Photos Dennis Bangert
Text Albrecht Bangert

“My roots are in a city where the modernist style was everywhere you looked: Rio de Janeiro.

This place has always been emphatically Brazilian. Here people have never opted for a more European lifestyle, as in São Paulo. Rio has remained Brazilian to the core,” says Claudia Moreira Salles. She sits, gracefully, behind her ultrathin laptop, at an equally elegant, light desk. In her apartment, with a roof terrace, on the tenth floor of a building in the fashionable Itaim district in São Paulo. Scattered all around there are materials, models, drawings, prototypes and impressive wooden furnishings. The interior design was done by architects who work one floor down from this more or less private gallery. Claudia Moreira Salles is one of the outstanding names of the new boom of Brazilian hand-crafted design, which the world is finally starting to notice. It is interesting to look at her roots as a designer. When she talks about the four years spent as a student in Brazil’s first design school, we are immediately thrust into another story that is just as interesting as hers. The Escola Superior de Desenho Industrial, or ESDI, was founded in 1955 with an educational program clearly based on that of the Hochschule für Gestaltung of Ulm, the famous German school of postwar functionalism. The ESDI was conceived and perceived as an incubator of modern industrial design. The teaching was based on the principle that design should be the clear result of rational analysis of needs and of society, reducing aesthetic flights to a minimum. Salles remembers: “I went to that school because of the teachers who gave lectures there. They were designers, many of them self-taught. The professor of furniture design was German: Karl Heinz Bergmiller. He was the one who introduced the spirit and the teachings of Ulm, like the resurrection of the Bauhaus in Brazil.” This leading lady of Brazilian design continues: “What they definitely taught me was method. Reducing things to their essentials. Asking the right questions.” Disappointed by what she saw as the state of poverty of Brazilian industry at the time, Claudia Moreira Salles quickly shifted her focus to the various ways of ‘exploiting’ the great current of Brazilian arts and crafts as a tradition suited to the sensibilities of her designs. Initially working on notepads, she made very single piece like a composer writing a score. “When I began to work with Bergmiller for an office furniture manufacturer in São Paulo, I discovered that sometimes wooden molds can be much more interesting than the plastic chairs they are used to produce. The handmade molds were very beautiful, and I immediately thought: Wouldn’t it be fantastic to have those forms in your home? The guy who made the molds left the company, and I began to go visit him in his small workshop. The combination of modern forms and crafts helped to realize my dream of designing something that would have life and a soul, which I thought were lacking in the objects produced by Brazilian industry. The texture and grain of wood, the intrinsic potential of its sculpting: I was fascinated in exploring this path that mixed modern design and traditional techniques.” This is the context in which, towards the end of the Seventies, Claudia Moreira Salles took off, shifting from the solid academic environment to the world of Brazilian arts. Not long after that, she began to experiment. Some of her first projects, a collection of benches, featured a series of organic marks, made with the eyes used by native tribes, drawing structured surfaces out of wood in a surprising, innovative way. The approach has something in common with the early works of Eileen Gray, who at the start turned to the skills of French craftsmen to develop her personal design vocabulary and to give it a sense of precious value. The reflective character of the first furnishings created by Claudia Moreira Salles is not so different. With her focus on worked borders, the rhythm of composition, and her way of relying confidently on the wood grain and materic contrasts, her strategy evokes thoughts of the masterpieces of Art Deco. These design concepts turned out to be useful to promote the revival of Brazilian crafts, emerging from the state of neglect into which the field had fallen in the 1970s and 1980s. Since then, prices have rebounded and the market now thrives thanks to strong demand. Nevertheless, in spite of the transformation, certain constants still remain in the work of Claudia Moreira Salles. Such as the fact that she always uses, to jot down ideas and initial sketches, the same small notebooks, like personal diaries. These projects always have something poetic about them, even those in which her great awareness of the intrinsic properties of materials has prompted her to use new mixtures of wood, limestone and lightened, polished concrete. Such grafts also help her to approach one problem that boom has brought in its wake, namely the sustainable supply of local wood. To keep things from getting out of hand, a certification system has been put in place. Salles also checks and crosschecks to make sure most of the wood in her pieces is recycled material. Such reuse of wood already creates a background story on its own. One good example: Salles painted a wooden beam salvaged from an old Indonesian house in black, to create a contrast with a red lacquer square. “I was struck by the image, the imposing physical presence, of this beam. With its overhanging structure, it reminded me of constructivism. Making it into a one-off, halfway between art and design, I am actually letting it tell its own story.” Salles has been able to obtain wood salvaged from cargoes of Pinho de Riga, which during the period of the Portuguese empire was used as ballast on ships, and has now been reutilized for the Lua table and the Largo sofa at the Hotel Americano in Chelsea, New York City. She has also found cedar wood, from the province of Minas Gerais, a place rich in minerals. These precious relics with beautiful grain from the start of the industrial era now embellish the ceiling of her second studio, located in the state of Minas Gerais, to the east of São Paulo. In the course of an almost natural evolution, Salles’ work has taken on solidity and depth, so it is little wonder that it is now shown all over the world; in May her works were featured in a solo show and interpreted as art at the Espasso Gallery in Tribeca, NYC (which specializes in Brazilian design). The show sold out. “I would up having to hand over even the prototypes, since the gallery owner Carlos Junqueira had sold more pieces than I had supplied.” The customers are architects, owners of large homes, Brazilians with costly apartments in the world’s major cities. A typical Salles project: the furnishings for an apartment in West Chelsea, a fashionable zone of New York, for the Metal Shutter House on the High Line… Or the Domino Bench created as a divider for one of the apartments in the building by Shigeru Ban. This wooden bench with metal legs and a wooden beam floating in the middle has since been put into production as an exclusive series. Among other works, we should mention the spatial elements for the Gagosian booth during the art fair in Rio. Here the environment created by Salles establishes a dialogue with the paintings of artists like Picasso and Damien Hirst. The successful marriage of high-end design and the fine arts bears witness to the fact that only quality goes together with quality. It is correct to say that her design, in the meantime, has emerged as a landmark and the most precious brand of contemporary Brazil. Her works are also, at the same time, a safe investment: pieces by Moreira Salles are true blue chips, part of a vast, reliable market that gets its strength from the roots of Brazilian modernism. After all, Brazilian crafts are part of an ongoing revival in art and on the modern vintage market. As for art, here too the names are what counts. Among them, today we can definitely list personalities like Moreira Salles and Zanini de Zanine, together with recent reissues of Brazilian heroes like Sergio Rodriques, and timeless modernists like Oscar Niemeyer, Lina Bo Bardi or Joaquim Tenreiro. These different forms of design share an emotional and artistic approach that references the creative language of Brazilian modernism. It would be hard for an interior design magazine, today, to illustrate contemporary interiors in Brazil without making reference to at least one of these icons of Brazilian identity. Proof of the growing interest in a language that comes from the country’s incessant pursuit of modernity.