The Added Value of Human Resources in Brazilian Product and Furniture Design by Frederico Duarte- BRAZIL

This is a text version of a talk given by Frederico Duarte at Brazil-Cultural Contemporary Forming Ideas conference at the RCA. For the full version containing the accompanying slide show please download the PDF at the end of the page.


Hello everyone. I’d like to thank Martina for the invitation, and Julia for making sure I got here alright.

It's an immense pleasure and honour to be at the RCA this afternoon.

I have a lot to say and not much time to say it…!

We’re all here today because Brazil is now more than an exotic destination of samba, beach and football. Together with other emerging markets such as India or China, Brazil is starting to be seen less as a peripheral nation and more as a 21st century superpower.

The exceptional times Brazil is living these days lead me to choose the country as the subject of my D-Crit thesis research project, Alvorada. I wanted to understand what role design plays in the Brazil of today. I wished to know what it means for Brazilians to design goods and services for their own people in such a moment of unprecedented social change. I also wanted to discover what lessons the rest of the world can learn from Brazilian design.

First I set out to find what Brazilian product and furniture design is there between the Havaiana flip-flops and the Campana brothers. My interest was not in finding out what makes Brazilian design Brazilian, but in looking for specific aspects of this society that designers need to work with. I’ve been therefore not looking for specificity in form, but for specificity in context and process.

These were the three main issues that guided me through the several design case studies I presented – first in a twelve thousand-word essay and then in a nine minute presentation I delivered at D-Crit's graduating conference.

Today I’ll talk about how human resources, or the people who make the stuff we call consumer products, can be a specific and meaningful aspect of Brazilian design. And what it may mean in a wider, more global view on product and furniture design. But I also want to talk about the different nuances of the term human resources in these disciplines.

Despite all the good news, for most Brazilians life is no day at the beach. They may be part of a miscigenated, multicultural society – just as an anecdote, the Brazilian passport is the most sought after in the fake identity black market. But Brazil is still one of the most unequal countries on Earth. So

it's no wonder the privileged few and underprivileged many have very different experiences of, and expectations from, their belongings and surroundings. This is changing, however. Thanks to economic growth but also to socially minded government policies, millions of Brazilians have come out of poverty, especially in the last few years. This chart of Brazil’s 5 income brackets shows the tremendous rise of the C Class, or lower-middle class, which now makes for over half of the country’s population.That’s around 90 million people. 

Most Brazilians are now enjoying times of great optimism and high self-esteem. These millions of C-Class citizens are not only becoming avid consumers, they’re doing so in a time when they have reasons to be proud of being Brazilian.  This is having not only a profound impact in consumption, but also in popular culture, media, even governance and politics. And, of course, in design. Just think: what are the current and future needs and wants of all these people? And how are designers answering, or creating those needs?  

One of the reasons Brazil is such a mouth watering subject for business and, I’d say, for design, are its almost 200 million potential consumers. They make for one of the world’s largest internal markets and a true engine for growth.  

But while Brazilian’s appetite for buying may be huge, their potential for making still leaves much to be desired. Some of the factors to blame are a highly inflexible labour market, an onerous and bewildering tax and tariff system, a poorly educated workforce, low R&D investment, insufficient infrastructure and widespread informality. For example, over half of the furniture industry is informal. Brazilian industrialists have also been notoriously averse to risk and investing in design, innovation and branding, as well as reliant on lowly skilled, lowly paid labour for market advantage. This is the specific context Brazilian designers have been working with in terms of industrial manufacturing.  But manufacturing can mean many different things. 

How are designers working all these contexts to their best advantage? When industry still proves hard to work with, distribution is hard and competition is fierce, what is a Brazilian designer to do? The following selection of designers and projects highlight the role of people who make the stuff we call consumer products in design process.  

Renato Imbroisi is a true pioneer in the field. A weaver by trade, he started his first “product interference” projects in the early 1990s. First in his own state of Minas Gerais, but later from his studio/school in São Paulo, Renato began to work with craftsmen and women from different regions, incorporating their work into a larger distribution chain, making connections with textile, fashion and later home decoration stores and wholesalers.

In the late 1990s he was invited to Brasília to head a nationwide, pilot project with communities from all over the country from indigenous reserves to bobbin lace makers. He implements design principles such as efficient, at times sparse use of materials, doing more with less and develops new typologies adapted to both rural and urban living.  

Based on his wide experience and insight, Renato was later invited by the FDC and Aga Khan foundations to start long-term projects in two regions of Mozambique. Lately he is also coordinating a new project in the also former Portuguese colony of São Tomé, where these pictures are from. These products aimed at tourism industry, not just tourist trinkets.

