The (Portuguese) Soul of Things

Words: Patrícia Barnabé
First photo: Jenna Duffy
Fourth photo: Inês Silva Sá
Fifth photo: Vicara

There are increasingly more projects which are busy restoring our Portuguese heritage, down to the finest detail. Remember these 10 names who are making this revolution happen, celebrating the gifted handiwork of our national artisans and artists.

A handful of fervid supporters have the backs of the design, applied arts and crafts fields in Portugal, working hard to preserve authentic Portuguese culture, far more than our institutions or places of learning. Years before opening the capital’s first museum of design, ex-journalist Catarina Portas launched one of the most interesting research projects invested in the revival of our heritage, Uma Casa Portuguesa in 2004, and A Vida Portuguesa in 2007 — with the clear desire to provide a home for national creativity and our collective memory, through traditional, classic Portuguese products which are still made and packaged in the same way. Right from the first year, besides opening shops in Chiado in Lisbon, and Clérigos in Porto, an online store was launched in partnership with Feitoria, as well as a collection of notebooks and journals with Emilio Braga. Then, soon afterwards, came the relaunch of the famous ceramic swallows, based on the original moulds of their creator Raphael Bordalo Pinheiro, and eight of the historic Viarco pencil boxes, from our childhood. “We believe that objects are able to tell extraordinary, revealing stories. About a person and their quirky tastes, about a society and its background, about a history which is in the end a common identity. A Vida Portuguesa came about from the desire to provide an inventory of brands that have stood the test of time, to reclaim the quality of Portuguese manufacturing and show Portugal to the world in a surprising way,” Catarina Portas wrote in her project manifesto. Besides finding a place once again for the Made in Portugal label in the historical centre of the country’s main cities (in century-old spaces wherever possible), and on the shopping lists of locals and visitors alike, A Vida Portuguesa has launched initiatives that have truly broken new ground. From the Quiosques de Refresco esplanades, to the Lojas com História stores, it has created an infrastructure of traditional commerce conservation at a time of encroaching gentrification and mass tourism. In each case, its mission has always been to “rediscover and recreate the best in national products, today and for all time. A manufacturing and design know-how that continues to speak to our hearts, conceived by and for the Portuguese. Paying attention to who is selling, who is buying and what is being sold. We call it ‘commerce with care’.”

In 2021, A Vida Portuguesa opened Depozito, an all-new space at 21 Rua Nova do Desterro in Lisbon, in collaboration with the project Portugal Manual by Filipa Belo, from an idea hatched in 2018 of turning an old foundry into an arts and crafts store. Within these walls, artisans of old and fresh faces happily coexist side-by-side, coming together to talk about the art of doing something well, for courses and specialist workshops, all in support of the sheer diversity of arts and crafts. It is “a space for sharing Portuguese culture made by hand, a celebration of tradition and its reinvention,” it declares. As for Portugal Manual, it was created in 2020 to be the first network of “entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs”, bringing together professionals from all kinds of areas to offer a support network, providing contacts and solutions, making a community of people who look out for each other. All the while being busy promoting new craft makers, artists and Portuguese brands as cultural flagships of the country, or as engaged commercial collaborators and possible partners with Portuguese tourism, which hasn’t stopped growing. One way has been by creating a podcast with stories of the people who have been reinventing and taking care of this unique heritage, producing content and what they call “creative experiments” with new craft makers, who are reviving the most traditional arts made using local raw materials, in small-scale production lines, while also taking advantage of modern technologies and a vision of sustainability. “An open portfolio for whoever is interested in Portuguese culture and the best of what is made by human hands in Portugal.”

At Depozito last November, Portugal Manual launched a volunteer programme in support of local craftspeople, devised in collaboration with Astrid Suzano’s Passa Ao Futuro initiative. The aim is to connect them to a network of volunteers who help them adapt to new markets, in a virtual and ruthless world of ever-faster consumption, a world uninterested in their desire for time to think and be perfectionists. Also to give a hand in such areas as product photography or digital marketing, for example, tailored to the needs of each individual, in a way that reassures them — and us all — that we belong and have a purpose. Passa ao Futuro, in turn, was founded in 2018 by Astrid Suzano and Fatimah Durkee and brings together architects, design enthusiasts and social entrepreneurs who wish to dig up and document their Portuguese patrimony and nurture the talents of homegrown arts and crafts, the history of their artistic techniques, the choice of materials and the culture that inspired them. They have created a network of national and international initiatives and projects such as exhibitions, conferences, debates, workshops, collaborations between makers and designers, and artistic residences with a social and environmental impact.

