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While the more well-known modernist movements of America and Europe were receiving global attention, a third movement was happening almost entirely in secret in South America.

Lounge Chairs by Percival Lafer - 1st Dibs

Lounge Chairs by Percival Lafer – 1st Dibs

As most know, the widespread economic and social effects of WWII played a major role in the rise of mid-century modern design, namely in the U.S. and a number of European countries. But, they were not the only places where the modernist movement was making great strides.

In the late ‘40s, a large number of immigrants from countries like Germany, Italy, Poland, and Portugal made their way to Brazil. At this time, Brazil was still working to establish itself as an independent country, no longer tied to Portugal. Brazilians, spurred by intense nationalism, were visiting other parts of the world and bringing back inspiration from their travels to change and revitalize their own country. Among them were artists, designers, furniture and cabinet makers, and architects, who brought with them the up-and-coming style of modern design that had recently got its start in Europe.

Federal District, Brasília, Brazil

In 1956, construction began on a new, more centrally-located capital for Brazil – Brasília. The decision to move the capital from Rio de Janeiro (which had been Brazil’s capital since 1763), was twofold. For one, this was Brazil’s way of asserting its independence, by moving its capital away from the colonial coastal city to a more interior locale. Secondly, Brasília was to be a new modern city that would represent Brazil’s progressive ideals.

The chief architect of Brasília was Oscar Niemeyer, a Brazilian architect and designer, who is now fondly referred to as the father of Brazil’s modernist movement. To fill this new city, there would be striking modern buildings filled with beautiful, handcrafted furnishings from top Brazilian artisans. While the driving force behind this new capital city was to showcase Brazil’s progressivism, critics of Brasília tend to point out that the city was built more so to be a modern metropolis, and less so to fit the culture and lives of actual Brazilians.

MUSEU Nacional da República. Designed by Oscar Niemeyer.

Notably, during the planning of the city, automobiles were considered a symbol of the future, so the city was specially designed to accommodate them. Present-day residents find the lack of walkable conveniences somewhat frustrating now. Regardless of how successful or unsuccessful the creation of Brasília was, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987 because of its extensive collection of striking, modern architecture.

Unfortunately, as mid-century modern design was gathering steam in Brazil, political obstacles prevented designers and architects from participating in global modernist movements. Military dictatorships from the mid-’60s to the mid-’80s placed bans on furniture exports and a lack of scholarly attention prevented the movement from reaching academia. So, many of the striking designs originating in Brazil were never seen by mid-mod enthusiasts until more recently.



Brazilian mid-century modern office.

Brazilian mid-century modern designers incorporated a variety of rich, dark woods in their designs.

Brazilian Mid-Century Modern Design Elements

The Brazilian mid-century modern movement, of course, shares many characteristics with those of America and Europe. Clean lines, contrasting materials, pairing geometric shapes with organic ones – these are all found in modern Brazilian design. The differences come through when you consider the economic position and manufacturing abilities of Brazil during this time.

Brazilian mid-century modern living with low-set furniture.

Many furnishings were low-set and crafted from contrasting, yet natural materials.

Firstly, Brazilian designers and artisans were restricted to working with mostly natural materials, such as wood, cane, wicker, and leather. While the industrial boom of the postwar era allowed American and European designers to experiment with new innovations like plastic and fiberglass, Brazilian designers did not have access to these materials.

Instead, they focused their attention heavily on craftsmanship, expertly sculpting these furnishings from tropical woods with minimal detailing or ornamentation for a refined, elegant feel.

Ultimately, Brazilian designers brought forward an entirely new version of modern design. Their creations were heavily influenced by nature, crafted from rich, dark woods, and were low-set, sturdy, and functional. Designers during this time were especially keen to create pieces that were strikingly timeless, and their superior craftsmanship resulted in high-quality, long-lasting furnishings that fit well in a variety of different interior design styles.

Brazil’s initial isolation from the rest of the mid-century modern design world and the lack of industrialized manufacturing has now made these original Brazilian mid-mod furnishings incredibly rare, and incredibly expensive. The majority of these pieces were either crafted for Brasília or were commissioned by wealthy clients. The rarity, quality, and design of these furnishings has converted many of them from mere sofas and coffee tables into true works of art you may only find on museum floors now.