Piracema's multidisciplinary team is shown here, Imbroisi as one of the founders. The team consists of product and graphic designers, social scientists, photographers and video makers; holistic view: focus on the package

Rosenbaum was the guest designer on this project in the Jalapão region: capim dourado or golden grass.

• projects for SEBRAE: focused on training local designers and professionals to work with the resources - be it natural, technological and human around them.

Here are some of the ladies they worked with in the village. These images are from Marcelo Rosenbaum's blog. He documented the whole experience quite extensively.  And these are the results, shown on spreads of the project's catalogue. One of Piracema's ongoing concerns is the continuity of its projects. They don’t want to promote a kind of helicopter designer or design tourism mentality, whereby a designer arrives at a community, interferes with their manufacturing and living realities and then goes on tho the next, leaving high expectations and few product orders behind.

So it's crucial that the results of their work live and prosper, and sell, after they leave town.That things, not only images, make it into the market. In this case, the local chapter of SEBRAE is selling, and securing orders for, the JALAPA goods at a trade fair.

Paula Dib's short, yet productive career has already gained much attention and recognition – she was the recipient of the British Council Young design entrepreneur of the year award in 2006.

With her company,, Paula organises workshops and teaches design students, but also craftspeople, to elevate their creative potential by looking around what lies around them.

Dib has an interesting take on the projects she’s been working on. In them, she questions the notion of authorship, as something that ends up being shared between designer and craftsmen, individual and community, thinker and maker.  For her, this notion of the end of authorship should actually be an inspiration for the future of design, as it becomes and increasingly collaborative discipline – on this and many other fronts. No wonder it’s almost impossible to find work under her name online.

Created 10 years ago by professors at the University of Recife. Its main goal is to strengthen ties between academia and society through initiatives that connect scholars, design professionals and communities throughout the state of Pernambuco. One of the states in Brazil’s poorest region, the Northeast, Pernambuco lags well behind other parts of the country, particularly south-eastern states like São Paulo or Rio Grande do Sul, when it comes to both industrial development and standard of living. Imaginário's projects work with that reality, either through working with local, low-tech industries or engaging communities through craft or and new building methods, they help communities achieve a degree of economic self-sufficiency and to improve their overall quality of life.

(In reference to a slide) Cabo Santo Agostinho, 41 kms South of Recife Near the beaches: local potters mainly made clay water filters, for which they got hardly any money.This project started with this community implied developing new products with higher added value, which they could manufacture and later sell in the region.They helped build a craft centre and developed branding for the ceramics.

Last November I was in Recife and joined the Imaginário team on a meeting with the potters- here are some photos.  The city is withdrawing from the project, there is competition from the neighbouring port of SUAPE now being built, which becomes a source for jobs.The meeting was very much about sensing, and asking for, the commitment of the potters to the project, about ensuring the passing on of knowledge and expertise. But also about instilling ambition.

Fibra design Sustentável is a design studio based in Rio, run by four young partners. For the last five years they’ve been engineering sustainable wood alternative materials, which are made from farming by-products using low-tech, low energy manufacturing processes. One of these materials is Bananaplac, a veneer made of banana tree fibres.

Fibra Design's approach challenges the traditional model of designing a product and finding someone to make it in a factory. They go straight to the source.

In Bananaplac's case, that’s the often remote communities where bananas are grown. It’s there, on the plantation grounds, where they teach people to build their own manufacturing facilities and turn waste into an asset.  Fibra's vision implies not distributing the made, but disseminating the making. When applied to Brazil’s scale, such vision can have an impact on the income of thousands, if not millions of people who depend solely on farming.  A few weeks before the Cooper Hewitt National Design Triennial exhibition closed in New York, where samples of Bananapalac could be seen, I spoke to one of the partners at Fibra, who told me Bananaplac is... over.

• Their partner on the project lost interest, so they moved on to other materials and sources.

• The media enthusiasm that was generated around the material was not enough to make this project viable.

• They assumed it's not their role to chase their clients and make them manufacture their designs: they moved on to other projects.

Nódesign's design process, largely based on ethnographic observation, often takes the 3 guys who make up this consultancy into the homes of Brazilians in order to design consumer products to be produced on a massive-scale. But in the case of their work with communities, it was Solidarium who came to them.

Solidarium is a really interesting company. Since its founding in 2007 by a 23-year old social entrepreneur, it already has sold more than 300.000 products in the 5 biggest retailers in Brazil, promoting an average increase of 25% in the monthly income of 380 people of 35 cooperatives. For the thousands of Brazilian producers located in deprived communities which don't have access to large-scale markets, Solidarium Fair Trade provides the development of new products through a network of highly qualified design studios such as Nó Design. It also works on the integration of production capacity across manufacturers, through sharing techniques and orders; in an operational model they call “decentralized industry”.

