Times of Rudeness

Design at an Impasse

Image from Times of Rudeness: Design at an Impasse, p. 18.
Clay bowls, red and black paintings. Diameter 20 cm, height 8 cm.
Provenance of Maragogipe, Bahia.
Photo: Pierre Verger

In 1980, Lina Bo Bardi began working on a book concerning her time working in Salvador, the capital of Bahia state in the northeastern part of Brazil. With the help of Isa Grinspum Ferraz, she organized and captioned the illustrations, revised her contributions to the book—texts she had penned during her Salvador sojourn—and drafted the layout and contents. Bo Bardi discontinued her work in 1981, and in 1994, Instituto Lina Bo e P.M. Bardi published this project as Times of Rudeness: Design at an Impasse.

The publication Times of Rudeness: Design at an Impasse,1 organized by Lina Bo Bardi in the 1980s, was ultimately abandoned by her with the argument that it had no use, since “all would fall into a void.”2 Eventually it was published in 1994 by Isa Grinspum Ferraz and Marcelo Suzuki, then the co-chief editors and directors of the Instituto Bardi. The book was part of a series entitled Issues on Brazil,3 a set of titles that aimed to uncover important cultural matters that had influenced the sociocultural tissue of Brazil but had been neglected by other institutions and authors at the time.

The book included a collection of twelve texts and a couple of poems, all written as individual articles by Bo Bardi or by her colleagues: Bruno Zevi,4 a close friend of Bo Bardi’s who had been in contact with her since her days as an architecture magazine editor in Italy; Celso Furtado, a renowned economist who collaborated with Bo Bardi between 1958 and 1964 on proposals for Brazilian development, especially around issues of industrialization and culture as well as questions related to craftsmanship, the formation of labor and the teaching of a type of industrial design pedagogy linked to the cultural base of the country5; Glauber Rocha, the actor, director and key figure of Cinema Novo who was also a Bahia native with whom Bo Bardi was related as a fellow-member of the Tropicalistas movement; Flávio Motta, the artist, art historian and founder of Escola Livre de Artes Plásticas, and a number of other authors.

Each of the contributors argued in different ways for an understanding of Bahia and the Northeast Region of Brazil as the site where a popular basis for national values might be indentified—not in a folkloric or nationalistic way—but as a space where, disregarding form and techniques, there was an “underlying structure of possibilities.”

Images accompanied the different texts, deployed in such a way, as Bo Bardi explained, “quilts are quilts, ex-votos are presented as necessary objects and not as sculptures, cloths with appliqués are cloths with appliqués …” There is no re-interpretation of these objects but a mere desire to catalogue them as examples of “sporadic production of craftsmanship”—a theme with which the publication dealt with in depth.

Bo Bardi’s title suggests a negative or frustrated view of Design (with a capital D) as a regenerative societal force, as promised by the various modernist movements. In the late 1940s and early 1950s she had designed furniture with the Milanese rationalist architect Giancarlo Palanti (who emigrated to Brazil in 1946) at Studio Palma, where the two created modernist furniture in series, but later stopped working in industrial design projects, since “the abstract geometric forms of design and architecture had lost their transformative meaning and had become mere consuming and disposable products.”6

Bo Bardi continued to design furniture and other objects for her own projects, but the views she stated in this emblematic publication are key to understanding her view of architecture and design as a political act.

Having this text published on the online journal of Bauhaus Imaginista, reiterates Bo Bardi’s continuing relevance to the contemporary international discourse of design. It is with great enthusiasm that we share it for such a special occasion.

Sol Camacho
Cultural Director Instituto Bardi / Casa de Vidro

An Account Sixteen Years Later7

What is the situation of a country with a capitalist dependent structure, where a national democratic bourgeois revolution did not manage to come about, which enters into industrialization with the remains of oligarchic national structures?

Brazil enters at last the history of western industrialization, carrying elements of pre-history and Africa, rich in popular influences. All the contradictions of the great western mistake are presented contemporaneously, or soon, in its modernization process, with the violent strokes of a failing situation. A process that industrialized nations took centuries to carry out, happens here within few years. Abrupt, unplanned, structurally imported industrialization, leads the country to experience an uncontrollable natural happening, and not a process created by man. The sinister marks of real-estate speculation, lack of planning for popular housing, the speculative proliferation of industrial design—gadgets, objects—most of them superfluous—weigh down the country’s cultural situation, creating serious obstacles, making the development of a truly autochthonous culture impossible. A collective awareness is necessary, any delay is a crime at this stage. De-culturing is in full sway. If the economist and the sociologist are able to diagnose freely, the artist should act; moreover, he should be in touch with the intellectual, as a part connected to the active population.

