Amid the chaos of Sao Paulo, the lecturer, facilitator and product designer Paula Dib sits with calm demeanour, a natural, pure and wholesome grace belying a determined individual.
Dib is one of a growing number of experts in Brazil’s emergent sustainable design sector, tackling social and environmental problems in one of the world’s fastest-developing economies.
Almost three years ago she won the British Council International Young Design Entrepreneur of the Year, an honour that she says has given her ‘a voice’ and verified her work. Academics became interested and her credibility was cemented. ‘Before, I could only be an idealist,’ she says.
‘People say what I do is not design, not common sense. I’m not looking to be a Philippe Starck or Karim Rashid, and for some people that can be incomprehensible. I attached design to social and environmental issues and understood myself as a creative person,’ she adds.
Dib was running Transforma Design for around three years before winning the award. Transforma already had the support of the Brazilian government and large companies looking for ways to develop their corporate social responsibility schemes.
Transforma, Dib explains, addresses the real needs of communities by helping them to transform their environment using local skills, resources and materials.
Products ‘made to match with real need’ range from kerosene lamps, produced from tin cans, to wooden stools crafted from discarded fruit boxes. The result, Dib says, is something ‘genuine, unique and absolutely functional’.
‘In urban centres, it might be jewellery made with recycled glass, bags and accessories made with a donation of colourful banners, or notebooks made with coffee filters with special patterns. In rural areas we are developing products using the remnants of Brazilian nut production,’ she says.
Transforma evolved from working with impoverished areas of Sao Paulo, after Dib completed a two-and-a-half-year trip around Europe. She planned to study sustainable design in the Netherlands, but as an overseas student fees were too expensive and she couldn’t get a scholarship. She decided the best way to learn about sustainable design was to start something herself.
‘Rather than being in an abstract theoretical academic environment, I realised that I could do things in my own country and actually get involved with people and groups, people living with real needs, and start some research,’ she says. A Casa Brasiliera Objet (Home of the Brazilian Object) – a network comprising anthropologists, architects and journalists – opened her up to dialogues such as the economics of design. These dialogues proved influential in subsequent attempts to facilitate social discussion through her work.
‘The idea is to create a space to discuss possibilities and solutions. It’s less about fashion and what is cool, more about finding solutions for our social and environmental problems,’ she adds.
So where does this astute belief in sustainability come from? As an industrial design student at Sao Paulo’s Fundacao Armando Alvares Penteado, Dib started to perceive principles of production and technology as a constant ‘reaching for something else’, something that is ‘far from humanity’.
She fondly recalls when she finished at FAAP and worked for ceramicist Kimi Nii, ‘We would sit and observe biomimics, things like water on a leaf. It was as if nature was showing us all these amazing things. We were looking at existing solutions rather than machines and scale, when other designers were thinking about the next special machine in Italy.’
Most exciting is the direction that Dib’s facilitating is now taking. Her latest venture is with a co-operative in the north of Mato Grosso. Called Portal da Amazonia, the scheme encourages organic production among 16 different communities.
Dib’s idea is to join up with Portal, convening a troop of design professionals to live on a trailer and circuit rural communities, offering complementary activities and using local resources to create solutions to improve quality of life.
She believes that only by creating participatory initiatives can you can inspire change.