The Language of Brazilian Design: A Q&A With Claudia Moreira Salles

Claudia Moreira Salles at Espasso
(Photo by Eliseu Cavalcante)

“Design is the result of cultural references,” says São Paulo-based designer Claudia Moreira Salles in her newly released eponymous book. Published in May to coincide with the Brazilian designer’s inaugural solo show in the United States, “Claudia Moreira Salles,” with text by New York-based architectural consultant Karen Stein, surveys its namesake’s 30-year-career, which visibly supports that premise. Like those of the Campana Brothers, arguably Brazil’s most renowned designers, or of Zanini de Zanine’s, a rising star, Salles’s creations speak directly to the place in which they were made: They’re created primarily from wood that comes from Brazilian forests, while their fluid curves and individual production evoke a tradition of intuitive handscraftsmanship. Salles’s recent survey at Tribeca’s Espasso gallery also revealed threads of contemporary, playful influences woven throughout, from Etch-a-Sketch-inspired flourishes to accents in concrete.

Salles spoke to ARTINFO on the specific language of Brazilian design and mused on its curious absence of women in the industry.  

Although your career as a designer began 30 years ago, your May exhibition at Espasso was your first-ever solo show in the United States. What do you think accounts for the timing?

I have a previous book, but in the new one, the text is by Karen Stein, so it was American name and an American way of looking at the work. It was important to synchronize the exhibition and the book because a person who sees the exhibition will want to know more. The book focuses on the process of building each piece, which I think is interesting because it’s how things happen: How do you start using a material? Why did you choose the material for this particular project?

It also seems that suddenly there’s been an explosion in the Brazilian design scene. In just the last few months, New York showrooms have been pushing works by Tenreiro, Zanine, Niemeyer, and the Campanas in a way that they hadn’t in the past.

There’s an interest in Brazilian design — not only in Brazilian design, but Brazilian art. I think Brazil is growing and booming. There’s an interest in our Brazilian creation. I think that the Campanas phenomenon really attracted people. Wow, we thought. We are creative and we have our own language. Even if I do something that is different from the Campanas, there are ways of thinking and reacting and producing things in certain conditions that are particular to Brazil. Design is more crafted there, even when the Campanas use teddy bears.

How, in recent years, has Brazilian design evolved?

In my case, and in [the Campana’s] case too, we started producing in the ’80s, when the industry in Brazil was still very precarious. Most of the industries limited themselves to copying designs from Europe and reproducing them here. Our reaction was that we wanted to do something. We wanted to create furniture, and I used wood because the material was abundant. There’s a tradition of woodworking that came long ago to Brazil from Italy and Spain, so I turned my work towards this material and this kind of production.

Now I think that the industry is getting more aware of Brazil, and Brazil is more equipped than it was before. The difference is amazing. We realized that it was important to have designers producing and working. Now I think the industry knows the value of having a signature, a design thinking and a language—something that is really Brazilian.

When did the turnaround begin?

It started in the late 90s. It changed because the whole country changed. A country that is supposed to be developed or wants to be more developed should have an industry. The materials are here. Today we have planted forests, so you not only have the material wood from primary forests, you can also work with eucalyptus, with teak, with everything. Also, the consumer market is growing, so it’s a group of things that made the industry more equipped. 

As many Brazilian designers do, you cite a childhood visit to Italy and designers like Castiglioni and Magistretti as sources of inspiration. What is it that connects the two countries as far as their design approach. 

I think there’s a connection in migration. I’m from Rio. I live in São Paulo, but my grandfather was Italian, so for me the bond is more than just being in the country that was the most expressive in design. I think Italy has a tradition that’s so strong that for everybody who studies art or things related to it, the country is a strong reference. It’s something different from, say, Germany. You have more freedom of creation, so in a way youre less dependent on certain rules and certain disciplines. I don’t say that the Italians don’t have discipline, but they’re more open, and I think that the bond between art and design in Italy was always something very close. When you look at Norway or Denmark, you see a different approach.

At the Espasso show, there was one bench that looked remarkably Scandinavian. The Deslocado’s angular geometry and bright red accent set it apart from the rest.

I used red because it was a one-of-a-kind piece for an exhibition here in São Paulo. I had this log — it was a log that I bought years ago from Indonesia, and I bought it because it was very beautiful, and the better alternative for being sustainable is using something that had a previous life. I decided to have a very graphic approach to the design.

I was also surprised to find that despite the love you’ve expressed for modernist designers and their associations with lightness, you use so much concrete in your work.

It’s a sustainable material. You use sand, you use small stones and water, and you can make different shades. It has a flexibility in it. I used it for a table, for the legs, and it attracted me with its capacity to be molded. It also contrasts with wood, and it gives an interesting outcome. Some pieces are not very heavy because they’re made with ultra-performance concrete.

There’s a bench with a concrete pillow that doesn’t look very comfortable.

It’s just a formal detail. This pillow isn’t supposed to be a comfortable piece. The trick is that sometimes you can have a very heavy material, but depending on the way you use it, you transmit a sense of lightness. It depends on its construction. The entire bench is 200 kilos.

Another one of the stand-out pieces in the show was the Bilhas Table, specifically for the loose magnetic balls rolling around just below its glass surface. How did you come to incorporate them into the design?

That’s a rendition of a table that I did some years ago for a store in São Paulo called Ferma Casa. They represented the Campanas, and they wanted me to do a product for them. The Campanas have a playful way of doing design, so I thought that I could do something that was a mix of my vocabulary and a playful thing. I chose magnets based on the Etch-a-Sketch.

Despite the booming interest in Brazilian design, you’re one of the few Brazilian women on the rise right now. Why is that?

I don’t know. That’s something that is asked quite frequently. You see many women artists. You see many women doing graphic design. In Brazil, there are lots. When I went to University, most of my [female] colleagues did not do industrial design. They started working with graphic design, I think, because there was more work for graphic design than industrial design at the time. If you think on an international context, you have Patricia Urquiola, and you have Hella Jongerius, and some new names, but mostly you have men. It’s worse than chefs.

In your book, you mention the design process requires a lot of reflection and a hands-on approach to production. Do you find that design softwares interfere with the process and modify the outcome?

I think it certainly changes. The first thing that comes to mind is Zaha Hadid. When you see her work, you see the origin. Even if she designs it, it’s really shaped by CAD. I see young people who work with me — they immediately start on the computer. I never do. I love paper and pencil, but I think it’s a generational thing.

When you shorten the design process you described, does it make for more disposable design?

Disposable things are too flashy; you get tired of them not because they wear out. It’s very related to fashion. Sometimes you buy something and you know you’re going to get tired of it, but that’s this phenomenon for design. It’s very rare that you say, “I’m going to buy this because this is going to last my whole life,” but there’s something in between. That’s the goal.

To see highlights of Claudia Moreira Salles’s furniture, click the slideshow