Being of the forest
Frederico Duarte studied communication design at the University of Lisbon and design criticism at the School of Visual Arts in New York. As a design critic and curator, he’s been writing, speaking and organizing events and exhibitions on design, architecture and creativity since 2006.
Abstract: This research project is an exemplary exploration of a territory through design. Andrea Bandoni identified artifacts used today in the Amazon rainforest, studied them closely and then presented them not as relics of a pre-modern past but as the elements of contemporary life that they are. In the book launched in 2012, at the exhibition held in Recife in 2013 and now in Lisbon, this designer presents a challenge to the usual users of these objects. But also to those who have never seen them, and to those whose job is to add more objects to the world: to reconsider these things taken from nature and turned by people into tools. Moreover, Andrea asks us to reflect on a broader material culture, which knows no regional, national or even continental borders. After all, where do we draw the line that separates the exotic strangeness of these objects from the ancestral familiarity of those used for millennia by the populations of the territories, and forests, of the Iberian Peninsula?
The quote above is the exhibit label text I wrote on Objetos da Floresta for the exhibition How to pronounce design in Portuguese: Brazil Today. This exhibition, which I curated for MUDE, Lisbon’s Design and Fashion Museum, took place at the Calheta Palace in Lisbon’s Tropical Botanical Garden from September 23rd to December 31st 2017. This was the second of a series of exhibitions the museum dedicated to design in the Portuguese-speaking world in 2017 and 2018. Its long title relates to an exhibition curated in 2014 by MUDE’s director, Bárbara Coutinho, titled How to Pronounce Design in Portuguese?, which was a survey of Portuguese furniture design over half a century. The exhibition I was invited to curate, also dedicated to design in the Portuguese-speaking world, would approach design in the largest Portuguese-speaking country: Brazil.
To the title of the previous exhibition I removed the question mark and added the subtitle Brazil Today. Instead of offering a more or less exhaustive survey of a specific discipline of design in a particular country, market, territory, or culture, I wanted to confront the exhibition’s visitors with answers to one broad, but significant question: what’s it like to live and work as a designer in Brazil today? My focusing on the designer as the protagonist in the shaping of this nation’s social worlds, I intended this exhibition to be not about Brazil’s material cultures, that is, the things with which people live in Brazil, but an exhibition about the role designers in Brazil have played in interpreting and contributing to their social, economic and cultural context.
This exhibition was also not about national identity in design, that is, what makes Brazilian design Brazilian. A disproportionate attention is already given – in editorial, curatorial and even historiographical approaches to design – to finding or defining in design artefacts identifying characteristics of a particular people or nation. Such characteristics are often references to history, language or ‘tradition’, found in the formal and material configurations of artefacts. Nevertheless, whoever looks for or defines such references often fails to question what – or rather, whose – identity we speak of when speaking about when design a national identity. Especially in Brazil, a nation whose white-minority population still holds disproportionate access to wealth and property, education and employment, power and law, as well as the practice and discourse of design, claiming and seeking national identity in a particular artefact is a delicate, not to say problematic or pointless exercise.
The main goal of this exhibition was therefore allowing the largest possible constituency of visitors – which is usually called the general public – to discover what it was like to be a designer in Brazil and in the present. But also what the contribution of design to contemporary Brazilian society could be. This exhibition also had another, more specific goal: bring the design communities of Brazil and Portugal together. Primarily through our shared language, but also through a shared dedication to design as a dimension of knowledge.
That is what shaped the exhibition’s curatorial concept of 100 design perspectives: fifty projects and fifty books. The term ‘perspective’ emphasizes once more the subject, and not the object, as the protagonist of design practice. Each of the exhibited artefacts, products, interfaces and books was presented as the accomplishment of the process through which Brazilian designers, whether on an individual or collective level, interpreted or intervened in their contexts with a particular project. Each represented designer was thus seen as an active agent in his or her nation’s design but also, in the case of designers working outside Brazil or for a foreign client, in expanding the boundaries or even questioning the relevance of searching for a national identity in design.
Each of the fifty projects shown resulted from a (design) service provided, an initiative created, a research conducted or a position assumed by one or more designers. Each was exhibited in the rooms of the Calheta Palace not as a unique, rare or precious object of contemplation, but through one of several – in some instances countless – reproductions or multiple representations of a given design. Many of these reproductions and representations were developed especially for the exhibition by some of the more than 200 represented designers and their clients. All of them were shown accompanied by an extended, interpretive exhibit label of about 150 words. These labels informed visitors of the designer’s intentions and, in several cases, provided a critical reading of each project’s strengths and weaknesses. Some projects were exhibited alongside additional interpretive media such as videos, infographics, news clippings or Instagram feeds.
Each of the books were shown as things that visitors could not only see and thoughtfully discover, but also buy. The fifty selected books on Brazilian designers and design made up a bookshop thought to be the exhibition’s conceptual centre. This sort of Noah’s Ark of knowledge generated through design held over 1,000 books, from the most diverse areas and themes. It was a unique and unprecedented opportunity for the Portuguese design community, long deprived of books published in Brazil because of an inexistent shared editorial market between the two nations, to access this knowledge.
That brings me to Objetos da Floresta. I first got in touch with Andrea Bandoni in 2016, prior to my 3-month research trip to Brazil, during which I travelled across the country and interviewed a wide range of design professionals, students and researchers, as well as other agents from many disciplines and social fields. When we first met in São Paulo we spoke about my first interest in this project, which was the specificity of her research. Andrea is not a biologist, an anthropologist or a historian. She is a designer. As such, she asks different questions to objects than any other professional or scholar would. Of any object, as her design practice and research show.