Differently from its competitors in the Fair Trade sector, Solidarium sells its products through large retailers as Wal-Mart and TOK & STOK, generating high sales impact, by paying a 13% higher price to the producer than its competitors.

These are some of the products Nó Design created for Solidarium's suppliers, to be sold at Wal-Mart stores in Brazil.  There is nothing specific about these products apart from their social provenance, let’s say. You may also be thinking the stuff that comes out of these projects is not particularly innovative or exciting in terms of design. I would agree with you.

I found this quote on a recent interview in a Portuguese magazine. The interviewee chose the quote to describe President Lula da Silva's two terms in office.

There’s a sense of urgency, to these projects. And a notion of social mission that speaks higher than the quest for novelty of innovation in form – even if it’s often there.  But it’s closer to what The Economist magazine named “frugal innovation”, of doing more with less and being very pragmatic about your choices and outcomes.

The three following examples are rather different.

The first is a 2009 Campana Brothers design for Lacoste.  Following other designers and celebrities such as Michael Stipe and Michael Young, the most famous of Brazilian designers were invited by Lacoste to reinterpret the French brand’s classic polo shirt.

Another of the Campanas Big Brand collaborations was the Super Limited Edition of Lacoste polo shirts. It began in 2005, when Philippe Lacoste, grandson of the firm’s founder, fell in love with one of their chairs. Soon after Lacoste he bought it, the Campanas were called in for a project.

The outcome of that project is a collection is made up of four shirt styles, each displaying varying amounts of Lacoste logos.The more logos, the more expensive the shirt. But its pièce de resistance is an extraordinary piece of clothing made entirely of 3000 green alligators stitched together. Symbolically, this shirt is 100% pure brand. Materially, it’s yet another application of one of the Campana brothers' trademark approaches to design: Make an eccentric whole out of parts. As shown by some of their work for other European brands and manufacturers.

What I find most interesting about these shirts is not that each of only 12 that were made is sold for $7,500, or 5,000 for the women’s version. It’s rather that Lacoste chose to concentrate not on the “Super Limited” nature of these brand collectibles, their form and material employed or the celebrity designers who created them. They chose instead to tell us about their makers. Most of this press release from New York store Moss is dedicated to Coopa-Roca, a socially responsible sustainable development organization based in the Rocinha favela of Rio de Janeiro. A place that, and I quote, “provides work for the very creative craftswomen and seamstresses who live in that underprivileged neighbourhood.” Much like other press releases about products made at Coopa-Roca and designed by internationally known fashion and product designers, these press releases turn the cooperative’s HR into PR.

You may have heard of the term petites mains, or little hands. Fashion houses have for decades employed these small armies of well-paid seamstresses and artisans to execute their intricately crafted and equally expensive couture

creations. But they never felt the need to mention them. So what makes Coopa-Roca's women speak louder than a luxury brand or its famous designers? The favela factor? These shirts are an evidence of how Brazil’s human resources are being explored or, depending on who you ask, exploited. The promotion of dignified work and female empowerment are worthy causes, but when empathy, even charity, are invoked to sell extreme brand statements such as these, I wonder how much, or how little, of those thousands of dollars actually makes it to the hands of the women in Rocinha. Or what the real value of their work is. Were these shirts to be made in an ordinary factory by women, or men, who earned a decent salary and lived in an unremarkable neighbourhood of any Brazilian town, could they hold the same value? This is an issue that not only concerns Coopa-Roca, but also other designer-meets-community initiatives.

But when it seemed like this brand-designer-product-maker relation was complex enough, the plot thickened. Lacoste is the first brand to work with Save Your Logo, a new organization that protects endangered species and biodiversity. In their case this means crocodiles, alligators, and other such reptiles. To celebrate the initiative and its Campana collaboration, Lacoste promoted launches in a ministry building in Paris, the Yacht Club in São Paulo and other venues in Asia, which were turned into lush mini amazon forests, complete with green grass floors, indigenous flowers and trees.

In the end, what version of Brazilian design is being promoted here? Creative genius? Site-specific labour forces? Conservation of local species? Or just a new story told by a brand desperate to remain relevant on the global market?

Here’s another Campana design and one of their most famous to date. I like to think of this chair as Brazil, quickly explained to the gringos. And that has been much of the reason behind Fernando and Humberto Campana's

international success: their work attracted international attention since the early 90s because they began offering a decidedly local, almost picturesque alternative to a homogenous, global design industry, which was producing an unstoppable, all-conquering flood of bland industrial objects, insensitive to the specifics of geography or climate and indifferent to local traditions or concerns. The Favela is such an object. The initial 1991 chair was put together by the brothers themselves in São Paulo, but it took Edra, an Italian manufacturer, over 10 years to figure out how to produce the design. It’s manufactured by a subcontractor, Habitart, a furniture company founded by German immigrants in southern Brazil. They’re made from hundreds of pieces of wood, painstakingly assembled with little room for improvisation. And each is sold for around 3000 pounds.

