Contemporary Brazilian Design with Frederico Duarte

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According to designer, author and educator Jessica Helfand’s beautifully succinct description, design is the art of visualizing ideas. Defining what constitutes a national style of design becomes a more Byzantine task in our atomized global visual culture, however. For example, once we could point to mid-century Swiss design as a clearly delineated style originating from a single country, but in Brazil—a vast nation with a multiethnic population, the Earth’s greatest biodiversity, the world’s fifth largest consumer market, and a deeply stratified society—whose ideas are represented when we refer to a national design? Who is the design for? What purpose does it serve?

In a 2017 exhibition, “How to Pronounce Design in Portuguese: Brazil Today,” at Lisbon’s design and fashion museum, MUDE, Frederico Duarte, a curator, design critic and doctoral researcher attempted to answer these complex questions by taking a wide ethnographic view of design practice in Brazil. Seeking to learn how design shapes and is shaped by contemporary life in Brazil, he soon realized that matters are complicated by the larger question, Who is Brazilian? “The idea of class is super important in Brazil,” Duarte says. “Over half of Brazil’s population is black or mixed-race, yet most designers are white, middle-class urbanites who look abroad to the U.S. and Europe for inspiration. Many European émigrés, often Jewish, came to the New World during or right after WWII, and made significant contributions to the practice of design. But trying to label the work of a South American guy who’s a descendent of Polish Jews as Brazilian? It just doesn’t stick.”

contemporary brazilian design

MUDE/LUÍSA FERREIRA © 2017

Duarte focused on the ways design affects the lives of ordinary Brazilians, especially members of the new C class—by 2015, between 110 and 115 million citizens, or more than half the country’s population—lifted out of poverty into the lower/middle class thanks to the government’s 2004 Bolsa Familia conditional cash transfer program. Bolsa Familia provided payments directly to poor families, so long as children attended school regularly and got a full set of vaccinations and mothers received pre- and post-natal care. The results were striking: The country’s poverty rate fell from 42.7% to 28.8%. What this meant for design was the sudden emergence of a new group of consumers: people who, for the first time, had a little extra cash to buy things other than the bare necessities. Suddenly there was a new market for beauty products and cars and air travel and houses.

Meeting the demands of this new consumer market led to some rethinking of design practices and assumptions. A bit of ethnographic research done by the design consultancies Questto Nó and Tátil for Natura—Brazil’s biggest cosmetics firm that recently acquired Aesop and the Body Shop (becoming a key player in the global cosmetics market)—revealed that many people were misusing the soft pouch refill packaging for shampoo, body wash and the like. These are meant to refill a previously purchased hard bottle, yet consumers were using the refill pack as the final purchase, and bypassing the rigid bottle entirely because the soft pouch is up to 10% cheaper and dispenses the product down to the very last drop. “Kind of a no-brainer,” Duarte says. “Natura’s designers created an entire system, including the cut-shape-fill machine needed to manufacture the pouches. A roll of film goes into the machine on one side, and the final product comes out the other. It all takes place under one roof, instead of the conventional method of shipping finished product to a separate bottling facility. The process saves 72% of resources! Creating a unique system reshaped Natura’s whole business model.”

contemporary brazilian designMUDE/LUÍSA FERREIRA © 2017

Another example of adaptive design responsive to people’s actual needs is the street guide made for the Maré complex of favelas in Rio. In 2012, for the first time in the history of Rio, the streets and alleys of these 16 favelas were recognized as part of the city, formally mapped out, and integrated into the urban fabric. Laura Taves, a Brazilian artist/activist/architect, silkscreened street names onto ceramic plaques for the favelas and had them installed by inhabitants. Duarte says, “On a graphic design level, Laura could have done anything she wanted for these plaques, but she paid homage to the founding father of Brazilian modern design, Aloísio Magalhães, and his 1979, super-modern, Swiss-style design based on white Univers type on blue backgrounds. She not only honored his work but kept a feeling of continuity between the new streets and the existing streets, simply by inverting the colors. Rio’s street plaques often include very short idiosyncratic bios of the distinguished citizens they celebrate; so do Maré’s, which bear the names of individual residents. The whole project is a beautiful example of a designer not waiting for a commission, but taking it upon herself to use design to help merge the informal city into the established, officially recognized city.”

In the introduction to his exhibition catalogue, Duarte writes, “By reflecting, interpreting and reacting to the encounters and mismatches of their society, Brazilian designers created imaginative paths in the building of public life, showing us how to create a future that is larger than a country.” His thoughtful analysis of the local impact and global appeal of contemporary Brazilian design, and the forces driving the demand for it, demonstrates that the defining characteristics of nationality are no longer as simple to define as they once were, and that consumerism remains as ever a mighty engine behind design intentions, processes and products.

MUDE/LUÍSA FERREIRA © 2017


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