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Visual arts

The design of an era

Events and books show the growing concern in understanding the visual conception of graphic arts in Brazil

Who would say that Alberto Santos Dumont (1873-1932) was, as well as the inventor of the airplane, a designer. Perhaps he himself would have been surprised with this contemporary term. But this was the treatment that he received during the exhibition Santos=Dumont Designer, which was on show at the Brazilian House Museum in Sao Paulo until the 31st of July of this year. The success was so huge that the event had to be extended for a month. During the same period, two other similar initiatives, sponsored in the the city of São Paulo showed that the theme is going through a valorization in Brazil.

The 8th Brazilian Biennial of Graphic Design, which took place in the Marta Traba Gallery, in the Latin American Memorial Building, intended to point at the tendencies of national production. This year, instead of works by category – more than 40 were inscribed, among publications, packaging, brand names, websites, posters, animations etc. -, the display was divided by nuclei of tendencies, organized by a curatorship composed of the designers André Stolarski, Bruno Porto, Fernanda Martins and Marco Aurélio Kato.

In the Creativity Pavilion, also located in the Latin America Memorial Building on display until the 25th of August is the International Triennial of Eco-posters and Graphic Design. Under the organization and curatorship of Ruth Klotzel, 80 posters were brought together, selected amongst the works of the winners of the International Triennial Eco-Posters, which has been going on in the Ukraine since 1991. The main objective is to call the attention of the world community to social and ecological questions. Also known as the 4th Block – the name of the reactor that exploded in the Chernobyl nuclear plant in 1986 -, and this year has as its theme the 20 years of the tragedy that occurred in Russia.

In the publishing market, the growing interest for studies about the theme can be seen in the collections of the two publishers. Rosari has two series, with 17 volumes already published – the collections Design Texts and Design Fundamentals. The essays are presented in hardback volumes with sleeves and were written by some of the most representative writing specialists in the area. An example is Adélia Borges – who had a special column in the newspaper Gazeta Mercantil and today directs the Brazilian House Museum -, Chico Homem de Melo, Cláudio Ferlauto, Heloísa Jahn, Lucrécia D’Alessio Ferrara, Sandra Ramalho e Oliveira, Alexandre Wollner and Rodolfo Fuentes, among others. And they joined up with the valuations of historic designers such as Sergio Rodrigues, José Zanine Caldas (1919-2001) and Lina Bo Bardi (1914-1992).

The Cosac Naify publisher has just sent to the bookshops the second book of a series – that begun with the O design brasileiro antes do design [Brazilian design before design] organized by Rafael Cardoso and prized by the Brazilian House Museum as the best publication of 2005. The new title is O design gráfico brasileiro anos 60 [Brazilian Graphic Design in the 1960s Decade], organized by Chico Homem de Melo, with lengthy essays by João de Souza Leite, André Stolarski and Jorge Caê Rodrigues. The volume was born as a reference for the study of the history of design in Brazil.

Printed on special paper and in color, it interests even the person who is a laymen but who likes visual arts. For this public, it allows for a walk down memory lane through book covers and discs, cinema posters and through the world of magazines and newspapers that modernized the press. There are some 514 images that reveal the richness and the singularity of an era.

Abrupt changes
A professor of visual programming at the Architecture and Urban Faculty of the University of Sao Paulo (USP), professor Homem de Melo highlighted the fact that design production was an integral part of the “abrupt changes” process going on throughout the world. “Over decades the modernist masters continued their safe journey, particularly in the area of corporate identity”, he wrote. At the same time, various new fronts were opened up and gave birth to a rupture with rationalist dogmas.

In Brazil, the conquests of constructive art of the 1950’s continued to render good fruit for design over the following ten years. In his opinion, the book allows for reflection about this and presents documentation of what was done in a period only slightly analyzed in its diverse watershed. “Design remains hidden in a few public libraries, in private collections, or lost in magazines of the period.”

One of the work’s merits is in contextualizing the question at a moment of major cultural, political and behavioral turbulence throughout the world. To observe the ruptures produced and that marked the history of the following decades – Che Guevara, the Beatles, Vietnam, man going to the moon, military dictators and student movements -, is to understand the emblematic images that significantly influenced the production of graphic design in Brazil. Thus, the authors discuss what can be considered as a consolidation period in the country. Homem de Melo – who wrote three chapters – remembered that, up until then, the notion of a profession as there is today did not exist: “Some people worked on books, others visual identity and so on”. The strengthening of the activity of national graphic design coincided with the springing up of design schools, with a wider diffusion of images and with the transformation of various icons of cultural rupture into graphic symbols.

The authors’ analysis deepens the relationship between typography, illustration and photography in two important magazines, Senhor and Realidade, cited as examples of innovation. While this was happening, Rogério Duarte turned himself into an unequal figure, as stated by Caê Rodrigues: linked to tropicalism, created graphic projects as complex and allegorical as the changes proposed by the movement. Also running against his psychedelic expression to the most “Ulm like” compositions”. The design of book covers is one of the most analyzed points, when rescuing important names that exhibited graphical solutions of great innovation, such as Eugenio Hirsch, Marius Luaritzen Berne and Glauco Rodrigues.

In A identidade visual toma corpo [Visual identity takes place], André Stolarski speaks of the consolidation of visual identity in Brazil. “Both by the quality of the works and by the professional attitude, which had, allied to esthetical elaboration, a design vision linked to applications planning and uses of a brand name.” The author deals with the origins of this process, which passed through Bauhaus, constructivism, the Swiss School of Ulm – and his influence on the maximum exponents of this expression in Brazil during the decade of the 1960’s: Alexandre Wollner, Ruben Martins, João Carlos Cauduro, Ludovico Martino and Aloísio Magalhães.