A re-examination of the recent history of the country is called for. An account of “popular” Brazilian civilization is required, even if it is poor in the light of a higher culture. This account is not one of folklore, always parternalistically pampered by higher cultures, it is the account “seen from the other side”, the participating account. It is Aleijadinho and Brazilian culture before the French Mission. It’s the Northeasterner with his leather and empty tins, the inhabitants of the villages, the Negro and the Indian. A mass that invents, that produces a contribution that is indigestible, dry, hard to swallow.

This urgency, this not-being-able-to-wait any longer, is the real base of the Brazilian artist’s work, a reality that needs no artificial stimulus, a cultural bounty within reach of his hands, a unique anthropological wealth, with tragic and fundamental historical incidents. Brazil is industrialized, and the new reality must be accepted in order to be studied. A return to extinct social structures is impossible, the creation of handicraft centers, the return to handicraft as an antidote to an industrialization strange to the cultural principles of the country is wrong. Because handicraft as a social structure never existed in Brazil, what did exist was a scanty immigration of Iberian or Italian craftsmen and, in the 19th century, manufactures. What does exist is a sparse domestic pre-craftsmanship, never craftsmanship.

Image from Times of Rudeness: Design at an Impasse, p. 14.
Master Vitalino, ceramist, working together with his children, 1948. The production was for sale, but who bought it was not tourists, it was the people themselves. Caruarú, Pernambuco.
Photo: Lina Bo Bardi Photo Archives

A cultural survey of Brazilian pre-craftsmanship could have been conducted before the country plunged into dependent capitalism, when a democratic bourgeois revolution was still possible. In that case, the cultural options in the field of Industrial Design could have been different, closer to the country’s real needs (even if poor, a lot poorer than the cultural options of China and Finland). Brazil had arrived at a parting of the ways. It chose finesse.

Art is not so innocent: the great attempt to make of Industrial Design the regenerative force of an entire society failed and became the most startling denouncement of the perversity of an entire system. The collective awareness of over a quarter of the world’s population, which believed in unlimited progress, has already begun. The demystification of design as a weapon of a system, an anthropological search in the field of the arts as against an esthetic search, has instructed all the development of Western artistic culture, from ancient times to avant-garde, a lucid debate is under way; a debate that excludes from the romantic-handicraft: situations to the viewpoints of Ruskin and Morris: a re-examination of the recent history of “doing” in the arts. It is not a downright refusal, but a cautious process of revision. The efforts against technological hegemony, which occur in the West, and the “technological inferiority complex” in the field of the arts come up against the structure of a system: the problem is fundamentally political-economic. Regeneration through art, the Bauhaus creed, has shown itself to be a mere utopia, a cultural mistake and a tranquilizer for the consciences of those who are not in need. The metastasis of its uncontrollable proliferation carried with it the basic conquests of the Modern Movement, transforming its great fundamental idea—Planning—into the utopical mistake of the technocratic intelligentsia, which drained, with its failure, the “rationality” as against “emotionality”, in a fetishism of abstract models that consider as equal the world of numbers and the world of man.

If the problem is fundamentally political-economic, the task of the “actuator” in the field of “design” is fundamental in spite of everything. It is what Brecht called “the capacity to say no”. The artist’s freedom has always been “individual”, but true freedom can only be collective. A freedom aware of social responsibilities, which can knock down the frontiers of esthetics, the concentration camp of western civilization; a liberty connected to the limitations and the great conquests of Scientific Practice (Scientific Practice, not technology decayed into technocracy). The romantic suicide of “non-planning”, a reaction to technocratic failure, it is urgent to counter it with the great task of Environmental Planning, from urbanism to architecture, to Industrial Design and other cultural manifestations. A reintegration, a simplified unification of factors comprising a culture.

