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How do you create a design scene in the middle of the Atlantic where materials are scarce and customers are even harder to come by? As Maryam Siddiqi discovers on the Azorean island of São Miguel, you embrace all your limitations to create a contemporary spin on rustic living

São Miguel island.Vasco Célio

On São Miguel, pink roses and white hydrangeas grow like weeds along the main roads. The lakes are blue or green or, in the case of Lagoa das Sete Ciadades’s Lagoa Verde and Lagoa Azul, both – because of how the area’s varied geography causes the sunlight to reflect on the water in different hues. Surrounding the capital city, Ponta Delgada, are undulating hills, lush with forests, jungles and pastures where cows graze on the verdant landscape.

The largest of the islands in the Azores, which sits 1,600 kilometres west of the Portuguese mainland in the middle of the Atlantic, also has five active volcanos festering below its craggy black rock. That isolation and combination of fiery and delicate environments make São Miguel's natural beauty a major tourist draw. It's also inspiring its emerging designers of architecture, interiors and housewares as they explore the creative potential of the island's unique sense of place.

The downtown area of Ponta Delgada, a city on the island of São Miguel, Azores.Vasco Célio

Over the past five years, mainland Portugal and its capital, Lisbon, have become popular among design lovers seeking out inspiration in its bold colours, intricate tile patterns and the rustic texture of local cork and leather.

Today, there's a worldwide interest in embracing the country's way of living, which lands somewhere between the comfort of Danish hygge and the sparseness of Japanese minimalism. In September, Associative Design, an initiative by the Portuguese Association of Wood and Furniture Industries, debuted a collection of furniture and decor at the London Design Fair. The Tailor collection of credenzas inlaid with geometric patterns and sculptural seating by MBN Group is just the latest example of Portugal capturing the world's attention by putting a contemporary spin on its traditional aesthetic.

Carina Ferreia is the owner of the Louvre Michaelense, a gastro bar and regional products shop in downtown Ponta Delgada.Vasco Célio

By comparison, the scene in the Azores is in its infancy. “We are starting to understand the island differently and, in a way, designing about it,” says Carina Ferreia, owner of the Ponta Delgada boutique and café Louvre Michaelense. The pace of that development is picking up in large part because accessing the islands from mainland Europe and North America is becoming easier. Until recently, it was prohibitively pricey to travel between the archipelago’s nine islands or to the mainland by plane (ferries only run between the islands seasonally, and are subject to weather conditions).

Where it once might have cost 300 or 400 for a round trip flight to Lisbon, Azores Airlines now charges just under 100 for the journey.

The airline, along with European-based discount carriers, has also stepped up international routes (Azores flies direct to Ponta Delgada from Toronto, for example), bringing a larger and more diverse mix of travellers to the islands. These changes open up access to inspiration and materials for local makers, and creates a bigger audience for their wares.

Lagoa do Fogo is a volcanic crater lake on São Miguel island.Vasco Célio

“The tourists that visit want different products, which also works as a stimulus [for Azorean artists],” says Ferreia. “Thinking of the designer as an active agent in cultural construction, there has been a growing awareness of the designer as a vehicle of identity and memory, which has resulted in a more contemporary perspective – although there is still a lot of work to be done.”

Inside the Louvre Michaelense, a gastro bar and regional products shop in downtown Ponta Delgada.Vasco Célio

A teacher by trade, Ferreia opened her hybrid cafe in a former hat shop in June 2015. "I envisioned a space where people could hang out and ‘breathe’ the same atmosphere, where the food, the tea and the products would allow for sharing and experiencing the surroundings.

It is a voyage along the island through its smells, flavours and products with identity," she says.

White Exclusive Suites and Villas is a design guest house at São Miguel island.Vasco Célio

She flipped the format of the traditional 100-year-old shop on its head, putting café seating around and behind the antique cash desk and display cases. Drawers that might once have been filled with tags and packing tissue are now used as display areas for jewellery and home textiles, much of which is traditionally made with natural materials found on the island like fish scales and cryptomeria wood, a lightweight cedar. Beyond custard tarts and other typical baked goods and local, grown-on-São-Miguel tea, it stocks crafts, housewares and fashion accessories designed and made in Portugal, supporting neighbours like Pele e Osso, a brand of handmade leathers shoes and bags.

“We meet artisans in different ways,” Ferreia says. “Some come to the shop and others we meet via social media. The search for pieces has been very interesting, especially for the [home and kitchen] products in our Louvre line, for which we get involved with different artisans and source different materials.”