Despite being much less makeshift or “local” and than its original prototype, this chair became a Brazilian design icon. So much so, it even made the list of famous 20th century furniture Dutch designer Marten Baas set on fire in 2004. Other designers have recently picked up on the Favela's recipe for international success. MK27 are a São Paulo-based architecture studio. As many architects do, they too decided to give furniture a try.  I learned about this project on Change Observer. I’ll just read from the post that talked about them. “The finished pieces, 16 in total, were exhibited in late March at a high-end São Paulo boutique, Micasa. They are not for sale, but MK27 will create, on request, as many as three variations of each piece, which will retail from between $2,000 and $15,000.  For these variations, the studio will continue to repurpose found pieces rather than commission workers to make them.

When the workers first noticed the architects' interest in their furniture (...) they began to make pieces specifically for them, using different, more deliberate techniques. (...) [But} because most of the pieces are crafted anonymously, the workers won't profit from their eventual sale. The project sparked debate inside the office, and some architects worried about accusations of exploiting the workers. But the desire to extend the functional life of these usually ephemeral objects, and to celebrate an authentic vernacular design tradition, won out.” On the bottom-right image there's even a reference to Lina Bo Bardi's famous Giraffe stool. Brunno Jahara has lived in Brazil, Italy and The Netherlands and came back to Brazil a few years ago. He’s not only a prolific designer, but also a great “pusher” of his work.  Photos of just completed prototypes are spread on blogs and magazines with dizzying speed.

Late last year Jahara created a collection of furniture made using scrap wood. The collection includes tables, desks and benches made of discarded strips of wood that have either been painted in bright colours and joined together to form cabinets, or been painted white, with slithers slivers of the wood beneath showing through. So far, so good. But this is when the press release copied and pasted on design blogs gets slightly ridiculous: “the designer wants to highlight the living condition of people that moved from the countryside into big cities searching for a better life (i.e. improvised homes made of scrap)”. So he named each piece after Rio de Janeiro favela. They also, according to Jahara, “are built with a feel of improvisation.”

While some of you might find striking similarities with the work of Dutch furniture designer Piet Hein Eek, I’d like to read you a rather fair comment to this project, also made on Dezeen: “Would it be too much to suggest he actually puts his design skills where his mouth is to create simple yet effective affordable furniture to help towards that better life?” 

What these last three projects I’ve shown you have in common is that they pay homage to the ingenuity in the face of scarcity of the poor, but fail to either critique or improve their living conditions. While you may think a chair is hardly a critical thing, I’d like you to consider social opportunity versus design opportunism. Is making furniture for the rich inspired in the living of the poor the international future of Brazilian design? I hope not. What I secretly hope for is if or when Brazil finally eradicates poverty, these Favela design declinations will be a laughable thing of the past.

This is a quote from American designer and writer Jonathan Olivares found in his introduction to the catalogue of German designer Konstantin Grcic's Design Real exhibition, which took place at the Serpentine gallery in 2009. Olivares describes our contemporary detachment of what he calls the public, or rather, all of us, from the making of stuff. This also applies to consumer products that are made, sold and designed by and for the people of Brazil. Again, think of the 90 million C-Class Brazilians that are ready and willing to change their material and visual surroundings. What will the results from designer-lead community projects mean in a bigger scheme of things?

As I was putting this presentation together I thought not of Karl Marx’s notion of the fetishism of commodities, which in my view adequately reflects these last three designs, but of Arjun Appadurai's notions of production fetishism and fetishism of the consumer. On production fetishism, Appadurai goes on to say, and I quote “The locality (both in the sense of the local factory or site of production and in the extended sense of the nation-state) becomes a fetish which disguises the globally dispersed forces that actually drive the production process. This generates alienation (in Marx's sense) twice intensified, for its social sense is now compounded by a complicated spatial dynamic which is increasingly global.”

Applied to Brazilian design and the role of Human Resources as a specific aspect of it, this means we tend to look for, and increasingly talk about, the people and the stories behind the products they make, even if not quite understanding what's at stake. For example, let’s not forget that often-big mining or oil firms, banks and other corporations fund these projects, as a sort of tax write-off.

Should we be talking about how designers make people make things that sell, or how designers are concerned in finding the right people to make them, to guarantee their commercial success?

What about the designers? How are they making a living with such projects? And who's telling, or not telling, their story?

Thank you.

Frederico Duarte 2011

Text: Creative Commons Licence CC BY-NC-SA