A Speech on the Meaning of the Word Craftsmanship

Popular craftsmanship corresponds (craftsmanship is always popular, let us leave out of our talk the various boutiques that claim to sell handicrafts) to a particular kind of association, that is, to gatherings of specialized workers brought together by common interests and mutual defense in associations that, in the past, were called CORPORATIONS. The word ART, which today defines the artistic activity in the past indicated a handicraft: activity of any type; painters and sculptors were, in the past, also included in craftsmanship, in the so-called LESSER ARTS. Corporations existed in Classic Antiquity, that is in Greece and Rome, and had their greatest splendor in the Middle Ages, when all of Europe was composed of Corporations.

The word Artistry (craftsmanship in Portuguese) derives from the word Art, the equivalent of Corporation. Practically all the main popular production in the past belonged to craftsmanship.

In the 18th century, with the changes in the old economic structures brought about by the French Revolution and the introduction of machinery into man’s labor, the Corporations ceased to exist; the individualistic structure of Capitalism was antagonistic to the collective structure of the Corporations. Since the end of the 18th century, craftsmen have survived as a heritage of the craft, as the result of work, no longer as a living part of a social structure.

Image from Times of Rudeness: Design at an Impasse, p. 18.
Horse’s head. Ex-voto. Wood. Height 12 cm, width 25 cm. Provenance of Salvador, Bahia. Mário Cravo Jr. collection
Photo: Armin Guthmann

Popular craftsmanship is no longer popular craftsmanship when the social conditions that condition it run out. The Corporativism of Italy during the time of Fascism, an artificial form of association between owners and workers, was a typical example of this “craftsmanship”, usually strongly encouraged in countries with a nationalist-based regime.

And here we would like to point out the distinction, made by Antonio Gramsci, between NATIONAL and NATIONALIST. National is different from Nationalist. Goethe was a German national, Stendhal a French national but neither of them were nationalists. National values ate the real values of a country, whereas nationalist ate political attitudes that aim at imposing certain characteristics of a country by any means, sometimes by violence. Hitler and Mussolini were nationalists, the Second World War was caused by nationalistic arrogance. Typical in this respect is the Italian controversy, during the days of Fascism, between Strapaese and Stracittà, that is, the apology of the “field” as against the apology of the city. The field apology was nationalistic, that is, profoundly reactionary. The following verses by one of the most ardent participants of the controversy, Mino Maccari, illustrate it perfectly:

Your parson’s belch has more value
Than the Americas and their words
Behind the last Italian there are hundreds of centuries of history

But to return to our “craftsmanship”; in Russia too there was little to be considered as concerned Popular Art, it was pure Folklore. Lenin was right in not being concerned with the subject, and Majakovskij was right when he scoffed at the boots and cross-stitch embroidered shirts of Essenin, and ridiculed the “craftsmanship”:

At home there was not enough money. I was obliged to produce engravings and drawings. I especially remember the Easter eggs. Round, they would spin around and creak like doors. I sold them in a small handicraft shop on Neglinnaja street. For ten or fifteen kopecks each. Since then I have always had a boundless hate of Ladies’ watercolors, the Russian style, and “craftsmanship.”

First published in: Lina Bo Bardi: Tempos de Grossura: O Design no Impasse, Instituto Lina Bo e P.M. Bardi, Pontos sobre o Brasil 1994.

  • 1 Lina Bo Bardi: Tempos de Grossura: O Design no Impasse, in: Marcelo Suzuki and Ferraz (eds.) Instituto Lina Bo e P.M. Bardi (Pontos sobre o Brasil), 1994.
  • 2 As stated by Marcelo Suzuki’s foreword to the publication.
  • 3 Pontos sobre o Brasil.
  • 4 Italian architect and critical thinker with whom Lina Bo Bardi worked in Milan as co-editors of ‘A’ Magazine. Zevi is known as the founder and promoter of “organic architecture” and had a big influence on Bo Bardi’s work in Brazil.
  • 5 To paraphrase André Felipe Batistella Souza in his thesis “Projetos para o desenvolvimento brasileiro no nordeste: Celso Furtado, Lina Bo Bardi, a ARTENE e a Escola de Desenho Industrial e Artesanto do MAMBA, 1958–1964.
  • 6 Renato Anelli: O impasse do Design: mobilário Lina Bo Bardi 1959–1992. Curator’s statement on exhibition’s flyer.
  • 7 As stated in Marcelo Suzuki’s foreword to the publication, Lina Bo Bardi wrote this text in 1980, 16 years after her work in northeastern Brazil was abruptly terminated.
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