Waxing brazilian

Can the profligate West learn lessons from makeshift Brazilian design? Hannah Booth finds out

Socially and ethically sound projects such as this have never been more fashionable. And with its abundant poverty (bought to popular attention by the film City of God) and energetic culture, Brazil is a natural source of inspiration.

‘The social and environmental aspects of Brazil are a fundamental part of the country’s identity,’ says Selfridges marketing director James Bidwell. ‘We’re reflecting that, hoping to get under its skin and not just trying to be worthy.’ Above all, with Brasil 40Ëš he is striving for authenticity. Selfridges is hoping to raise funds for Brazilian children’s charity ABC Trust. ‘There is a wider trend at the moment towards people looking for more meaning in what they do, and how they can help socially.’

Bidwell and his team conceived Brasil 40º about 15 months ago. ‘We sensed real movement over there – [president Luis Inacio] Lula [da Silva] and culture minister Gilberto Gil championing the arts, movers and shakers holidaying there and attention drawn to the favelas,’ he says. A year and a half later, Brazilian culture is about to enter public consciousness.

British Council head of design Emily Campbell initiated the projects with Coopa Roca after she met Leal, was inspired by her work in Rocinha and saw overlaps with the current decorative tendencies of British designers and Coopa Roca’s craft ethos. ‘[Boontje] was an obvious choice because of his decorative style,’ says Campbell. And Paul Smith? ‘A natural fit. He is always interested in [expressing] the vernacular of a culture. Just look at his use of the Union Jack,’ she says.

Coopa Roca started out in the early 1980s producing craftwork from textile remnants, and still works today with donated fabrics and recycled textiles. This resourcefulness with material is its strength, believes Campbell, and mirrors the type of ‘magpie’ architecture and furniture pioneered by Brazilian designers such as the Campana brothers (Profile, DW 11 March). The pair’s Favela chair has chunky planks of wood glued together, resembling the chaotically assembled housing in favelas.

‘The Campanas draw their inspiration from the resourcefulness found in favelas and their use of natural materials,’ Campbell says. Similarly Green is Brazilian charity Ondazul, also on show at Selfridges. It creates furniture from recycled plastic bottles, which in turn have been cleared from Brazil’s dirty waterways.

Even Audi Design Foundation is getting in on the act with Designs of Substance, a competition with Brunel University. Students have been tasked with designing a product aimed at improving the quality of life for people living in favelas. The winner, announced on 20 May, will have a chance to visit Rio’s shanty towns.

But there is one nagging question. Isn’t the whole thing exploitative? Should anyone using the expression Favela Chic be shot at point blank range? Ours is a culture that jumps on bandwagons – if it’s merely for short-term cultural interest without any consideration of long-term gains for the communities involved, isn’t it all a bit distasteful?

‘My instant reaction is to say no, it isn’t [exploitative],’ says Campbell, ‘but there is always that danger. It’s a complex issue. The rest of the world needs to know about these poverty-stricken areas and this type of initiative can raise awareness. We’re hoping to draw out positives from Brazil’s unique culture.’

One such positive might be on-going collaborations with the likes of Paul Smith, Boontje and Agent Provocateur. Their pieces will initially be one-offs, but if they’re successful Campbell and her collaborators hope to develop longer-term partnerships. ‘The more work we can do for [groups like Coopa Roca] the better,’ adds Chandor. ‘Brazil is too sophisticated a country to be exploited.’

Brasil 40Ëš is at Selfridges, London from 5-31 May

Zest for Life, The Designs of Fernando and Humberto Campana, runs from 19 June to 12 September at the Design Museum

Audi Foundation – for more details visit audifoundation.org

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