In Conversation: Lissa Carmona
With her extensive knowledge and compelling fervour, Lissa Carmona is the perfect woman to converse with on the subject of Brazilian design. As the CEO and director of ETEL – a design firm that holds one of the largest collections of Brazilian modernist furniture – it could be said that Lissa Carmona was destined to find her passion within these realms. ETEL is titled after Lissa’s mother, Etel Carmona, who founded the company in 1985, and so Lissa was raised in an environment where design and the arts were appreciated. However, it wasn’t until Lissa was called on by her mother to assist with an exhibition that ETEL was contributing to in New York, 1994, that Lissa transformed this passion into her career- a decision that Lissa Carmona has never looked back on.
ETEL has played an integral role in the ‘rediscovery’ of Brazilian design, contributing to the recognition of the likes of Lina Bo Bardi, Jorge Zalsupin, Guiseppe Scapinelli, Sergio Rodrigues and of course, Oscar Niemeyer, all of whom are now regarded as pioneers within the field. Lissa explains that (ETEL’s) collection offers "100 years of (design) history, starting with pieces and also designers from 1914 to 2019. We really have a timeline that tells the story and history of Brazilian design. We call it a ‘collection’ because it’s curated; we have a considered selection of furniture, not just furniture produced in Brazil. Since the beginning, we’ve loved retelling the history of Brazilian modern design.”
If you are wondering why Brazilian design needed to be “uncovered," well this is for the most part linked to Brazil’s turbulent socio-political history. Lissa acknowledge this past as she proffers that “due to what happened in Brazil, politically and historically – in 1968 we had a military coup, we were closed – we lost some memory. Brazilian institutions and museums in the 1970s were throwing out Brazilian design and only wanted to showcase what was from America or Europe. In colleges, people weren’t taught the history of Brazilian design.”
This recovery of Brazil’s design past has generated international stimulation around the body of works. Lissa herself suggests that we might view these pieces from the hidden eras as, “a school of design”.
She also cites the fluctuations of Brazil’s politics as a catalyst in the creation of such artistry and originality. When asked how the country’s political and environmental juxtapositions and clashes have manifested in the cultural and design movements she states that she thinks that "design in Brazil has really a lot to do with our contradictions, paradox, and juxtapositions. Brazil is an open country, and it started with the immigrants. At the beginning of the century Brazil was a very continental country, no one really knew about Brazil. Because of the crisis and the wars in Europe, Brazil started being viewed as THE country of the future. Many talents emigrated to Brazil during the First and Second World Wars; there was Jorge Zalsupin from Poland, Lina Bo Bardi from Italy, Gregori Warchavchik from Ukraine, and when they arrived in Brazil they found a land that was already in the modern era; we had a very iconic and important building designed by Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, the Ministry of Health and Education, so when these great designers arrived they were in awe of this buildings and others.”
Oscar Niemeyer, Sergio Rodrigues, Lina, Bo Bardi and their contemporaries were part of what could be considered a ‘Brazilian Renaissance Period’. In the words of Lissa, “In 1943, Brazil was a mecca, one of the most important countries for modern architecture. There was even an exhibition at MOMA called ‘Brazil Build’, this is how crazy our history is. We had an amazing apogee in the 1950s – Lina Bo Bardi did an amazing glasshouse, that is part of the glasshouses of the world – and in the 1960s – we had Brasilia, the largest planned city, it was a utopia, where Niemeyer placed Brazil in the centre of the world. But, years later, I’m talking about 1968’, we had the military coup (mentioned previously) and Brazil was closed, Niemeyer was exiled and somehow we lost everything this apogee, these great minds, these thinkers had built. This is what I call ‘the parallel’, the contradiction of our country. We were really in the right direction then we had a shift because of the dictatorship.”
The phenomenon that is Brazilian modern design can, of course, be extremely difficult to comprehend. Beyond the paradox of avant-garde thinking and suppression, a series of varied juxtapositions, that Lissa Carmona so eloquently explains, is at the heart of it’s ever-lasting pertinence.
“When those designers emigrated to Brazil, they were not just bringing their own identity and background, and imposing that to the Brazilian culture or to the buildings and constructions, they were contributing to it. This mixture resulted in something very very peculiar, that was unique in design. For Europeans, Brazilian design it is not quite exotic, it is familiar in a way, you can say ‘it looks like Scandinavian design’, or ‘there’s some relationship with Italian design’, but still it’s something completely fresh. This is what I believe makes our designs so beautiful; it is a fruit, a result of our contradictions. Another example of contradiction, is that it is not exotic or unexpected, as people believe it will be. Because it is in South America, it’s continental, it’s so far away from Europe and the USA they assume it would be very colourful and tropical, and our modern designs are not.