One of the next talents to be signed up is artist Sam Baron and Co, a French designer and one of the first to move to Lisbon a couple of decades ago, with a CV to die for (has just been made Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by Philippe Starck at the French embassy and received the Grand Prix de la Creation de la Ville de Paris in the area of design in 2010). A team of young bloods, it thinks, designs, envisions, provides consulting in design and art direction, collaborating regularly with iconic big-name brands from around the world, including from Portugal, such as Vista Alegre. One of its greatest talents is, without a doubt, the relearning of tradition, the savoir-faire behind crafts made by hand (and also manufactured), always with a fresh eye that calls upon and rethinks materials, form, production, and all with an inspired twist to make these objects more interesting. More recently, other “expats” have fallen for Portuguese arts and crafts and have reinterpreted them with unexpected materials from all around the country, as is the case of designer Noé Duchafour-Lawrence from the gorgeous Made in Situ in Praça da Alegria, in Lisbon. And Marie de Carvalho, the Parisian daughter of a Portuguese father who opened Ojo Gallery in Estrela, where she shows homegrown artists and craft makers, with a love for what is beautiful and authentic.

One of the most intriguing curators of national art and handicrafts at the moment is Felipa Almeida, who surrounds herself with objects in a seemingly casual style. However, she has done her research with the utmost care and attention, including in terms of these objects’ implicit relation to ways of life and traditions, and the history of art(s) and crafts: “I create projects insofar as they celebrate Portuguese culture,” she says. Her creative studio develops curated exhibition and art-direction projects at such locations as Quinta do Quetzal, São Lourenço do Barrocal, Casa da Quinta dos Murças, Bairro do Avillez, and in private homes, but also collections of crafts and antiques she coordinates, where she unveils one-off pieces often made in collaboration with artists. Twice a year at her atelier in Campo de Ourique, Lisbon, she organises pop-up events where she invites different creative artists to come up with new pieces on a specific theme. From her time spent reading up, in museums, antique shops, galleries and also at markets and in the studios of artists and artisans, a research diary was born which she publishes on her Instagram.

One of our great thinkers on design, when it comes to tradition and modernity and their relationship to the arts and crafts, Frederico Duarte, lecturer at Lisbon’s Faculty of Fine Arts, curator and critic, has been one of the main advocates for homegrown design, since before it became trendy or attracted the attention of galleries. He coordinates the media presence of the international sustainability project Bauhaus of the Seas Sails, at the Interactive Technologies Institute of Lisbon’s IST (Higher Technical Institute), and is co-founder of Fazer magazine, which he runs with Vera Sacchetti, intended as “the main design magazine written in the Portuguese language and a new active participant in the design debate in Portugal.” For this endeavour, he has brought in collaborators from every port of call, who are busy researching and surveying the landscape of contemporary design, as well as its makers. The first issue was launched last September in Lisbon, and the second is to come in Porto in February 2024, both at Culturgest, besides his involvement as curator of the cycle of Território exhibitions, dedicated to contemporary design. The idea is to reflect on how it mirrors social change, in particular among the different generations of Portuguese creative minds.

From a more institutional point of view, we anxiously await the revamped Museu de Arte Popular, about which little is known, and the reopening of MUDE, Museum of Design and Fashion, both close to the Tagus River in Lisbon. When the latter opened its doors, making a powerful statement in the capital’s centre in the spring of 2009, the city was introduced to the important estate of Francisco Capelo, subsequently acquired by Lisbon City Council. The first collection of design with international standing, at a time when the field was riding on the coattails of the visual arts, certainly made a name for itself, but MUDE closed its doors for what was a period of never-ending renovation, while occasionally, over the years, getting involved in projects on the road. Such as in January 2020, when director Bárbara Coutinho brought to the main rooms of the official residence of the prime minister — the Palacete de São Bento — the exhibition Design em São Bento — Traços da Cultura Portuguesa which juxtaposed different Portuguese creations from the 17th to the 20th century. Featuring a variety of objects from the areas of furniture, lighting and textiles, this is a showcase for the decorative arts and popular arts and crafts, “as beacons of rationality, limited resources, ingenuity, beauty and functionality, they express a wider-ranging concept of design as an inbuilt skill of humankind, proving the value of traditional knowledge as a source of inspiration, education and development,” goes the introduction. It can still be visited on the first Sunday of 2024.

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