Before leaving for Sao Paulo, an acquaintance who used to work in Brazil suggested I pack both an old cell phone and an empty wallet, and that I stash my real phone and wallet in my underwear. When the pickpockets eventually got to me, he explained, they wouldn’t leave with anything valuable.
Another acquaintance, originally from South America, set the odds of being mugged at 60 per cent, whereas a close friend told me the odds were closer to 100 per cent, noting that her mom and sister were robbed on separate occasions while visiting Brazil. Possibly seeing my cheeks blanch with fear, she added, “but you’re going to love it, I promise.” I kept wondering how someone like me, an anxious traveler at the best of times, would “love it,” given the numerous warnings.
As I waited at the airport, I kept twisting my Air Canada ticket in my hands, wondering if I should simply throw it out and go home. I was comforted after I Googled “Sao Paulo safety” to discover, for example, that the city’s murder rate has decreased by almost 90 per cent over the last 20 years, making it far less deadly than Detroit, where I’ve been and didn’t die.
I was further comforted by the other people I was travelling with, a group of professional designers. None of them had stashed valuables in their skivvies (that I know of) and all of them were giddy with anticipation, pointing out that the architecture and design on our itinerary would make me wish I had planned a longer trip.
“Sao Paulo is like nowhere else,” said Stephan Weishaupt, the organizer of our tour, as we boarded. Weishaupt has made more than a dozen trips to the city ever since launching contemporary furniture retailer Avenue Road in 2007, partly to scout out items to sell in his stores – Weishaupt’s lineup currently includes pieces by Oswaldo Tenorio, Arthur Casas and Oscar Niemeyer – and partly just because he loves it. “The Brazilian design we carry is a relatively small part of our sales – under five per cent. But that’s not why I go. I go to get inspired.”
Soon after we landed, I began to understood Weishaupt’s enthusiasm. Even through the smudged window of an airport taxi, Sao Paulo beguiles. The largest city in the western hemisphere, with over 12-million people, it’s a bit like Los Angeles meets Manhattan in a jungle and on growth supplements.
Like New York, the streets are lined with tall towers. In many places, it’s hard to see sky for all the buildings. But instead of steel grey, many are in soft hues – peaches, blues, whites – particularly surrounding the leafy Jardins district where we were staying. Up close, the walls of colour turn out to be little ceramic tiles applied in delicate mosaics, a pretty backdrop to the palm trees, ferns and flowers bursting out of courtyards, street-side planters and private gardens.
I got a clearer sense that Sao Paulo design was different when we arrived at out hotel, aptly called Unique. In contrast to all the tall towers, Unique looks like a slice of watermelon sitting on its rind, its ends arcing up into the sky, with rows of circular windows dotting the sides like seeds. As if to push the fruity metaphor to the limits, the long rooftop pool has a lining of dark red tiles, turning the clear water the colour of fresh-squeezed juice.
I met Unique’s architect, 82-year-old Ruy Ohtake, in another building he designed, the Tomie Ohtake Cultural Institute. The structure, dedicated to his late mother, a notable artist, looks like blue and red ribbons flitting in the wind. When I asked him why he designs such bold forms, he told me that despite starting his career nearly 60 years ago, when the prevailing aesthetic was clean-lined, boxy and modern, he spent a long time looking for something new. “Around 1980, I decided on my approach. I didn’t want to be conservative or contained anymore,” he said.
In part, Ohtake was inspired by the early careers of similarly exuberant designers such as Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid. More deeply, Ohtake was tapping into a zeal for new ideas that has distinguished Brazilian design for the last 150 years, as waves of immigrants settled in South America, bringing novel ideas with them. Many Japanese, such as Ohtake’s ancestors, arrived in the early 20th century, escaping a terrible economy and the onset of the First World War (Sao Paulo now has the largest population of Japanese people outside of Japan). Many others from countries in Europe, including Germany, Spain and Italy, and Middle East nations such as Syria and Lebanon also came to escape wars and work in Sao Paulo’s booming agricultural industries.
One such expat, Italian-born architect Lina Bo Bardi, arrived in Sao Paulo in 1946 and designed several iconic structures in the city. Her work both echoes Western modernism while reflecting something new she found in South America. Her most famous building, an art gallery called the MASP, looks like a fairly typical, 1960s glass box, a bit like the Toronto Dominion Centre in Toronto, with a grid of steel framing lots of glass. What distinguishes the architecture is that it floats mid-air above a massive plaza, held aloft by only four columns and two beams, each painted a tropical red.
Likewise, Bo Bardi’s own home, Casa de Vidro, defies gravity. The crystalline white box is perched on pencil-thin stilts at the top of a steep hill, and features floor-to-ceiling windows that slide completely open, turning the indoor living room into an outdoor terrace surrounded by palm fronds. The view is spectacular, but the lack of guard rails makes the perch risky for anyone who gets too close to the edge, more so if he’s had a few caipirinha cocktails. In fact, standing there, while I had long forgotten my worries about pickpockets, I fretted about falling.
“After the Second World War, people’s sense of danger was totally different,” says Lissa Carmona, the CEO of ETEL, a furniture company that manufactures many of Bo Bardi’s original chair designs (Bo Bardi specifically preferred creating chairs over sofas or other seating, believing that because they were easier to reconfigure into groups, they made for more social furniture layouts). “Danger was war back in Italy. Sao Paulo, and that indoor-outdoor balcony, felt safe in comparison.”