"Another example is lack of industrialisation. The designers and great architects, worked independently from the industry so they were capable of producing unique pieces, limited editions, that are more like artwork. One of the characteristics of Brazilian design is that every piece is a sculpture. Niemeyer, Zalsupin and all have this quality. They don’t have the same commitment as the European designers such as, the Italians and the Germans to design something that could be produced in masses for the industry. The industry was so much more developed in Europe, the relationship between design and industry is different in Brazil. We didn’t have industrilisation, so everything was produced in very low quantities, which is an important characteristic.
"And the last opposition is the relationship between the designers and the tropical woods. All of the designers used the Brazilian woods, like the Brazilian Jacaranda. Brazilian woods are very different from European and what I call the ‘northern hemisphere’ woods. ‘Northern woods’ are more homogeneous, they are not as vivid as tropical woods.”
When Lissa Carmona talks of the sculptural hallmark of Brazilian design Oscar Niemeyer’s noted quote comes to mind- "My work is not about “form follows function,” but “form follows beauty” or, even better, “form follows feminine."
The correspondence between Brazilian design and art is perceivable due to this method of “form for beauty”, of which Niemeyer poetically speaks. Lissa explains that, “Brazilian design is pretty much related to architecture and art; it started with the art movement of 1922, It’s related to all kinds of art; poetry to paintings etc. The designers and the architects were part of this artistic intelligence.”
Perhaps it is this "artistic intelligence" that elevates Brazilian design and separates it from its contemporaries. Art can often be perceived with a sense of sentimentality, whilst design is frequently associated with formality, yet Brazilian design allows the two to coexist. Lissa describes Oscar Niemeyer’s work, for example, as, “a gigantic artwork” stating,
“They are very simple, often crafted with one material. Niemeyer was a formalist, so the form is more important than the construction, and if you see his sketches for his furniture and architecture, it’s very fast, one line is precisely blueprinting the piece or the construction. His very furniture if very architectural; this you look at the base of his table you see the base of the Brazilian cathedral. If you look at the base of the outer lounge chair you see the same architectural aspects. He wanted us to see these architectural forms. In the same vain, you don’t see exuberant gardens in Niemeyer’s architectural works, because he didn’t want anything to distract from the magnificence of his architectural work. He worked very closely with Roberto Burle Marx, but in their collaborations, you don’t see the trademark Burle Marx gardens, you see the form, you see the architecture.”
The ascendance of Oscar Niemeyer, is central when talking to anyone about modern design, Brazilian or otherwise. He is the designer that most are familiar with from Brazil, even if not very acquainted with the genre of Brazilian modernity in general. They’ve seen renditions, reinterpretations and plainly speaking, replicas of his work. They’ve heard contemporary creatives site him as an influence, they’ve visited a public space devised by him. Lissa Carmona, like any Brazilian design enthusiast, has always had a relationship with the work of Niemeyer. As she says, “I discovered Niemeyer very soon. Being Brazilian I have always seen his works around and architecture has always been a passion; I joke that I’m like a frustrated architect, I love architecture. Niemeyer has always been part of my life his works always stood out, they were different from the other buildings, they always caught my attention.”
Like the juxtapositions that are behind them, Niemeyer’s works are distinctive due to their truly inventive and seductive nature, however, no endeavour is the same. Projects like Casa das Canoas and the Niterói Museum are explicitly divergent, yet posses the notable attributes that are trademark to Niemeyer. Lissa breaks these attributes down simply, typifying Neimeyer’s works in terms of his tendency to "push the limits of materials; the concrete, the wood, the metal. In his works you’re going to see the curves, you’re going to see the material pushed to limits of the resistance, you see the simplicity and the purity of the form.”
Though ETEL has been at the forefront of the unearthing of Brazil’s design past it also celebrates the country’s design present and future with three divisions, Contemporâneo, Moderno and Nova Geraçâo (Contemporary, Modern and New Generation). Lissa cites the designers of all of these generations as ‘great’’ and truly admires and appreciates their work, but still, when asked if there are present-day designers comparable with Oscar Niemeyer and his contemporaries, Lissa expresses that “what Niemeyer achieved throughout his career – being probably the most, if not the most important designs worldwide –is really on another level. I believe it’s going to be unfair for the contemporary designers to say ‘ok this is the new Niemeyer’ because Niemeyer was a genius, there is really nothing and no one like Niemeyer, not just in Brazil. It’s very difficult to have a career like Niemeyer’s, he was complete and a true genius of his field.”
And this is a statement summarises why to the present-day we are still in awe of the genius of Niemeyer.