Contemporary Portuguese Design

Lisbon-based designer, Frederico Duarte, comments on the state of the Portuguese design scene today

The first IKEA store in Portugal opened near Lisbon in July of 2004. It was visited by over 2.5 million people in its first year alone. and IKEA’s results here have been so positive, the group is planning to open six more stores and one factory by 2015. This may seem quite unrelated to the state of Portuguese product design today, but it really is not. It goes to prove the growing appetite of the Portuguese to find well designed, affordable products for their living and working environments, and that “design” doesn’t necessarily have to be eccentric, exclusive, expensive, or a foreign word in their vocabulary.

So something is definitely changing: an awareness of design, both of its production and its practitioners, has been slowly growing in a country without a significant industrial past, and even less of a design tradition.

In the 1990s, the design scene was joined by a new generation of Portuguese designers to emerge in the public eye including the likes of Pedro Silva Dias, Marco Sousa Santos, José Viana, Filipe Alarcão and also Miguel Vieira Baptista and Fernando Brízio. The talent and work of this group earned them the attention of clients and the media, both inside and outside Portugal. Many of these talents also attracted the attentions of design schools across the country, now passing on their expertise to the students for one or more days of the week in addition to their usual studio activities. The success of these designers has been mirrored in the more craft-orientated world of jewellers as, indeed, jewellery education and practice has developed a growing reputation for Itself.

For a design-geared producer such as Simpleforms, a manufacturer of modern bathroom accessories and furniture as well as tabletop Items, things are looking good. The company has forged a high-end identity for itself and can now boast healthy exports, as well as being a provider of work to external Portuguese companies whilst playing a part in promoting their country’s product skills. For the individual designer, however, it is a common problem across the globe to experience difficulties linking their skills to suitable manufacturers.

That said, it’s not hard to understand why. After all, the introduction of innovative new ideas is often met with scepticism amid established practices, Arguably, this provides a healthy push for designers to become more autonomous and develop new strategies for survival. One such strategy is establishing themselves not only as “form givers” but as cultural agents in their own right – something ExperimentaDesign – Lisbon’s design Biennale – has been contributing to since its first edition in 1999, becoming Portuguese design’s biggest communication and visibility platform, and mostly on a non-commercial level.

In recent years, Experimenta, the non-profit association behind ExperimentaDesign, has also created opportunities for young, up-and-coming designers to “stand on the shoulders of giants”.

This has been achieved through its exhibitions, installations and other initiatives. Equally, the notable ‘Concurso Jovem Designer’ competition has involved and celebrated the work of many great designers, including Rute Gomes, Daniel Caramelo, Marisa Gomes, Elder Monteiro and Alzira Peixoto, to name a few.

This new generation of younger – around 30 years old – designers, many of them “new craftsmen”, is much more dynamic and autonomous in its approach to work, clients (either the consumer directly or the industry) and even the media. Collectives such as Bombaamor, CalDesign, SusDesign, Linha Branca or Bleach, for example, are working on a more local level, getting directly involved in the manufacturing of their projects and becoming producers themselves.

Likewise, studios such as Pedrita, The Home Project, KRV Kurva and Objection are acting on a more global scale, often working and collaborating internationally. All of them are gradually adding elements to, and therefore enriching, our material landscape. However, they are aiming for a timeless, enduring quality in their work that challenges the very transient nature of most of IKEA’s products that are found everywhere today, including, of course, Portugal.

If the blue and yellow superstore has shown us that design is within easy reach, may our talented designers, forward-thinking companies, thought-provoking media and visionary governments make us look further and demand more when it comes to what surrounds us.

I was commissioned by author and curator Max Fraser to write this text for the brochure that accompanied Design Mais, a selection of Portuguese products shown in London in November of 2005. This booklet was also distributed with the November issue of icon magazine.