After a few days in Sao Paulo, the strangeness of a living room-cum-cliff or a giant floating box started to feel less singular, given the other surreal design I was seeing. At Japan House, a cultural and community centre designed by architect Kengo Kuma, the front façade is composed of fairly regular looking lumber, except that the wood is flying through the air, magically shrouding the building beyond (I still don’t understand how it all hovers in place). In his own studio and showroom, contemporary architect and furniture designer Osvaldo Tenorio somehow made a stone staircase with origami-like lightness, with slabs of granite appearing to fold as though made from thin paper. The Ibirapuera Auditorium, designed by one of Bo Bardi’s most notable contemporaries, Oscar Niemeyer, looks like a giant wedge of white cheddar with a ruby red tongue jutting out above the entryway. It’s one of the most playful, whimsical and interesting buildings I’ve ever seen.
“Architects working in Brazil can do things we can’t necessarily do in Canada,” explained Lisa Bovell, a Vancouver-based architect who was on the tour with me. “First of all, the climate is amazing. When you don’t have to worry about insulation, you’re freer to think about other things.”
We had just visited the boutique of fashion designer Paula Raia where Saran Wrap-thin windows frame a lush courtyard and some of the interior walls are made from nothing more than gossamer fabric. “You can’t do that in a cold country,” said Bovell. “Also, the building codes are more lenient in Brazil.” We were sipping caipirinhas in the mahogany-lined bar of the Fasano Hotel, a collaboration between two of Sao Paulo’s brightest architects, Isay Weinfeld, who designed the Paulo Raia boutique, and Marcio Kogan. “Do you see orange Exit signs above the doors? No, you just see beautiful wood.”
Brazil’s hardwoods including rich brown Ipe and cherry-hued Jatoba are one of the reasons the country’s design is so stunning, and one of the reasons why design lovers such as Weishaupt come to Sao Paulo to find furniture. Avenue Road only sources from sustainability-conscious makers, including ETEL and Carlos Motta, both of whom strictly use lumber certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council. As part of his commitment to sustainability, Motta, at his showroom, Attom Design, is as adept at selling his gorgeous housewares, including hand-carved bowls produced by craftspeople based in the Amazon, as he is at convincing people not to buy too much stuff. “I’ve been using the same wooden bowl every day for 34 years,” he told me. “Why buy new all the time, when you really just need one beautiful object?”
It’s not hard to believe that Motta could use the same bowl for over 30 years, given the durability of the material. Sao Paulo has fantastic vintage furniture shops such as Loja Teo and Passado Composto, and even when the pieces are 60-plus years old, they look brand new (especially when fashioned in the timeless design of a master such as Romanian-Brazilian Jean Gillon).
Stone is another wondrous resource found in Sao Paolo. Jewellery and furniture designer Simone Coste uses luminous Brazilian quartzite and shimmering agate. For a coffee or side table, she might pair a large, solid slab of rock – cut and polished but mostly left raw – with futuristic legs made of tapered bronze or curving resin. The effect is both elemental and futuristic. This April, Coste will introduce new pieces for Avenue Road with a solo exhibition at its Miami Villa showroom.
Coste’s studio was one of the last places my tour group visited in Sao Paulo. As she walked us through her pieces, explaining her inspiration, including star signs and lunar phases, I couldn’t help but reflect on what a great time I had in the city, despite being so nervous at the outset. “You have to have your eyes on the future,” she said. “You won’t make history by living in the past. Sometimes you have to take risks to create something new – make something worthwhile.”
Sao Paulo-born Carlos Motta launched Attom with his son, Diego, in 2017 and produce pieces that highlight the beauty of natural materials and sustainable making. attomdesign.com
The Fasano Hotel’s bar has been ranked as the best in the world and offers live music in a cozy, wood-lined space. fasano.com.br
Casa de Vidro
Italian-born architect Lina Bo Bardi’s iconic glass house is open for guided tours from Thursday to Saturday. Admission is 30 Brazilian Real. institutobardi.com
The ETEL furniture collection includes pieces by Oscar Niemeyer, Jorge Zalszupin and Oswaldo Bratke. etel.design
Niemeyer’s iconic performance space was designed in the 1950s but its whimsical reinforced concrete structure wasn’t completed until 2005. auditorioibirapuera.com.br
Kengo Kuma’s building celebrates the influence of Japanese culture on Sao Paulo via its museum, shop and restaurant. japanhouse.jp/saopaulo
Housewares from the Brazilian design boom in 1940s through the 1970s are on offer at this shop, including furniture, lighting and objects. lojateo.com.br
The city’s art museum is a work of sculpture itself by Rome-born Lino Bo Bardi. masp.org.br
Since 1988, this antique shop has been home to an eclectic mix of pieces and designer Cida Santana’s quartz and crystal light fixtures. passadocomposto.com.br
This fashion designer’s often-neutral collections marry refined silhouettes with textured textiles and a hint of hand-craft. paularaia.com
Tomie Ohtake Cultural Institute
An exhibition and teaching space, the Institute has mounted art and design shows about the likes of Josef Albers and Yayoi Kusama. institutotomieohtake.org.br
With its idiosyncratic shape and rooftop pool, the Unique offers guests some of the best views of – and in – Sao Paulo. Rooms from 1,398 Brazilian Real. hotelunique.com
100 Brazilian Real is approximately $31.
For more information on Avenue Road’s selection of Brazilian design, visit avenue-road.com.
The Globe and Mail Style Advisor travelled to Sao Paulo as a guest of Avenue Road. The company did not review or approve this article prior to publication.
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