What makes Brazilian mid-century furniture design so Brazilian? Material, maker, and means of production.
Prized for its sensually textured grain, rich color, and sharpness relative to softwoods, Brazil’s native hardwoods like jacaranda, goncalo alves, rosewood, and tulipwood have been heavily farmed and used to make furniture since Brazil’s colonization in the 16th century. Wood comprises the framework for mid-century Brazilian furniture unlike contemporary furniture in North America, which more often employed tubular steel, aluminum, or fiberglass. Brazilian furniture designers also incorporated everyday materials like rope, fabric, and leather in styles inspired by indigenous hammocks and weaving. The resulting forms are relaxed and easy-going, vastly different from the austere and controlled machine aesthetic of North American and European mid-century modern furniture.
Ironically, many of the designers who created the distinctly Brazilian style emigrated from Europe. Immigrant waves from Portugal arrived steadily following colonization in 1500. Immigrants from Italy arrived in the later quarter of the 19th century to harvest coffee, and immigrants from Poland, Russia, and Romania arrived in the 20th Century following World War I. European immigrants, such as designers Jean Gillon who arrived from Romania in 1956, and Joaquim Tenreiro who arrived from Portugal in 1928, combined European furniture making techniques, such as colonial style caning or Bauhaus principals, with African and indigenous forms and materials to create a wholly unique Brazilian style.
At the time, Brazil had yet to employ industrial modernization in furniture manufacture, and its workshop-based, as opposed to factory-based, production process resulted in small yields, exclusive editions, and a look that showed the presence of the maker’s hand. Without large-scale manufacture and distribution, designers were not beholden to the corporate aesthetic of contract design that constrained North American designers working for Herman Miller or Knoll. Tactile materials and forms that combined European, indigenous, and African influence that could not be easily mass-produced distinguish mid-century Brazilian furniture from contemporary North American and European furniture.
pictured: Jean Gillon, Jangada armchair and ottoman, 1968, jacaranda wood and natural leather seat
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