Big in Brazil

Designer Marcelo Rosenbaum is a celebrity in Brazil, the type to be stopped in the street and asked for his autograph. Frederico Duarte unpacks the significance of a designer who grows bigger than design circles.

Graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister once said “A famous designer is like a famous electrician”. Design fame may be limited to the design profession or to the “design world”, but for Marcelo Rosenbaum things are a little different. Unlike Brazil’s most celebrated design exports, the Campana Brothers, this architect and designer may be virtually unknown outside of his country. But in Brazil he’s really famous.

I had a taste of his celebrity when we first met in southern Brazil. As we walked around the grounds of the Casa Brasil Design furniture fair, he was constantly being stopped, talked to and asked to take photos. And this doesn’t happen only in design-related events, he told me; people approach him anywhere he goes.

Rosenbaum’s fame doesn’t come from the insanely colourful, visually busy stores, showrooms and São Paulo Fashion Week lounges his studio has been creating for brands such as Melissa shoes or Nova Schin beer. Nor from the products developed for Brazilian manufacturers such as Oxford (tableware), Tok&Stok (furniture), Ornare (an award-winning shelving system) or his own brand, Rosenbaum de Coração (Rosenbaum of the Heart). It’s also not from the sophisticated restaurant and residence interiors featured profusely in shelter magazines. Nor from the decorating tips he delivers from Monday to Friday on the radio. What he’s really famous for is his TV show.

Lar Doce Lar [Home Sweet Home] is a segment of the massively popular, Saturday afternoon show Caldeirão do Huck [Huck’s Cauldron] on TV Globo. In Brazil, no place is too remote for television: from farmhouses in the southern Pampa to stilted settlements on the Amazon river, Latin America’s largest broadcaster reaches 99,5% of the country’s population of 190-million. This means Lar Doce Lar is watched by a whole lot of people. The show itself is a sort of a local Extreme Makeover, where Rosenbaum and host Luciano Huck go around the country redecorating (or rather, rebuilding) poor families’ homes. Brazil being Brazil, this is an emotional, lively affair. But Rosenbaum manages to go beyond the touchy-feely part of design. He doesn’t just spruce up people’s houses – he makes a real difference in their communities.

As I sit down in his airy, eclectic living-room-style office in São Paulo a few months after we first met, he tells me how excited he is with the house Lar Doce Lar completed in Rio de Janeiro last October. His studio turned a hairdresser/manicurist’s shack in the Santa Marta favela into a colourful, two-storey live-and-work house and hairdressing salon. But what he was most excited about was the set of steel-frame house typologies that he and the show donated to Rio’s Planning and Public Works department. With this very public gesture, Rosenbaum contributed to improving life in favelas such as Santa Marta, already made better when in 2008 the shantytown was “cleaned up” from drug trafficking.

Apart from his TV show and client-based work, Rosenbaum has also been taking part in designer-meets-community craft initiatives and is increasingly involved with students and NGOs. Such projects include the temporary shelters he helped rebuild in the flood-stricken area of Blumenau in 2008, and the modular library system now being developed with a charity that will be implemented across the country. Rosenbaum is adamant in telling me these projects are not seen as charitable work inside the studio – they have the same priority and get the same commitment as a forthcoming art gallery or a two-bedroom luxury hotel for the chic “design furniture” store MiCasa, which just launched his furniture line inspired by the Caruaru market in Pernambuco.

Both Rosenbaum’s affable, burly, tattooed persona and his sensual, maximalist vocabulary speak to a broad spectrum of Brazilians – from ladies who lunch and shop on Óscar Freire, São Paulo’s most expensive street, to the masses who watch him on TV. In eclectic, vibrant mash-ups of colour, texture and materials, he takes the glamour of fashion to the masses and brings the inventiveness and complexity of Brazilian popular culture to the elite. Lowbrow folk art and craft elements are thrown together with highbrow design references in such disparate things as a 6-real (25 Rands) vinyl tablecloth, a Vogue magazine editorial or celebrity chef Alex Attala’s Dalva e Dito restaurant.

One may say his use of visual excess, populist ornament and cheap luxury renders him a mere decorator or a designer of surfaces, environments and products destined for mass (media) consumption. But by addressing the (in many cases far from superficial) needs and wants of people from both sides of a still delicate and very unequal social equation, Rosenbaum is contributing to the design of Brazil’s own social change.

Made possible by recent political and financial stability, the economic growth, unprecedented social mobility and subsequent rise of the lower-middle class – which in the last five years went from 42% to just over half of the population – is radically transforming the country. Consumption, manufacturing, infrastructure, entertainment, information and citizenship are just a few of the things currently being redesigned in this young, continental nation.

Rosenbaum’s success across society (on and off TV) and unique sensibility for his country’s social zeitgeist makes him the most influential designer in Brazil today. His work is not simple, subtractive or exclusive – attributes usually associated, including in Brazil, with the design ethos. Instead, it’s multilayered, additive, inclusive and a mirror of the baroque, miscegenated nature of his people and surroundings.

As Brazil lives the most interesting period in its history and becomes a 21st century superpower, the changes taking place within its borders are now increasingly felt across the globe. Music genres, fashion labels, graffiti, novellas, flip-flops, urban transportation schemes and airplanes are only a few creations from Brazil that are permeating, even shaping our world. As we all become more Brazilian, we don’t have to watch his TV show to know Marcelo Rosenbaum’s fame is just about to get bigger.

During my thesis research trip in Brazil in July-August 2009, I helped out Ravi Naidoo and his team finding Brazilian speakers for the 2010 Design Indaba Conference. One of my leads, Marcelo Rosenbaum, was very big in Cape Town. Before he made it there, Design Indaba Magazine editor-in-chief Nadine Botha commissioned me to write this profile .