Objects of the Forest

Design, art, and forest

Ennio Candotti was born in Roma in 1942, naturalized Brazilian in 1983. Physics Professor at the University of Rio de Janeiro, University of Espirito Santo, and University of Amazonas. In 1998, he earned the Kalinga Award from India-UNESCO for the popularization of Science. Since 2009 he is the Director of the Amazon Museum, MUSA—a living museum in the forest at Ducke Forest Reserve in Manaus.

To better understand the relationship between design, art, and the forest, I explore the history of painting, from the beginnings of nature’s representations and modern design. There are some illustrative examples about similarities and differences between these three fields of human knowledge, particularly the specific way of creating useful objects (or not so useful), to read and to represent the world or the forest that surrounds us by the means of reason or imagination.


As a starting point, I will use a story told by Giorgio Vasari (1500) about Giotto’s life (1276-1336), found in his book “Lives of the most distinguished painters and architects”:

The Pope Benedict XI, from Trevisi, sent a trustful man to Toscana to check which kind of man was Giotto and what his work was like, considering having some of his paintings in Saint Peter.

The man who came to see Giotto (…) asked him for some drawing to be sent to The Holiness (…)

​Giotto, who was very kind, took a paper and with a brush tinted in red, steadied his arm on the flank to make a compass and, turning his hand, made such perfect circle of curve and profile that it was amazing to see it. Thus done, smiling with malice, he said to the Pope’s emissary: ‘Here is the drawing’. (The emissary felt cheated, but gave the drawing to the Pope).

The Pope and many well-meaning advisers recognized how much Giotto excelled above all other painters of his time.

Later told, this is the story that generated the proverb that is still used nowadays to refer to fool men: You are rounder than the ‘O of Giotto’. (…)

​This story allows us to establish one first metaphor of reference to all our reflections. A ‘simple’ circle, drawn freehand, could reveal the ability of an artist—in the case Giotto, representing the world in the simpler and most revealing way of his talent.


To characterize a design, I observe that it must satisfy five requirements of a program:

  1. be expressed through a drawing or a practical process;
  2. be communicable through teaching;
  3. refer to the real or imaginary world (e.g., the forest);
  4. have utility, which must be demonstrable in some way;
  5. keep a memory of human and non-human ‘living together’;

A design, like a work of art, is also expressed through a language, the line or the colors for example, but it does not necessarily have to refer to the real world.

For example, Giotto’s “O” would satisfy the conditions of the program. It is interesting to note that Giotto was a revolutionary painter and architect who reinvented the pictorial space by returning to it the dimensions of volume that we find in Roman and Greek art, and which were lost in European painting in the Middle Ages.

I ask: would there be a Renaissance design without the perspective representation reconstructed in the ‘quattrocento’ by Brunelleschi, Piero dela Francesca, and Alberti?

Our view at the forest, if we want to move in it, seeks to add a dimension, that of depth to what we see and feel, and metaphors for the characters we imagine: levers and forces, scales and balances, wedges and separations, wrapping curves, symmetries and spirals that guide, order and classify.

To create design objects (in the forest and outside), we must observe these ‘characters’ from a specific point of view, in which they present themselves with their maximum simplicity. Learn to abstract the observed image, recalling with Giotto the origins of the design itself.

We see cylinders, spheres, cones, vertical and horizontal lines as Paul Cezanne, who tells to Émile Bernard, in a letter from 15th of April 1904, his way of interpreting nature:

(…)to approach nature through the cylinder, sphere, cone, all placed in perspective, so that each side of an object, of a plane, is directed towards a central point. The lines parallel to the horizon give the extension, a section of nature or if you prefer(…) The lines perpendicular to that horizon give the depth (…)”

We also see screws, branches on branches. We see vines, flexible branches, leaves, many different leaves even if equal in their form (gestalt). We weave it all. We observe symmetries, sometimes broken, as marks of information.


The people of the forest learned to gather and share, draw and reform, plant, and harvest. Imagine bricolages with branches, stems, vines, trunks, clay: making bows, weaving baskets, tipitis (cylindrical straw basket), braiding ropes for the bow, shaping pots, canoes. From hard chisel stones to carve other arrowhead stones. Symmetrical.

Symmetry has always been present in indigenous culture. It is a hallmark of the bricolage design, in making ends in braids, pots, graphics, and body paintings. Symmetry is balance, imagination, and is also a door to reason.

To burn the clay and make ceramics (symmetrical) is bricolage: with fire, water, clay, and adding the cauxi (freshwater sponge with silica, with plasticizer function) necessary to ensure that when the clay burns, it does not stick.

To cultivate is also to bricolage with living elements that grow and transform, like seeds turn into plants and vines into stairs—useful, as recommended by the program.


The design of what is alive must keep the marks of the forest: change, adaptation, and growth. How? By creating new varieties? Interfering in the lighting? In the process of adapting to light, shade, the soil, water, pollinating insects, fighting predators? Is feeding seeds the same as finding roots?

The forest is also fallen leaves, decomposition, litter, digestion of nutrients by microorganisms, and fungus. Compost to grow, slow transformation. Design objects must be useful—decomposing is useful, it meaning recycling through a “practical process”.

There we find animals that imitate leaf shapes and colors, green and dry, and branches. Useful imitations to confuse predators. They suggest imagining, drawing, and building invisible objects in the forest.


An invitation to see the forest by closing our eyes, making it “cosa mentale” as Leonardo da Vinci desired in 1500.

Design is a project. There must be a proposal for it whether it is a project that destroys flora to have cows grazing on the land, or a project that leverages knowledge and conservation to decipher the millions of years of evolution and natural selection that are expressed and hidden there.

The objects of the indigenous design project—bows, arrows, canoes, tipitis, graphics—are the players of a culture, a way of living and understanding, of celebrating trees, birds, insects and people—human and non-human . They are the marks of the people of the forest.

We have no “field experiences” to do like them. We do not speak the same language. So what is our project? How do we construct metaphors for interpreting nature? We can try with sensibility and imagination to mobilize the knowledge, Giotto’s simplicity, and the history of interpreting what we see in nature, according to our culture. A history of indignation and resistance in defense of the memory that green life preserves and reveals itself to us sparingly—a memory that the solidarity of humans and non-humans fosters.


ARGAN, Giulio Carlo. História da arte como história da cidade. Martins Fontes: São Paulo, 1993

ALBERTI, Leon Batista. Da Pintura. Unicamp: Campinas, 1992

CALVINO, Italo. Seis Propostas para o Próximo Milênio. Cia das Letras: São Paulo, 1993

CEZANNE, Paul. Correspondência. Martins Fontes: São Paulo, 1990.

CANDOTTI, Ennio. A oficina dos conceitos sensíveis, Resgate 17, pg 9-20. Unicamp: Campinas, 2008.

VELTHEM Van, Hussak, Lucia. O Belo é a Fera. Assírio & Alvim: Lisboa, 2003.

VELTHEM Van, Hussak, Lucia, CANDOTTI, Ennio. Marcas na Amazônia, Coleções Exposições, Museus, em Ana Vilacy Glaucio, 150 Anos de Ciência na Amazônia, pg 247-267. Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi: Belém, 2019.

VASARI, G. Le Vite dei Piú Eccellenti pittori Scultori e Architetti. Newton: Roma, 1993

photo: Phanocles sp (Bicho-pau-verdadeiro) / Vanessa Gama

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