IN SEARCH OF MODERN BRAZILIAN FURNITURE
ZEULER R. M. DE A. LIMA
São Paulo boomed economically in the 1940s and 1950s. Industrial development and
the emergence of an urban middle class propelled the modernization of everyday life,
including the experimentation with furniture design. The search for the renovation of
symbolic expression transformed the city into an important cultural laboratory. As
such, it attracted several European artists and intellectuals, including many Italians.
Among them were the couple Lina Bo (1914-1992) and Pietro Maria Bardi (1900-
1999) as well as Giancarlo Palanti (1906-1977), who developed a short though
meaningful design partnership between 1949 and 1950. The opportunity Brazilian
press magnate Assis Chateaubriand offered Bardi to create and direct the Museum of
Art of São Paulo (MASP) in 1947 helped advance the investigation of industrial design
in Brazil. This enterprise allowed Bardi and his young wife to expand the multiple
activities he had developed in Italy as a gallerist and journalist, helping change the
city’s and country’s cultural panorama and creating a broad network of collaborators
both locally and internationally. In partnership, they created complementary programs
supporting the museum’s educational mission as well as Bardi’s commercial
The museum opened in 1947 and operated as a cultural powerhouse, combining two floors of Chateaubriand’s press headquarters highrise building filled with innovative cultural activities and exhibitions, the editorial offices of the thought-provoking articles of Habitat magazine, and, a few floors above, the educational programs in art, design, and music promoted by its Instituto de Arte Contemporânea. Bardi had developed his entrepreneurial skills and networking abilities in the Italian cultural world as a promoter of modern art and architecture in Turin and Milan in the late 1920s. He established himself in Rome after becoming the director of the state-run Galleria di Roma in the early 1930s, expanding his editorial activities to include the influential Quadrante magazine with Massimo Bontempelli, and finally opening his private Galleria d’Arte Palma in 1944.
Lina Bo Bardi started her professional career at the outset of the war after moving from Rome to Milan in 1940. She initially worked as an illustrator, writer, and editor for several design and varieties magazines such as Lo Stile and Domus, dedicated to the modernization of interior and furniture design. At the end of the war, she became involved in the efforts of Reconstruction, having co-created the polemical and short- lived magazine A, Cultura della Vita with Bruno Zevi and Carlo Pagani. In addition, she produced studies for a large home furnishing exhibition and designed an innovative stand for Rhodia textiles at the Milan Triennale. All those experiences helped shape the mission and activities promoted by the Bardis in São Paulo soon after their arrival in Brazil and their search for the character Brazilian industrial design.
In addition to the public programs promoted by MASP, Bardi decided to transfer his Roman art gallery to São Paulo in 1948 with Bo Bardi’s help and to create a design studio catering to his commercial interests. They kept the original name, which sounded even more relevant in its new tropical landscape, and called it Estúdio de Arte e Arquitetura Palma Ltda. In addition to selling paintings and art objects to the city’s newly educated elites, they also created a small firm to design home and commercial interiors and to manufacture modern furniture. In tribute to native woods and to Oswald de Andrade’s 1920s modernist manifesto, they called the studio Oficina Paubra, short for pau-brasil or brazilwood workshop. The Bardis’ new gallery and studio was located just two blocks away from MASP and right at the center of the city’s effervescent cultural life. A contractual document makes clear who was in charge of the business, by stating that, “Achillina Bo Bardi, Italian, married, is duly authorized by her husband to run a business.” She was the boss.
However, given their commitment to the museum and their lack of local connections, they decided to include two collaborators to help with the commercial front of their new endeavor. Valéria Piacentini Cirell, a local dealer and interior designer who assisted them in the gallery and played an important social liaison between the Bardis and their potential Paulistano clientele. The Bardis also invited Italian émigré architect and designer Giancarlo Palanti to help produce a line of modern furniture for the local market. Palanti had arrived in Brazil more or less at the same time as the Bardis had. He was almost ten years older, more experienced than Bo Bardi, and subscribed to a different lineage of modern design. Unlike her, he had been deeply immersed in the rationalist milieu of Milan since the early 1930s, closely collaborating with Giuseppe Pagano and Enrico Persico in exhibitions such as the Triennale and especially with Franco Albini in design projects and as editor of Domus and Casabella magazines. Though Bo Bardi admired their strictly rationalist approach, as shown in her illustrations for articles she published in the early 1940s, she developed a hybrid design language. She had already anticipated the philosophy motivating the creation of Oficina Paubra in one of the articles about modern furniture that she wrote for A, Cultura della Vita just over two years prior. Her previous insistence on “placing Italian craftsmen in small industries and having furniture designed by technical experts” seemed in principle to make sense in Brazil, where “architects were too busy with the urgency of building projects and could not dedicate themselves to the study of a chair.” Despite such effort, she would soon realize that her new country did not have the same artisanal tradition she was accustomed to, and she quickly readjusted her approach to accept the country’s limited resources. While Bo Bardi had been involved with everyday culture in her last years in Italy, Palanti had followed the introduction of Taylorist industrial working for industrialist Adriano Olivetti in Milan.
