In 2004, I had the pleasure of meeting Brazilian designer Kiko Farkas at Icograda Design Week in São Paulo. There, a gallery was filled with his huge, astoundingly beautiful posters for the São Paulo Symphony, each in itself a symphony of color, form, texture and rhythm evoking the music of the concert it promoted.
In 2005, Kiko and his firm, Máquina Estúdio, won a national competition to design his country’s brandmark. Thirty-seven design offices were each sent a packet with keywords resulting from an international survey about perceptions of Brazil (“happiness, colorful, curvaceous”). For visual inspiration, the Tourism Ministry included a print of a watercolor by the Brazilian artist and landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx (1909-1994).
As Kiko reminded me in a recent email, “Burle Marx was a great landscape designer who contributed with Oscar Niemeyer and other famous Brazilian architects, but he was also a great artist, painter, jewelry designer, glass designer and stage designer. He made paintings showing how his gardens would look in full bloom, and it is that painting that was the inspiration for my logo.”
On May 6, a major exhibition of the work of Burle Marx opened at The Jewish Museum in New York City. My avocation and passion is designing my garden in Irvington, NY, a suburb 20 miles north of New York City, so I was happily surprised to have the opportunity to immerse myself in the work of this pioneer who designed more than 2,000 gardens—including the famed mosaic promenade and park along Copacabana Beach—and who revolutionized garden design with his innovative use of curvilinear spaces and native plants.
In Brazil, apparently—as in Los Angeles, where I grew up—many gardens were based on formal French parterre designs, and it was not uncommon to see front yards lined with borders of European plants like roses struggling to survive in a climate for which they were not suited, requiring the overuse of precious water resources and toxic insecticides. The voluptuous, exuberant gardens of Burle Marx changed all that. He made it permissible, even chic, to feature palms and big-leaved tropical plants that thrive in their native habitat. Eschewing rigid geometric layouts, his gardens are designed in layers of overlapping curves, often referred to as ‘Hogarth’s Lines of Beauty’ or ‘Sinusoidal Curves,’ shapes based on graphs of wave forms, such as sound waves, seasons and tides.
Today, almost every garden designer strives to create curvilinear spaces that harmonize with the terrain and that feature native trees, shrubs and swaths of perennials that grow happily in the region and that support local insect and bird life—whether the plants are cacti in California xeriscapes or woodland natives in New York State.
I arrived at the museum expecting the exhibit to guide me through curvaceous spaces painted in every shade of green and chartreuse, filled with rare plants. Immediately, I realized, the Jewish Museum is not a botanical garden. The exhibition is in a white, rectangular gallery.
But soon the art works on the walls and the objects inside and on the display cases began to tell me a different story, a story of inspiration. Clearly, Burle Marx was influenced by Cubism, especially by Picasso. I saw a line of influence from Picasso’s paintings and ceramics to Burle Marx’s gardens and streetscapes and tiles to Kiko’s work—and to all illustration and graphic design that incorporate flowing curves, layers, vibrant color, and transparency.
In addition to the tapestry, paintings, photographs, ceramic tiles, and jewelry, the exhibition includes pieces significant to contemporary graphic design, especially information design and diagrammatic graphics.
“The newspapers in Brazil have given pages to this exhibition, proud that one of our own is getting such recognition,” reports Ronald Kapaz, founder and head designer at Oz Strategy+Design in São Paulo. “And individually we’re excited, too. When I was taking graduate studies in architecture, one of the best courses was taught by the philosopher Rui Coelho,” Kapaz recalls. “The course was ‘Landscape Design as the Expression of Paradise.’ There were examples of European gardens where nature was molded by sculpting every leaf and of Japanese gardens where elements were carefully arranged to capture a certain expression of nature. In contrast, the Burle-Marx image of Paradise is the manifestation of sensuality and sinuosity. The way he combined exuberant, strong forms is for many of us the true expression of our Brazilian idea of Paradise,” he adds. “In my own work, I try to use design elements — form and color — as poetically and sensually, as he does with nature, making music for the eyes.”
“Burle Marx’s brought a completely new approach to landscaping projects, introducing language coherent with the garden’s environment,” adds Giovanni Vannucchi, a design director at Oz. “He organized the landscape according to the colors of the tropical plants he knew so well, using them in a graphic way. This organic and free approach is present in his paintings, mosaics, and ceramics. Graphic designers in his day, influenced by international language, full of harshness, suddenly realized that there was the possibility of working without constrictive grids, of exploring an organic visual language, free from existing standards—which is much more appropriate to the Brazilian soul.”
If you visit, the Jewish Museum is located on Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street in Manhattan, open from 11 am to 5:45 pm daily. The Roberto Burle Marx exhibition closes on September 18. While you’re there, don’t miss the Isaac Mizrahi exhibit on the second floor. And if you buy something in the museum shop, you’ll get a deliciously crispy blue and white shopping bag, part of the museum’s new identity by Sagmeister & Walsh.