couches on display in a showroom

Rediscovering a Master of Brazilian Modernism

Joaquim Tenreiro: Tectonic Master at R and Company in New York examines the legacy of a furniture-maker who was much more than a paper artist.

I’m sure that we all like Brazilian modern furniture, but we probably have not paid enough attention to it over the years. Fortunately, a rare opportunity to amend this gap in our collective education is now on view at New York gallery R and Company until October 28, in the form of the excellent exhibition Joaquim Tenreiro: Tectonic Master. R and Company has done noble work spreading the gospel of Brazilian design over the last two decades—from Rodrigues to Hauner to Zalszupin and the whole swank set—and they’ve now set up a shrine to an early prophet.

Tenreiro, born in 1906 in Melo, Portugal, a village northeast of Coimbra, moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1928. He initially designed traditional pieces for Brazilian grandees but soon began to innovate. Tenreiro sought to free his designs from old-world starch, pursuing, as he said “lightness.” He meant this in terms of a certain sprezzatura, but these pieces are often buoyant, even impossible looking.

“There are very few people who can think in these conceptual terms and then physically realize that vision themselves. Tenreiro is a rare talent that is deserving of far more recognition.”

Zesty Meyers

Tenreiro, the son of a cabinetmaker, was a consummately skilled artisan—no paper artist. Zesty Meyers, co-principal of R and Company, observed “Carlo Mollino was a designer. Mollino made drawings but he didn’t carve the wood. Nakashima was an architect, but he did not make things with his hands. Gio Ponti is amazing—but Gio Ponti was an architect who was a designer. Tenreiro did it himself; he was a master wood carver. None of these other people, who may be better known, were capable of doing the work like he was.”

interior of gallery with a chair by Joaquim Tenreiro on display
interior of gallery with a bar by Joaquim Tenreiro on display

Tenreiro grasped the possibilities of wood implicitly, Meyers pointed out that Tenreiro designs will often veer precisely against structural expectations. “If you look at some of his chairs the legs taper when they get closer to the seat—the exact opposite of most any other chair—the leg should be fatter at the seam so it can take the compression.” You can go off script when you know what you’re doing.

Tenreiro was also drawing from a copse of Brazilian hardwoods that now doubles as an endangered species list; jacaranda and caviona most prominently. In his hands, these sturdy hardwoods are crafted to the limits of their capacity.

Some of Tenreiro’s work is not as immediately eye-catching as those of his Tropicália Jetsons followers but all of it reveals wonders on examination. A black dining table features another top of under-painted glass, marginally set off of the ebonized imbuia wood edge. The under painted glass delivers color but also reflection, Meyers noted “Art deco solid colored glass pushes you away—he’s sucking you in.” Table legs are oval, chairs chamfered, all a gripping combination.

Meyers explained that he finds much of the collection impossible to photograph adequately; small details simply can’t be captured, and many even “standard” types are individually varied.

For example, none of Tenreiro’s iconic three-legged chairs are alike; they feature different wood combinations and other perceptible variations in carving. It was not made for sale but given to clients in return for another commission. Other pieces are entirely bespoke, such as a brilliant bar that features an under painted yellow top and hand-painted ceramic tiles by Regina Bolonha.

interior of gallery with a bar, credenza, sofa, and chairs by Joaquim Tenreiro on display

In recent years, though appreciation for Tenriero’s mastery has grown, his furniture remains rare. Evan Snyderman, co-principal at R and Company, explained “You’re not going to find Tenreiro at the flea markets and vintage shops—20 years ago you could.”

History is partly to blame, Tenreiro remained his own master, never selling out to Herman Miller, Knoll, or the like, so there aren’t vast product lines to draw upon. Export licenses from Brazil also haven’t always made U.S. purchasing easy. As such, Tectonic Master is a unique opportunity to reacquaint oneself with the subtly mastery of one of Brazil’s leading modernists and a consummate craftsman whose work rewards in-person viewing.

As Meyers put it, “With a designer from the past, you might look at his body of work and say, ‘Oh, anyone can do that.’ But the reality is that what you’re seeing with Tenreiro takes incredible skill and vision and is extremely difficult to achieve. There are very few people who can think in these conceptual terms and then physically realize that vision themselves. Tenreiro is a rare talent that is deserving of far more recognition.”

chairs on display in a gallery

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