An exterior view of The White Exclusive Suites and Villas.Vasco Célio

Perhaps the most obvious sign of the developing design scene in the Azores is the number of boutique accommodations popping up around the island. White Exclusive Suites and Villas, which perches above the ocean waves 10 kilometres east of Ponta Delgada’s town centre, is an exercise in minimalism that allows natural elements to shine. The small hotel, which opened in July 2017, was built on the skeleton of the old manor house of a former vineyard, with original beams, stone arches and fireplaces incorporated into some rooms. The hotel’s main staircase is lava rock, a contrast to more refined touches like macramé hangings in suites, wicker chairs in the lobby and woven lampshades in the restaurant – a blending of Azorean, Portuguese and Spanish craft traditions.

Pink House is a design guest house at Fajã de Baixo on São Miguel Island.Vasco Célio

Another example is the Pink House, a two-suite guesthouse that opened in a nearby agricultural area during the spring of 2017.

An interior scene at the White Exclusive Suites and Villas.Vasco Célio

Originally a barn that had been in the family of architect Joana Garcia de Oliveira for six generations, it was used as a garage and storage space before its revamp. “We all saw potential in it and had the idea of transforming it,” says Garcia de Oliveira.

Based outside Milan, Garcia de Oliveira designed most of the furniture and housewares in the space.

“We have produced some of them in our own workshop, like the nine pendant lamps over the stairs for the nine islands, or the wooden house lamps in the bedrooms,” she says. Other pieces like the dining tables, chairs and TV console were designed by Garcia de Oliveira’s firm Mezzo Atelier but built by local artisans.

“We also have some pieces which are the result of the craft and design residency by the public art festival Walk&Talk, curated by Portuguese designer Miguel Flor,” she says, referring to decorative objects like stone jars, tapestries and a tea set.

Rather than a specific design identity, Garcia de Oliveira says the islands are home to “a diversity of local crafts coming from very poor roots, very much related to functionality. There were times when the islanders were completely isolated and had to create almost every utensil and object,” she explains.

The workshop of Ceramica Vieira.Vasco Célio

Despite the growing appreciation and audience for local craftsmanship, some long-standing design traditions are at risk of disappearing.

Ceramica Vieira, a traditional factory on the island's north coast, churns out dishes, tiles and other pottery pieces, most often for custom orders.

But the craftspeople who have been working there for decades have no apprentices to train for the future.

The hope is that initiatives like the Walk&Talk will change that.

Founded in 2011, the annual summer event, which takes place on the islands of São Miguel and Terceira, includes public art shows, dance and music performances, and seminars. The focus is to create an environment that’s open to creative expression and fosters the creation of art, in whatever forms it may take – including skill development.

Ceramica Vieira's shop and museum.Vasco Célio

Nancy Fernandes, co-owner of Saudade, a boutique in Toronto’s Little Portugal that specializes in Portuguese design, says she’s encouraged by initiatives like the Walk&Talk festival. “I am excited for the collaborations between generations,” she says. “Regardless of who I speak to, the importance emphasized in design is respecting the environment and respecting the process.” While Ferreia says the Azores' design scene is in the early stages of establishing itself, its momentum – and a desire among customers – is building.

Oficina Atelier and Gallery of the artist Leonor Lopes.Vasco Célio

This growth is evident just a couple of doors down from Louvre Michaelense, where a new boutique has recently set up shop. Oficina Atelier and Gallery was opened in May 2018 by artist Leonor Almeida Pereira. “All of the art is of small dimensions with pricing that someone with the average salary can afford,” Almeida Pereira says, adding that she’s prioritizing attracting young artists and young patrons. “It is a small space, but open enough to welcome artists committed with their practice and publics curious enough to give them a chance.”

Almeida Pereira works primarily with paper, transforming individual sheets by soaking, staining, cutting and otherwise manipulating them before adhering pieces to a paper canvas. After being stretched, torn and dyed, the elements have more character than in their original forms. Her artworks are delicate but demonstrate strength. They're tidy metaphors for what's happening in the Azores: embracing the land's seclusion and natural diversity to create a sense of connection through design.

Pico Do Refugio, a former tea factory in São Miguel, has been turned into a guest house and artists residence.Vasco Célio

Maryam Siddiqi travelled to the Azores as a guest of Azores Airlines. The company did not review or approve this article prior to publication.

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