They brought different approaches to the development of several chair and shelving prototypes they expected to reproduce in limited series. Despite their different approaches and having some times worked in a few pieces separately, it would be reasonable to consider that their artistic and intellectual exchange was vital to their studio’s production. Their partnership, as much of the work Bo Bardi developed throughout her career, is evidence of the fact that the creative active is more nuanced than the divisions the art and design market tends to prescribe. Pagani and Bo Bardi divided their collaborative work between jobs for magazines and small commissions. She initially helped him with graphic material for furniture, home interior, and exhibition design, and especially with editorial projects, while he maintained some autonomy from her in residential projects. Much of this history was registered by Bo Bardi in articles she published in the first issues of Habitat magazine. She considered her collaboration with Palanti as “the first attempt to manufacture modern furniture (not at an industrial scale) out of cut plywood sheets (instead of Alvar Aalto’s bent pieces) and other local materials,” even though Palanti seems to have had control over the design of many chairs. “We also used a great amount of plain cotton fabric from Casas Pernambucanas and leather,” she added, “instead of the very expensive hand-woven fabrics used at the time.” They chose the simplicity and economy of means, “taking advantage of the extraordinary beauty of the grains and colors as well as the strength and durability of Brazilian wood.” Among the enduring examples of their work together are the wooden and steel-frame tripod chairs that emulate the hammocks used in the boats that sail along large Brazilian rivers. Bo Bardi described them as working as “both a bed and a seat—its wonderful adjustment to the shape of the body and its undulating movement make it one of the most perfect devices for rest.” To her, a chair designed as a “simulated ‘mechanical’ object” was as misguided as the “contemporary reproduction of a Louis XV chair.” Instead, she chose simplicity and contextualization. She believed that “to make a chair, it is not worth going through the trouble of looking for an [elaborate] design solution, since all you need is a surface [to sit] and four legs,”the same way that in order to create a “clothes hanger, a nail suffices.”
While Palanti’s exacting hand and rigorously plain geometries dominated the composition of their collaborative work, the effect of Bo Bardi’s spontaneous free- hand and undiscriminating imagination could be seen in vibrant and irregular details. Despite having produced important experiments, their furniture workshop and commercial partnership started to show signs of breakdown, even though he would remain temporarily connected to the museum’s Art Institute. After almost two years of operation Oficina Paubra closed its doors, partly because some confusion existed concerning patent laws in Brazil, and this was affecting their commercial output. For example, Carioca furniture designer Zanine Caldas contacted them to produce a new chair without knowing that the project he was presenting had actually come out of a chair already designed by Palanti and Bo Bardi. Still, it would not be unlikely to image that the termination of their business was due to their personal differences and, above all, to the struggle they faced in trying to convince local furniture makers to integrate innovative design ideas into their large-scale but traditional production system. Despite their short-lived collaboration, they were able to give their enterprise a cultural dimension under the umbrella created by the Museo de Arte, São Paulo.
At the start of their collaboration, Bo Bardi organized an exhibition at the museum about the history of chair design, ranging from fifteenth century Tuscan pieces to early-twentieth century examples by Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto. Like many of the shows the Bardis organized, the coexistence of different styles and periods dictated the display. In an article she published about the show in 1949, she expressed her loyalty to the hybrid sensibility of her Italian publications. She wrote, “A grumixaba chair is more ethical than a couch with trimmings,” unmistakably introducing the work principles of the Paubra workshop. And to make it even clearer, she announced: “We placed the picture of a man sitting on a rock next to the picture of a woman sitting in a sophisticated and wrongly proportioned armchair that was more suitable to an elephant than to a human being.”
Only Lina Bo Bardi could have imagined such a comparison.