Brazilian design: from Joaquim Tenreiro to the Campana Brothers (part 1)

Brazilian design is now enjoying a belated but well-deserved recognition. At the latest edition of the If Design Awards, one of the world’s largest and most prestigious design competitions, no fewer than 27 Brazilian projects entered in a wide range of categories received an award, proof of its current vitality. On closer inspection, its historical DNA is very familiar to us because its “founding fathers” were all influenced by the experience of the Bauhaus School. Brazilian design has digested the best of European creation to adorn it in its most beautiful finery: wood, of course, the country’s essential resource, which continues to blend with the typically Auriverde tropical spirit..

The history of Brazilian design cannot be mentioned without mentioning the tutelary figure of Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012), its most internationally renowned architect. Niemeyer, heir to the international style professed by Walter Gropius, Mies Van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, is renowned for his architectural achievements with their slender curves that shaped the creation of Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. The Brazilian architect designed administrative buildings and places of power in concrete. The only material capable, according to him, of mastering forms with ample curves, in contrast to the very rigid style of Le Corbusier.


The Brasilia Cathedral imagined and designed by Oscar Niemeyer (1959-1970).


National Congress of Brazil, Brasilia, Oscar Niemeyer, completed in 1960

Left dome: Senate. Right dome: Chamber of Deputies. Two twin skyscrapers: administrative services of the Congress.


The Niterói Museum of Contemporary Art, Rio de Janeiro, 1991-1996. Oscar Niemeyer or the art of the curve!

While Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa (a famous architect of the time, Niemeyer’s elder brother) designed and elevated Brasilia to the status of a futuristic city in the 1960s, the real founding father of Brazilian furniture design in Brazil is Joaquim Tenreriro (1906-1992).

Born in 1906 in Portugal, Joaquim Tenreiro, a carpenter by trade, emigrated to Brazil in the late 1920s. In the early 1940s, he founded his own company – Langenbach & Tenreiro Ltda – to produce the models he designed. He drew on the incredible diversity of woods that exist in Brazil and popularised the use of jacaranda wood and straw (the use of cane strands). The jacaranda, a tropical wood par excellence, provides a very hard, marbled wood, used in cabinetmaking and which gives Tenreiro’s creations a classy look. He was the first in Brazil to reinterpret the forms of avant-garde European design through the almost systematic use of precious woods.


Joaquim Tenreiro, Chair with armrests, circa 1958, close-up. Elegance of precious wood and cane.

Able to design a three-legged chair as well as lamps, tables and shelves, Joaquim Tenreiro became a designer in great demand. Oscar Niemeyer included Tenreiro’s creations in many of his architectural projects (buildings, private homes, office buildings), which were a perfect embodiment of Brazilian elegance.


Joaquim Tenreiro, Bookcase, jacaranda wood, circa 1954. Manufacture: Tenreiro Móveis e Decorações, Brazil.


Triangular dining table and chairs, 1960. Design and conception Joaquim Tenreiro

A land of emigration in the first half of the 20th century, Brazilian design also developed around European figures. Gregori Warchavchik (1896-1972), an architect of Ukrainian origin, arrived in Brazil in the 1920s. He is known for having designed what is considered the country’s first modern house in São Paulo, with cubic forms, 10 years before Le Corbusier was called upon by Lucio Costa to design the Ministry of Education and Culture in 1943.


Modern house (Rua Santa Cruz). Vila Mariana, São Paulo, Brazil, 1927-28. Architect: Gregori Warchavchik. Source:

Inspired by the modern design of the Bauhaus, Warchavchik designed furniture that he considered to be in perfect harmony with the modern architecture he was spreading. His furniture, made from local wood, has a strong geometric line and is somewhat reminiscent of the art deco style of the beginning of the century.


Gregori Warchavchic, “GW Tea Trolley”, 1928.


Gregori Warchavchic, “Leque” magazine rack, 1928. An icon of modern Brazilian design.

Lina Bo Bardi (1914-1992), born in Rome in 1914, fell under the spell of Brazil in the 1940s during a trip to Rio, responding with her husband to an invitation from the Institute of Brazilian Architects. When they arrived in Brazil, the Bardi’s were no strangers. A graduate of the College of Architecture in Rome, Lina has already collaborated with the famous Italian designer Giò Ponti on a magazine and co-founded the weekly A – Attualità, Architettura, Abitazione, Arte in Milan(A Cultura della Vita). Her husband, Pietro Maria Bardi, is an art critic and journalist.

Naturalized Brazilian in 1951, Lina Bo Bardi left a vivid imprint on the city of São Paulo. From 1957 to 1968, she conceived and designed the Museum of Art of Rio de Janeiro’s rival, the MAM, with its immediately recognisable silhouette. Her career is also marked by the creation of the SESC Pompeia, a former barrel factory with raw forms. The project, completed in 1982, has become a very popular place for Brazilians as it has exhibition rooms, a library and sports fields.


São PauloArt Museum , architect Lina Bo Bardi.


The São Paulo Museum of Art São Paulo Art Museum, interior view.

Lina Bo Bardi is responsible for a Brazilian design classic: the famous Bowl Chair (1951), which is reminiscent of Eero Saarinen’s Womb Chair, now published by Arper.


Lina Bo Bardi sitting in the “Bowl Chair”. Photograph by Francisco Albuquerque.


Lina Bo Bardi, “Bowl Chair”, 1951. The model is now produced in a limited edition by Arper

From the 1950s to the 1970s, another generation followed the Niemeyer, Tenreiro and Warchavchic. These years are considered the golden age of Brazilian design; design finally became the equal of urbanism. Two great post-war figures emerged: Paulo Mendes Da Rocha (1928) and Sergio Rodrigues (1927).

The former, an architect by trade (another one!) and winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2006, signed the Paulistano armchair in 1957 as a timeless classic of Brazilian design. Designed to furnish the lounges of the São Paulo Athletics Club, the seat is a model of aesthetic lightness while being comfortable.


Paulistano” armchair, Terracota leather. Design by Paulo Mendes Da Rocha, 1957. The structure is in folded steel.

The second designer, Sergio Rodrigues, won international acclaim in 1961 with the Mole armchair , which won first prize at the Cantú Design Biennial. As a worthy heir to Niemeyer or Lucio Costa, Rodrigues takes on the modernist lines of the Bauhaus, but in the Brazilian spirit. Incredibly comfortable with its leather cushions and armrests supported by leather straps, the Mole armchair has of course a structure and frame in solid jacaranda… in the purest Brazilian tradition!


Sergio Rodrigues, “Mole” armchair, 1957. The seat is now edited by LinBrasil


On sale on design-market here: Mole armchair and our exclusive collection of Brazilian vintage design

Discover now >> the second part of this article, in which we will share even more information about the exciting history of Brazilian design.

written by François Boutard