Brazilian Mid-Century Modern Pieces

Oscar Niemeyer

Rio Chair by Oscar Niemeyer - Sothebys

Rio Chair by Oscar Niemeyer – Sothebys

Mentioned above, Niemeyer was clearly a key figure in the Brazilian modernist movement since he was selected as the chief architect of the nation’s new capital, Brasília. From buildings to furniture, his main design principles centered around sensuous, curving lines and forms that were inviting and unique.

The military dictatorship of Brazil drove him away from his home country for many years in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was during this time he designed the Rio Chair while living abroad in Paris. He drew his inspiration from the hills of Rio, which he eventually was able to return to when the dictatorship ended in 1985. He lived to be 104 years old.

Three-Legged Chair by Joaquim Teneiro - Sothebys

Three-Legged Chair by Joaquim Teneiro – Sothebys

Joaquim Tenreiro

Tenreiro was born to a family of woodworkers in Portugal and emigrated to Brazil in the late ‘20s. He was among the first designers to begin melding European vernacular with that of Brazil’s furniture industry. His furniture was known for being light, perfectly fit for the climate of Brazil with heavy use of cane and wicker.

Tenreiro’s pieces have since become extremely desirable. In fact, a three-legged chair similar to the one shown here was sold at auction for over $90,000 in 2008.

Lounge Chairs by Percival Lafer - 1st Dibs

Lounge Chairs by Percival Lafer – 1st Dibs

Percival Lafer

Born in Brazil in 1936, Lafer was known for his strong commitment to creating pieces that were simultaneously works of art and affordable, so that middle-class homes could have striking pieces of their own. He graduated from university with an architecture degree but had to return home to run his family’s furniture store upon the death of his father.

He transitioned to furniture design and created innovative new designs with the hopes of mass-producing them. His creations were particularly popular because he had designed them for easy assembly, disassembly, and shipping.

Folding Chair by Lina Bo Bardi - Sothebys

Folding Chair by Lina Bo Bardi – Sothebys

Lina Bo Bardi

Despite finding it hard to gain acceptance due to her status as both a foreigner and a woman, Lina Bo Bardi was a pivotal member of the Brazilian mid-century modern movement. Bardi heavily promoted the social and cultural potential of architecture and design. Her popularity skyrocketed most recently when a 1993 catalog of her’s (originally published one year after her death) was republished in 2008.

For Bardi, emphasizing the rawness of the materials she worked with, as well as showcasing each piece’s inherent Brazilian connection, was key. One of her most acclaimed creations was the sturdy and stackable wood folding chairs she designed for one of her own architectural projects – the MASP (Museum of Art São Paulo).

Petelas Coffee Table by Jorge Zalszupin - Bossa Furniture

Petelas Coffee Table by Jorge Zalszupin – Bossa Furniture

Jorge Zalszupin

Jorge Zalszupin was born in Poland and moved to Brazil in 1949. While living in São Paulo, he founded a furniture company, L’Atelier, in the ‘50s. His ability to beautifully combine European influences with Brazilian ones made his designs extremely popular. With functional elegance at the forefront of his designs, you’ll find strong geometric lines paired with organic forms. His materials of choice: high-quality exotic woods and premium leathers.

Zalszupin’s famous Petelas coffee table was the result of experimentation with laminated rosewood. By making the wood malleable, he was able to create unique curved diamond (lozenge) segments that would fit together to form a flower-like design.

Boomerang Chair by José Zanine Caldas - 1st Dibs

Boomerang Chair by José Zanine Caldas – 1st Dibs

José Zanine Caldas

In his early career, José Zanine Caldas worked with famous architects, like Oscar Niemeyer, even though he never received a formal education in architecture. For both the cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Caldas made many detailed architectural models, which later appeared in textbooks, and even taught a course on the subject until he lost his position at the University of Brasília due to a military coup. He spent time after this traveling around Latin America and Africa, returning with new design inspirations.

Besides his architectural pursuits, Caldas was well-known for creating furniture to raise awareness about preserving the rainforests of Brazil. He worked closely with environmentalists and made an effort to only use felled trees for his works when possible and plant trees to replace any that he took.

Bring out some of that Brazilian mid-century modern magic in your own home! While original pieces are hard to come by, finding modern-day pieces in dark woods with a mix of natural materials can bring out the same vibe in your own home without a budget-breaking price tag!