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Portugal has a rich artisanal heritage and, today, many of the world’s biggest retailers, such as Ikea, source products and skills in the country. However, with the exception of Pritzker prizewinning architects Álvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura, who both design modernist furniture and lighting, there have been few truly notable Portuguese designers and even fewer Portuguese designer brands to date. Now, despite the economic woes besetting the country, that may be about to change, particularly in Porto, the country’s second city.
The country’s economic statistics make grim reading: unemployment is at 16.3 per cent, with 37 per cent of those aged under 25 without jobs. Many of those who do have work are on a low salary, with average wages at €1,000 per month, compared with the €3,000 average paid in countries such as Germany, Finland and the Netherlands. Thousands of graduates are leaving the country in search of jobs.
Yet, amid all the economic gloom, designers in Porto are experiencing something of a resurgence. A number of furniture brands have launched in the city over the past two years, offering high-end products and targeting exclusive international markets. Joana Santos Barbosa is one such example. She launched furniture brand Insidherland in Porto in January 2012.
Santos Barbosa utilises traditional Portuguese techniques, such as marquetry and metalwork, in contemporary ways to create a range of hand-finished pieces. The first collection includes the rosewood and brass Four For Luck side table, priced at €4,100; the hand-carved Fallen Leaves mirrors finished in gold and copper leaf, from €810; and the Special Tree cabinet, which costs €15,600, stands 2m tall and is finished with exotic veneers and a polished copper base.
Santos Barbosa believes Portuguese designers are particularly well placed to focus on high-end products. “Portuguese manufacturing isn’t suited to mass production. Our manufacturing firms are quite small and there is a tradition here of offering bespoke, handcrafted products.”
Design brand Drama, which launched in Porto in May last year, also illustrates the direction the Portuguese market is taking. The group’s first product, the Ego sideboard, is a complex and striking piece made of 12 panels, which retails for £18,000. The sideboard takes 10 weeks to produce, is made of alder, a wood more commonly used in making guitars, and its six drawers are coated with silver leaf. “An art object that also has a function,” is how designer Adérito Soares describes it.
Surprisingly, Soares thinks the country’s crisis is actually benefiting designers: wages remain low and many manufacturers find their factories are underutilised, a combination that conspires to keep costs low and encourages a willingness to innovate.
“The crisis has given us the possibility to explore new ways of thinking and to create manufacturing partnerships that would not have been possible 10 years ago when manufacturers were too busy to spend 10 weeks making a single product,” he says.
The crisis is having a broader effect than simply enabling designers to take up the slack in production runs, though. In the past, Portuguese manufacturers created unbranded, mass-produced items for the local market. But the country’s low wages have seen spending power significantly reduced and the local market for furniture is fairly stagnant. As a result, manufacturers are now turning their attention to affluent international buyers and are beginning to move towards the branded and designer-led approach common in countries such as Italy, Germany and the UK.
Furniture manufacturing company Carlos Alfredo, which was founded on the outskirts of Porto in 1964, is a case in point. For the past 50 years the company has produced a range of unbranded, mass-produced furniture for the local market. As the economic crisis began to bite in 2008, sales dropped and chief executive Salvador Gonzaga saw a need for the business to diversify and expand.
Gonzaga formed WeWood, a design-led sub-brand, with its first collection launching in January 2012. Unlike the more traditional mass-produced items from Carlos Alfredo, WeWood pieces are produced in batches of 20, assembled by hand and can be fully customised. Gonzaga worked with seven Portuguese design groups, five of whom are based in Porto, to create the WeWood collection.
The products are contemporary in aesthetic and employ complex joinery techniques. For example, its BS01 desk by Porto-based designer Bruno Serrão, priced at £4,904, is constructed entirely in wood without using nails or screws and features seven drawers of different sizes that are hidden at first view. “We leveraged the knowledge, infrastructure and finance of Carlos Alfredos to experiment with the WeWood brand and it’s been a real success,” says Gonzaga. “Our turnover was €4.8m before the crisis in 2008 and had dropped to €4m by 2011, but since then it has been climbing steadily and we are on target to turnover €6m [when] the WeWood brand will contribute €1m to the company’s total turnover.”
Prime Design is another new Porto-based brand, launched in 2011 by Portuguese retailer and manufacturer Jota Barbosa. Its products are usually made of wood but it also works with artisans to apply metal finishes, in particular silver and gold leaf. The copper Eye table (€1,580) is typical of the brand’s style.
Prime Design’s Samuel Santiago says that pitching to the higher-end international market has made good business sense: increasing margins to match their shrinking client base. “Focusing on the international luxury niche – particularly customers in Russia and Angola – means we now have 50 per cent fewer clients than in 2008, but our turnover is around the same at €2.5m,” he says.
Upmarket brands from other parts of Europe are also sensing the potential of Portugal. British designers and restaurateurs Les Trois Garcons launched a homewares collection in September. The 15 pieces in the collection, which feature marble, wood and metal – as in the lacquered wood sideboard with solid brass feet (£2,800) – were all manufactured in Portugal.
“In Britain the manufacturing price point is too high for us and in China you have issues of quality control, issues with shipping and, in many cases, issues with copyright,” says Hassan Abdullah, partner at Les Trois Garcons. “Portugal has a very high quality of workmanship and a lower cost than other parts of Europe. Manufacturers there are also very open to ideas and flexible in their production methods.”
Although Portugal’s economy might still be in the doldrums, it seems that the country’s furniture designers will emerge from the crisis with broader international recognition.
Martinho Meneses Pita, who describes himself as an architect, artist and designer, works on projects ranging from community-led architectural work to his own range of furniture, such as the Bichos lamp (priced from €200).
“The word ‘crisis’ in Japanese means both danger and opportunity; one is intrinsically linked to the other,” he says. “Yes, we have seen a decrease in job opportunities in Portugal and a lack of government support and we’re now in a position where we have to do more with less. But this situation isn’t entirely negative for creative businesses because inspiration has always been the daughter of necessity.”