Retail Gold

A Brazilian program pairing designers and artisans produces covetable crafts—and a precious source of income.

Capim dourado, which means “golden reed” in Portuguese, only grows in Jalapão, an arid inland region in the Brazilian state of Tocantins. Harvested in the warm light of late September, the malleable and resilient reed can be sewn as smoothly as silk thread. Jalapão seamstresses have passed down the secrets of how to weave with it for generations: their enslaved ancestors learned it from the indigenous tribes who made shade hats from the material. But by 2008 the art was languishing, so Sebrae, an organization that promotes Brazilian handicraft, initiated the Piracema Design Laboratory to bring artisans together with designers who would create templates for modern products out of capim dourado—and help them reach a greatly expanded market.

The result is the striking 45-piece Jalapa Collection, designed by Marcelo Rosenbaum, Fernando Maculan, and Heloísa Crocco in collaboration with several dozen artisans. It will debut all over Brazil this August, with proceeds going directly to the artisans. Crocco, who has worked with Sebrae since 1997, was the one who grasped the potential of the rare but unexploited reed and assembled the design team. “The grass is the gold of Brazilian nature,” she says. “Transforming it into an excellent and dignified product was the big challenge for us.”

Rosenbaum, a prolific São Paulo–based designer, says Piracema parallels his interests in “Brazilian-ness, self-esteem, popular culture, memory, and inclusion.” His work includes high-end furniture and interiors, renovations of favelas for a TV show called Home Sweet Home, and colorful plates based on patterns used in an annual Brazilian ritual called Maracatu. “Craft is an expression of identity and tradition,” he says. “Like art, it has a huge human cargo, carrying emotion and feeling and the ability to tell a story. Craft gives soul to place.” If craftsmen make products that earn them a reasonable income, the logic goes, they preserve not just their tradition but also the identity of the region. Toward that end, Rosenbaum offered a mod side table and an on-trend series of chunky necklaces and angular cuffs.

The designers freshened up the reed by sewing jet-black slices into the weave, but they also observed the rituals of quotidian life, incorporating vernacular forms into the objects. The base of Rosenbaum’s table, for example, echoes the outline of municipal trash bins. The process ultimately produced more than product templates—it fostered an understanding between the artisans and the designers. “During the work, trust grows,” Rosenbaum explains. “It is an exchange of expertise, knowledge, and traditions, and it is very rich.”

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