Where fine art is often observed from the perspective of the artists and in terms of their expression or intention, design is often considered through the agency of the piece itself. One questions the form and functionality, overlooking the intention of its creator. There are, however, people who view art speculatively, from a multitude of perspectives – the designer’s objective, the piece's functionality, aesthetic command and social context. These people are curators, collectors, dealers or conservationists, working to ensure that pieces are preserved in both physical space and allegory. 

Curators have been consequential in the legacy of Brazilian design, giving prominence to designers and their works and ensuring the pieces from the mid-20th century to the present day are handled suitably, shaping a legacy that will prevail and as such, shaping the reputation of one of Brazil's most esteemed cultural exports.

We spoke to Carlos Junqueira. The founder of the famed Brazilian furniture design firm, ESPASSO about the company, and his role in crafting the reputation of some of Rio's greatest design output. 

Junqueira’s career began in law, and as such his decision to establish a company that holds one of the world’s biggest collections of Brazilian mid-century furniture and design may seem unorthodox. However, in possession of an earnest enthusiasm for Brazilian mid-century design, their designers and their legacy, it was perhaps unsurprising that Junqueira would always be drawn to a career in the world of furniture. 

Junqueira comments: 

“To put it simply, I always admired design, it’s kind of my passion, so I founded ESPASSO.

I know and I knew some of the designers, like Carlos Motta, when we opened back in 2001. I started learning a little bit more about Brazilian design based on my taste; I learned about the influence and history of modernism in Brazil, which was very rich. 

We have great designers like Oscar Neimeyer and Paulo Mendes, and I believed back then that this should be introduced internationally. I wanted people to start appreciating these designers, and I wanted to see what the reaction would be and 17 years later we’re here. Now everybody’s talking about Brazilian design."

When asked to elaborate on what he believes makes Brazilian design so popular in the present day, Junqueira puts it eloquently: 

"One thing that is very important is that it is not trendy, it’s not fashionable you know? It’s being appreciated now but it’s timeless. Brazilians were designing furniture in the 30s and these pieces are still being admired, and they’re being used in amazing projects internationally. 90% of our clientele is American and European, so the beauty of this whole process is how international Brazilian design has become. It’s being introduced into their homes, into their lifestyle, into their private collections."

Whilst many collectors are focused solely on protecting the legacy of mid-century legends, Junqueira and ESPASSO are equally concerned with nurturing new talent, working with young designers such as Claudia Moraes Salles to shape the contemporary scene, whilst continuing to pay homage to Brazil's renowned design history. Junqueira comments that it is a fine balance, to maintain his "commitment to keep the originals that we have, ensuring respect for them, and taking pride in the original designs whilst also incorporating some new additions which are authorised by the foundations, by the designers’ families and the estate – and allowing the new designers to show their works."

Junqueira attributes much of his passion, and indeed his success, to his own heritage, stating that:

"As a Brazilian, I can keep things authentic. Being Brazilian I have a natural commitment to the best representation of Brazilian design, Brazilian culture and Brazilian creativity. As you can see, other people try to have similar collections and it doesn’t work very well. ESPASSO is the one that is still going strong in representing Brazilian designers in the US, because I understand both cultures, I understand what is going on in Brazil and as I’ve been living in the USA for the last ten years, I totally understand the way this country views furniture and interiors.”

With the growing appreciation and demand for Brazilian design, ESPASSO’s customer base is ever-growing, but as Junqueira expresses, most consumers are  “designers and architects, we have collectors, we have private clients. That is our main clientele basically. Interior designers know the pieces are really something special and collectors understand that we have designs of importance, that people want to collect, and private clients admire these pieces and want to own it.”

When asked what made Brazilian design so unique and coveted, Carlos Junqueira expresses himself in terms of that famed Brazilian culture of openness and creativity, commenting,

“It’s unique because of the creativity.  If you look at the country as a whole it’s a such a mix of cultures, such a mix of people, and so the creativity of Brazil is very diverse. But if you look at the Sergio Rodrigues collection or the Carlos Motta collection, they have some very delicate links between them, they talk to each other, there is no confrontation when you place them all in the same location. We have clients that come to ESPASSO and love Carlos (Motta) and love Claudia (Moraes Salles), and they can mix those designers and achieve something that looks good. It’s very important that we keep this as our culture, because we have a very interesting culture – even though it’s a bit crazy currently – our nature is being friendly, it’s being open, so it’s very important that this translates into the design. People, when they look at a chair, might be impressed but when they touch, when they sit, when they feel it there is a connection with life and living.”

In regards to Junqueira’s most-loved designers and pieces in the ESPASSO collection, he states, 

“I admire everybody, each designer has their own personality, their own character, their own story, so it’s very difficult for me to say I admire one more than the other. I really admire everybody and I really back everybody, and I’ve learned so much from all of them so for me it’s an admiration of the people, the product, the concept.

But there are pieces that don’t particularly mean more to me but mean more to the history perhaps, like the ‘Mole Chair’ by Sergio Rodrigues. I have an original model and we have some re-additions, which were all authorised when Sergio (Rodrigues) was still alive – we became very good friends so he was aware of everything I was doing. The ‘Mole Chair’ is actually a piece that we donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year, as they were starting a Brazilian design collection and that was the first piece that they wanted, so it’s definitely important. But a lot of young collectors are collecting contemporary designers like Claudia Moraes Salles, Carlos Motta and Fernando Mendes because they know that in ten or twenty years from now the value that their works will have.”

And lastly, we asked Junqueira what direction he felt Brazilian design was headed in, hoping to get some insight from an individual who has played a huge role in shaping the scene so far. 

“There’s a lot of inspiration in our history, we are a very rich country – rich as in natural resources – and now people are very concerned about the environment, with the sustainability of the design, of the woods and the fabrics, and we work a lot with wood so there will be changes there. The new generation has started mixing wood with metal, stones and pigments, so this is a totally different direction and this new generation is trying to create something sure, that has some kind of importance and differentiation from everything else. There’s a lot of learning to be done, but we’re trying to help guide and shape the goal for the future of Brazilian design with these new designers.”

Illustration by Ryan McMenamy.

Images courtesy of Espasso.