In this research project, Andrea asked questions, as a designer, to objects that belong to a specific region of her country that has long defied state, national and any other human division – or imagination. Objects that have been built from natural fibres and used by women and men everyday. Although they have defined the relationship between humans and non-humans for generations, these useful, essential, contemporary tools that Andrea identified and brought to us from the forest are not artefacts from the past. They are design artefacts of the present.
Yet these artefacts are bewildering to many of us for they challenge the kinds of relationships between humans and non-human things that design has helped defining since the relationship between the thinking, the making, the consuming and the using of things became ever more complex. We may not be familiar with their shapes, names, materials, functions or manufacturing processes, nor with the meanings the women and men who live in the presence of these things have attributed to them. But as the British anthropologist Daniel Miller says, things matter:
Things, not, mind you, individual things, but the whole system of things, with their internal order, make us the people we are. And they are exemplary in their humility, never really drawing attention to what we owe them. They just get on with the job. But the lesson of material culture is that the more we fail to notice them, the more powerful and determinant of us they turn out to be. This provides a theory of material culture that gives stuff far far more significance than might have been expected. Culture comes above all from stuff. ((Miller, Daniel. (2010). Stuff. Cambridge: Polity, 53-54))
Instead of Amazonian, Brazilian or Latin American, or even indigenous, caboclo (someone of mixed Indigenous Brazilian and European origin) or cafuzo (someone of mixed Indigenous Brazilian and African ancestry), I prefer to think of this project as a designer’s perspective into a material culture that I would simply call da floresta: from the forest. There’s a wonderfully simultaneous locality and universality to this perspective.
My second interest in this project, which came later in the curatorial process, was the potential I found in Andrea’s research, as well as in the term da floresta, to inspire her peers and, by extension, the local design community. As expressed in the exhibit label reproduced above, I exercised my (rhetorical) influence as a curator to encourage local designers to discover their own forest material culture. By ignoring the artificial divisions that restrict our comprehension of the peoples, biomes and ecosystems of the Iberian Peninsula – itself less a natural than an artificial construct – we could, also as people of or from the forest, reconsider the objects that have established the human and non-human relationships with the natural worlds we inhabit, which we have neglected for far too long. And in the process rediscover the local and universal nature of our being.
My first intention was to include Objetos da Floresta in the exhibition in both its dimensions: as a project and as a book. Sadly it was not possible to have the small, bilingual book Andrea Bandoni self-published, since the museum’s bookshop partner – Fnac, the French chain of books and entertainment stores – does not carry independent editions. Nevertheless we managed to have Andrea’s book being sold at STET, Lisbon’s best independent art, photography and design bookshop, in what became an unexpected but also welcome point of connection between her project and the local creative community. One of STET’s copies of the book was later purchased by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Art Library and is since available to the readers of Portugal’s foremost art, design and architecture library.
The designers with whom I worked on the exhibition – Álbio Nascimento and Kathi Stertzig of The Home Project Design Studio and Joana Baptista Costa and Mariana Leão of Joana & Mariana – chose to show Objetos da Floresta in one of the Palace’s three rooms occupied by Portugal’s most important Xiloteca. This wood archive, which is made up of over ten thousand wood samples gathered collected by what was once the country’s Colonial Agriculture Museum, is still on display but also at the disposal of contemporary researchers. These useful exhibits provided the appropriate research setting for the objects Andrea that sent to Lisbon, which we placed on a table-height platform: one Tipiti, one Caba House, eight Cuias, one tongue and one scale of the Pirarucu fish, three whistles, one hammock, four bags, ten textile samples, one spathe of the Palm tree, five miriti toys, three product packages, eleven seeds and one cuia-de-macaco.
As some of these objects are fragile, visitors to the exhibition could not handle or even touch them for preservation reasons. Yet these objects are not particularly valuable, unique or irreplaceable. It was important to me that were not presented as reified, exotic, even archaeological artefacts. I wanted visitors to discover and relate to these things but to challenge what is often our default state as museum visitors: passive contemplation. This meant turning the understanding of Andrea’s selection of objects from unusual, self-reliant artefacts of aesthetic experience to evidences of the social worlds where they were thought, made, consumed and used. So next to the exhibit label we included an additional interpretative tool, a small folder of bilingual (Portuguese/English) information cards for visitors to learn more about the nature and function of the things in front of them. I also provided further interpretation on the 37 guided tours I gave during the exhibition’s three months.
In the same room we placed Objetos da Floresta we also included a panel displaying the project developed by Oz, a large design and strategy office, for São Paulo’s Serra do Mar State Park. Aiming to improve the visitation of the Park, this project addressed the visitor’s journey at the level of its interfaces. Showing what had developed into a highly complex and technologically demanding set of design outcomes, such as a website and app, park signage, exterior furniture and interactive exhibits, found on several sites of the largest preserved and publicly available continuous portion of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, provided a stark contrast to the humble but significant things gathered under the name Objetos da Floresta. Yet aren’t these newly-designed artefacts and interfaces objects of the forest too?
Much of a curator’s work, to me at least, is about dreaming of the conversations the artefacts we place in space may spark in visitors to the exhibitions we conceive. I hope these objects have provided not just meaningful observations and curious conversations, but also hopeful inspiration for designing the common future of us all, peoples of the forest.