The contemporary challenge of curating Brazilian design

I started my PhD on October 1st 2014 and finished it on December 31st 2021.

I began developing the collaborative doctoral project ‘Our poor, beautiful and culturally rich country’: the contemporary challenge of Brazilian design in 2014, under the supervision of Professor Luciana Martins at Birkbeck College, University of London and Dr. Jana Scholze, then at the Victoria & Albert Museum and since 2015 at Kingston University.

During the thesis development process I was invited to curate an exhibition about design and Brazil in the 21st century, which took place in Lisbon from September 23rd to December 31st 2017. This was one of several unexpected turns in what was a long and eventful research journey, which as I mention in my thesis abstract became the focus of my PhD:

This thesis addresses the exhibition and collection of design artefacts developed in Brazil between 2004 and 2014. During this exceptional decade of economic growth, social mobility and ideological struggles, Brazil challenged its traditional role as a peripheral, underdeveloped nation to become a key player in a multipolar, but increasingly fragmented and unequal world. Throughout this period, Brazilian designers were faced with a historical opportunity to claim a local, critical autonomy in their practice. Such practice integrates the quest for a more critical, self-reflexive positioning with a commitment to the reduction of dependence, the promotion of social equality and the consolidation of democracy. Although not contradictory or self-excluding, these two readings of design and autonomy tend to generate significantly different practices and results in their intent, process and effects. An introduction to the research parameters and institutional framework of this collaborative doctoral research project, developed at the V&A and Birkbeck College, and the exhibition ‘How to Pronounce Design in Portuguese: Brazil Today’, is followed by a discussion on design definitions and the contemporary public sphere of design curation and criticism. Chapter 2 addresses theoretical positions regarding shifts in dominant design discourses and quests for autonomy in design practice. Chapter 3 observes the key facts, events, issues and global ambitions that shaped Brazil’s 2004-14 ‘golden decade’, as well as curatorial approaches to Brazilian design that occurred during that period. Chapter 4 presents the curatorial discourse, display strategies, communication initiatives and critical reception of the exhibition on which this thesis is centred. Chapter 5 analyses a selection of local, critically relevant design artefacts according to the exhibition’s thematic challenges and suggests a collection approach aligned with the V&A’s collecting policy. Arguing for the collection and exhibition of contemporary Brazilian design as a transnational activity that reflects local contexts and global forces, this thesis contributes to a global debate on how design is practiced on a national level but especially how it is interpreted by museum curators within a broader public sphere of design.

On my PhD viva exam, which took place on May 27th 2021, I had the privilege of discussing my work with the British design historian and curator David Crowley (University of Dublin) and the Brazilian anthropologist and social scientist Rosana Pinheiro-Machado (University of Bath). The final thesis document, which reflects the results of our discussion and of the minor changes they recommended me to make, can be found at Birkbeck’s online repository and (soon) at the National Art Library of the United Kingdom.