The editorial coordination and the graphic project of O design gráfico brasileiro anos 60 [Brazilian graphic design in the 1960’s] were done by Elaine Ramos, the art director of Cosac Naify. As the book makes up part of a collection, she had to follow some directives of the previous book. “Starting from them I attempted to dialogue with that which had been recurring in the design of the period, like the use of Helvetian type font and large titles, with due care to not make a direct imitation.” The authors, say Elaine, perhaps exactly for having been designers, were confident in her work and interfered only slightly.

Conceptual design, indeed, is still a problem for whoever is not a part of the medium. For Elaine, one is dealing with applied art, which has a dimension of creation, but always brings a problem to be solved – the relationship with a determined content, technical questions, the author or client, costs, etc. “The objective is to always communicate. This is very different from the fine arts, and I see a more evident parallel with architecture.”

André Stolarski says that design is not art, although it can be understood as such under certain circumstances. “What’s lacking is to recognize design as design, with the special contribution that it has to give to culture in general and Brazilian culture in particular. There is no preconception, there is a lack of information.” The scenario is the inverse: design is much commented upon and celebrated, but it is never known directly what the word stands for. Thus, he explains, the term ends up becoming a synonym for “luxury”, “art”, “sophistication”, “which are very distant from explaining what the activity does”. By its concept, one is dealing with the projection of our existence on the planet and all that it involves.

From the historical point of view, says Stolarski, the modernization of design began in truth in the decade of the 1950’s. As in the case of some movements described by him in the essay entitled, A identidade visual toma corpo [Visual identity takes place]. “I believe, nevertheless, that the other essays in the book – and the presentation itself – talk of a deeper rupture, linked to the language of television and photography, plainly implanted during the decade of the 1960’s.” The designer, however, did not call it a process of ‘modernization’, but merely of ‘transformation’. A change during the 1950’s that would contribute to the 1960’s was the “strengthening of constructive art in the watersheds of concrete and neo-concrete.”

Thus, the two most important influences on Brazilian design were the Ulm School and the North American visual production. The former, more linked to systematization and the rational proposition of design paper and design. The latter, linked to the commercial vitality of propaganda and seduction of the market. And what passed as “stale” in Brazil and was important abroad? Stolarski cited the movements of renovation and modern design criticism that have occurred since the decade of the 1970’s in the United States and Europe. With the activity of the Swiss Wolfgang Weingart and the experiences of the North American Cranbrook, who took a long time to gain some fame and recognition in Brazil” which only began to occur at the start of the decade of the 1990’s. “I believe that the effort to find something ‘typical’ or ‘original’ among ‘artists’ and ‘styles’ is in vain in this case. It would be better to say that Brazilian production, although linked in many aspects to international movements, contributed with its trait of originality, helping to construct the country’s identity.”

Considered the Deacon of Brazilian designers, Alexandre Wollner, at 77 years of age, defines design as a project, a cultural concept, a technical and scientific innovator and that has art as part of the creative process. Principally starting from concrete art (Max Bill), as mathematical thought, but switched off from the process of art as we know it since the last century.

A synopsis
Esthetics, he observed, makes up part of design, but it is not just esthetics. “Otherwise, it would be craftsmanship.” In his opinion, the book organized by professor Chico Homem de Melo especially shows how Brazilian graphic arts modernized themselves in the 1960’s. The work appears to him as a synopsis of graphic arts, which comes to be very different from that of visual design. “Brazilian graphics is not new.”

Designer Wollner observed that design really began at the end of the decade of the 1950’s. “Let’s say, from the fourth centenary of Sao Paulo city. Not before. And is currently developing with the evolution of technology, of science, of culture and contemporary needs.” To affirm that design has existed for decades, he continued, would be to show a lack of knowledge. “Design has been stimulated from the time man was a monkey (see the Stanley Kubrick film, 2001 – A Space Odyssey to understand it) and makes up part of an evolutionary process of human necessities giving value to new signs and functions. To speak in decades is of anthropological interest.”

In this case, Brazil has always had a tendency to assimilate alien cultures. “We’ve been colonized since 1500, there’s no interest by Brazilians to sustain a cultural development of their own. There isn’t this stimulus not even for government, cultural, industrial and commercial institutions, we’re always following tendencies from abroad, for example, today we’re “Californicated” by the American visual culture.”

This being the case, nevertheless, some designers have managed to do something of quality recognized throughout the world. Concerning the magazines Senhor and Realidade, designer Wollner stated that ?everything is esthetically very beautiful, but there’s no structural project of the magazine as we today understand the word project”. In the segment on record covers, they have the same function as book covers and of the packaging of soap powder: “They’re decorative and follow a market tendency that is highly short-lived. They’re not like jazz sleeves of jazz record company Verve, with a language of visual cultural identity, the behavior of Verve is of design, if you can (it’s able to be) understand this”.

João de Souza Leite discussed, in the chapter entitled, De costas para o Brasil: o ensino de um design internacionalista [With your back to Brazil: the teaching of an internationalist design], the emblematic example of the Upper School of Industrial Design (Esdi), which marked the start of professionalism as it is known today. According to designer Wollner, he perceives that the tendency is still to cultivate the schools of art and crafts, mainly French of the last century, which rule the architect and design faculties of Brazil.

And he evaluated, well within his style of sincerity: “The choice lies with our doctors, who don’t permit the development of the evolutionary process of the design profession at an international level. They criticize the design culture of the German schools that is adopted by the most important schools in the world. Is this a return to craftsmanship” Why? The FAU/USP is currently attempting to find a pathway, let’s wait and see?.