Brazil is a thriving center of modern and contemporary design, rich in natural resources and its cities home to art galleries of international repute. The country has spawned modernist design pioneers such as Sergio Rodrigues and Joaquim Tenreiro, as well as promising newcomers. Yet, perhaps, the most intriguing aspect of contemporary design in Brazil is the widespread upcycling of objects, particularly in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, where the brothers Fernando and Humberto Campana have been key influences both as teachers and exemplars. The upcycling and repurposing of objects mirrors environmental concerns—particularly over the deforestation of the Amazon region—that have been fodder for the various celebrity-backed global initiatives around ecological sustainability. The destruction of the very resources that made Brazilian design—particularly furniture—so famous is a terrible irony but, at the same time, has also disrupted any number of cultures, particularly the poor, disenfranchised, and indigenous.
In order to provide alternative means of production that may lessen their reliance on limited resources, several designers have stepped into the fray. Hugo França’s distinctive design practice involves upcycling felled pequi wood through collaborations with local communities in Trancoso, Bahia. In urban areas, there is a focus on municipal garbage dumps, which serve as resources for the poor. Such waste sites in Brazil were chronicled in Ilhas das Flores (1989), a documentary by filmmaker Jorge Furtado and, more recently, in Waste Land (2010), a collaboration between filmmakers Lucy Walker, Karen Harley, and João Jardim with artist Vik Muniz, that depicts the conception of Muniz’s series Pictures from Garbage. Working with Brazilian “trash pickers,” Muniz renders art-historical masterpieces in the garbage collected.
A direct engagement with the detritus of contemporary life is also the focus of São Paulo–based Coletivo Amor de Madre, dedicated to supporting “work that pushes boundaries through the use of recycled materials [and] technological exploration led by social inspiration and incorporating craft and handmade techniques.” A signature project was their collaboration with the English-Japanese team of Swine Studio (designers Alexander Groves and Azusa Murakami) on Can City, an endeavor that upcycled discarded aluminum cans. The process was integral from start to finish: the cans collected from bars or trash around São Paulo were melted down in improvised furnaces fueled by cooking oil collected from eateries and street food vendors. The melted cans were then transformed into furniture like the Mangueira Stool, Roda Stool, and Cesta Stool.
Rodrigo Almeida bridges art and design by remixing preexisting and found elements into new forms. His Servant Lamp from the Slave Series gives a poetic new life to found objects, with brushes symbolizing the menial tasks performed in any society. Almeida’s bespoke approach to design has been associated with the Tropicalism movement, which celebrated the fusion of Brazilian and non-Brazilian cultural elements through the process described by José Oswald de Souza Andrade as “antropofagia” or “cultural cannibalism.” That “cannibalism” is evident as Almeida draws from a wide range of sources ̶—from Art Deco to the Memphis Group to the work of Brazilian artists Tunga and Adriana Varejão. Zanini de Zanine also explores the repurposing of preexisting materials that would otherwise be discarded in his Moeda Chair, made from sheet metal “rescued from the Brazilian mint.” Perhaps best known for his craftsmanship in wood, Zanine demonstrates a willingness to experiment with materials and shapes that he connects to Brazilian culture.
Carioca jewelry designer Mana Bernardes has a particular gift for repurposing plastic in imaginative ways, as seen in her Môbiluz series of lamps. The discipline and formalism of her products brings upcycling to a high level of achievement. A comparable finesse marks the chandelier fashioned out of plastic bottles by the Mexico-based French designer Thierry Jeannot. His practices merge design, architecture, and social commitment as he works closely with craftspeople in France and Mexico City to convey “high added value to recycled materials through design.” His work for New Territories involved developing a new prototype for a table made from ubiquitous plastic bottles.
In a parallel manner, Spanish designer Alvaro Catalán de Ocón recruited the indigenous Guambiano and Eperara-Siapidara communities in Colombia to create lamps by applying traditional weaving techniques to vertical strips of plastic PET bottles. Thousands of miles away, in Fortaleza, Brazil, PET bottles also played a role in the making of U Rock Chair, a project proposed by Davi Deusdará, Érica Martins, Rafael Studart, and Tais Costa for The Battery Conservancy outdoor seating competition in New York. Conceived as a reversible seating unit that can either rock or be stationary, the form is to be produced out of PET bottles collected as waste in the park. The idea is to make the “owners” of the bottles “directly responsible for their future seats” and “connect with them through the design and recycling.”
An important aspect of upcycling is the revelation and exploration of the psychic, emotional, and existential associations of materials. The ubiquitous oil barrel, for example, has been often exploited by artists and designers, particularly in West Africa. Since Venezuela is a global oil-producing country, Caracas-based artist Rolando Peña was inspired to make furniture out of oil barrels. These became an integral part of his larger enterprise of paintings and performances, in which he conjures the inescapable impact of the oil industry in oil-rich Venezuela. Another Venezuelan designer, Daniel Reynolds, engages in what he calls “contemporary archeology,” casting mundane objects that would otherwise be discarded in bisque porcelain and glazing their insides so they can continue being used as vases.
Mexican artist Abraham Cruzvillegas explored individual identity and a sense of place in his Autoconstrucción series, assemblages made of found objects. Low Budget Rider was created in collaboration with students in San Francisco in 2009 and first exhibited as part of a bike parade. The improvisational aspect of this piece and this type of cross-cultural intervention is characteristic of Cruzvillegas, who once described himself as “intergalactic indigenous.” It represents a global phenomenon of mechanical improvisation involving cars, trucks or cycles.
in collaboration with Zeca Cury and Aírton Pimenta
Azusa Murakami & Alexander Groves