp dressed in linen doll clothes sewn by de Medeiros. Their style is unmistakable: delicate, combining the new with the old, dotted with a touch of humor.

With its booming economy and burgeoning middle class, São Paulo is in prime position to make Brazil a leader in the world craft marketplace. Artists and educators are working together, with support from the Brazilian government, to take the quality of traditional crafts to a new level so that the finished pieces can draw the prices that the craftspeople deserve. In doing so, they are instilling a long-missing sense of pride and value in the handmade products of Brazil.

Martha Hopkins works on books, advertising, and design in Austin, Texas.