The entrance of Fernando Brízio: Inhabited Designs, at EXD’11/LISBOA. Photo: Luís Rocha.

I recently contributed to the companion brochure of EXD’11/LISBOA’s retrospective exhibition of the work of the contemporary Portuguese industrial designer Fernando Brízio. Titled Legerdemain, my essay sought to understand Brízio’s posture and design production, placing him in context among other international designers of his generation. I originally wrote in Portuguese, and the text was translated to English by the lovely Rute Paredes. Thanks to Frederico Duarte for valuable insight!

Fernando Brízio belongs to that generation of Portuguese product designers who, upon finishing college in the mid 90s, found themselves in a difficult and paradoxically privileged position. This is a generation of pioneers. Pioneers because, for the first time, they are free from the outdated moulds of the profession, which until then had been mostly limited to consultancy work for the industry and market. And pioneers because when, in 1996, Brízio finished his course in the Faculty of Fine Arts of Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal was a country coming to terms with the reality of its first decade after joining the EU. The influx of European investment was taking a long time to bear fruit, industry and competitiveness were weakened by the open markets policy and design was still unable to find its place in industry. As such, the most recent generation of designers would have to carve out a place for themselves.

Fernando Brízio would therefore become a designer the way you were a designer in the 90s: by being an author.

This authorial impulse appears with renewed strength in the first half of the 90s, when a group of designers, many of whom were trained in art schools, began criticising functionalism and the progress-oriented modernist ethos. By the late 80s, London-based Ron Arad had already created his cartoonish, undulating “Big Easy” chairs, one-of-a-kind pieces made from metal, cold and uncomfortable. In the early 90s his piece “This Mortal Coil” (1993) subverted the idea of bookshelf, and his studio “One Off” in Covent Garden was producing single editions and one-offs. The “S Chair” (1987) was one the first iconic and distinctive forms that Tom Dixon started to design and produce in limited edition format. In a Sydney gallery, in 1987 Marc Newson showed his retro-futuristic “Lockheed Lounge” chaise longue, made from a homemade fibreglass mould and hundred of aluminium panels riveted by the designer himself. In São Paulo, Humberto and Fernando Campana showed in a video sent to Massimo Morozzi in 1993 how to tangle and loop a 450-meter-long length of rope around a steel structure to create their chair “Vermelha” and thus deconstruct the modernist canon.

In 1983, hailing from The Netherlands, the conceptual design label Droog Design hijacked the spotlight at the Salone del Mobile – Italy’s most important furniture fair turned main stage for design worldwide – by the hand of art historian Renny Ramakers. It was instantly praised as the star attraction. In a small showcase, Droog gathered and introduced works by designers like Hella Jongerius, Marcel Wanders, Jurgen Bey and Tejo Remy, nowadays veritable design “super-stars” but virtually unknown in 1993. Pieces like Tejo Remy’s “Chest of Drawers” (1991), assembled from several discarded drawers tied in an apparently random way; and “Bulbs Chandelier” (1993) by Rody Graumans, a lamp composed of 85 simple incandescent light bulbs, depart from single generic elements to create a surprising, subversive whole. On the other hand, designs such as Marcel Wander’s “Knotted Chair” (1996), a carbon fibre chair woven like a handcrafted object, challenged expectations and the ruling logic, whilst simultaneously inviting technologic innovation. Most Droog objects also manifested a subtle sense of humour, inexistent in design’s production at the time, which was minimal and dispassionate.

Initially an outsider, Droog rapidly became a heavy weight. A regular at Milan, the pieces authored by its associated designers were acquired and added to the collections of the world’s leading design museums. Privileging each designer’s individuality, Droog nurtured the notion of the designer as author, catapulting to fame a whole new generation of Dutch designers. Editing furniture pieces and objects as expensive and exclusive limited editions, also contributed to the crystallization of the design object as art – in a modus operandi maintained today as a market logic.

The work of Fernando Brízio flows naturally from this zeitgeist, both a part of it and its continuance in the Portuguese context. Brízio is, today, the most international of Portuguese product designers. And much of his projection was made possible thanks to its constant and encouraged presence in EXD since 1999 – as well as in other initiatives organized by Guta Moura Guedes over the last ten years. However, his work does not feature in the catalogues of top labels or big industry, nor is it easy to find in stores or to order online. His collaborations with Portuguese and international brands from Authentics to Bordallo Pinheiro or Il Coccio, are specific and sporadic rather than long-lasting. We come across them more as images than objects, more as communication objects that objects for using. Since 2010, Brízio appears in the catalogue and therefore belongs to the group of Droog Design’s designers. And since 2007 he is represented by Galerie Kréo, a contemporary design gallery in Paris, whose co-director Didier Krzentowski has described him as being “a 21st century artisan.”

But the term “artisan” is too narrowing a qualifier for Brízio, as it reduces him to his production. Yes, he works alone. As a maker of things, he is meticulous, dedicate, he refers back to and recovers ways of making that are rooted in our geographic and cultural context. His production is limited, exclusive, precious. However, he encapsulates in the act of drawing the primary tool for his production’s engagement with the world. More than an artisan, Brízio is a man that is intensely alert to his surroundings, casting a gaze upon the world that is simultaneously cerebral and sensitive. He absorbs and stores things, inside boxes and inside himself, without knowing when and why he will use them. Similarly, he hides stories inside his objects which, when the moment of completion, already carry with them a complex past. In “Viagem” (2005), the journey of unfired porcelain pieces in the back of a Land Rover determines their final form, in a poetic and melancholic process. In the “Pata Negra” stool (2005), the final object holds the clues for what was once a love story. There is nothing the user can add to these objects: they are crystallizations in and of time and space, finite and definitive forms. Other projects, in turn, tell stories in the way they are used, like the theatrical and mediatised “Restarted Dress” (2005/2008) and “Painting a Fresco with Giotto” (2005), both spawning infinite variations. On the other hand, the use of stamps and pencils in projects such as “Sketching Door” (2007) and “HB Drawing Shelf” (2005) generate traces and leave marks, apparently transferring to the user the weight of the decisions that were once the designer’s to make. But all of this is illusory – the reveries are predicted and controlled and the limits of the pieces are pre-defined and closed.

These pieces often depart from archetypes: the stool, table, vase, plate, jar, even the dress. These are the generic forms that Brízio seeks and alters: both in “Pata Negra” as in “Stool with fastener” (2000) we recognize the stool we all had in our childhood home; in the series “Table Layered Carpet” (2004) we find the basic variations for the concept of table; in “Eating Plate” (1997-9), a generic plate is attacked by bites. Common by-and-large to Western civilization, these are the archetypes that awake in the user an instantaneous empathy with the designer’s work. The objects are immediately recognizable and, upon a second instance of reading and interpreting, we are struck by their captivating strangeness, often underpinned by a subtle witticism. This trait is also present in the curious animism of several pieces: in the exhibition “Mapping” for French magazine Intramuros (2003), thin chair legs support seemingly heavy loads, reminiscent of a massive pachyderm; in the “Target” table (2009) the arrows holding up the tabletop evoke an insect anxious to escape; and in “Singing Water Jar” (2005) an opaque tin water jar sings when used.

Highly detailed and process-driven, the work of Fernando Brízio is arresting. Visually, it captures us for its delicacy and intelligence, its subtlety and wit; but these are also the qualities that isolate it, in the sense that they do not invite use but rather contemplation. This is a work that does not offer answers, but provocations, distilled from actions and processes. Yes, Fernando Brízio is a designer the way you were a designer in the 90s: by being an author. And what is the use of this design? To cast a pool of light onto the paths of possibility.