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Chico Homem de Melo Chico Homem de Melo

- Graphic Design

Chico Homem de Melo: An interview with one of the greatest experts of Brazilian design history

For our February issue Gustavo Greco talked to one of the foremost experts on Brazilian history: Chico Homem de Melo, author of the book »Linha do Tempo« (»Time axis«), who explained much about Brazilian design and how external influences have shaped its development.

How important is it for a country to define its design?

Allow me to be absolutely clear here: It seems to me of utmost importance that a country should not define its design! I think discussions about design are indeed very relevant, but the search for definitions is not a very promising way of investigating this field. Every designer who starts out looking for an original Brazilian form of expression, runs the risk of projecting a false identity or even a caricature of the essence of Brazil into the world. In terms of its national heritage, Brazil is a very rich country and I think that highbrow culture has not given this the attention it deserves. Nevertheless, in recent decades there has been a steady rise in interest in Brazil’s cultural inheritance, and I very much welcome this. The danger lies in the great temptation to identify a so-called »Brazilian identity« via this heritage. It seems to me to wrong to see true Brazilian identity there. That legacy does indeed contain a range of forms of expression that are part of our culture, but it should not be seen as the original source which all Brazilians draw on.


What influence have international styles had or are still having on Brazilian design?

In my view the cultural legacy of other countries is just as important as Brazil’s own indigenous culture. The world has been global for much longer than current deb­ate would have us believe. The influence of European design started with the arrival of the first caravels of Pedro Álvares Cabral, who landed in Brazil in the year 1500. There were books on board printed in the solid traditional typography of the Portuguese. The influen­ces have not stopped since them. And in the 20th century that process has accelerated rapidly, and the European influences are reaching here ever faster. 

But they have always been filtered through the local perspective, through the cultural and technological environment in which we live here, and as a result here they take on another hue, as it were. To give an example: It is remarkable how the developments in the field of visual arts and design took hold in Brazil and bore fruit. The Brazilian constructivism of the 1950s and the modern design of the 1960s were among the best that were created at that time at an international level. These were trends that originated abroad, but which in Brazil developed a distinctive character and amazing vitality.

In your book »Linha do Tempo«, you mention the influx of designers from all over the world to Brazil who then left their mark on graphic design here …

Yes, that’s a phenomenon with an impact that even I was not truly aware of until I did the research for this book! In the course of the two centuries in which design in Brazil really flourished, there were many masters working in the country, and among them were many from abroad. Portuguese, of course, but also Italians, Germans, Austrians, Spanish, Argentinians, French, Japanese, Hungarians, Danes – a large and hetero­­geneous group of masters of design and the visual arts. And they did not come to Brazil on a short-term basis to complete a commission or to work with one or the other institution – they were independent people, masters of their craft and wanting to live and work here long term.


Do you think that design here has been significantly influenced by what’s happening in design abroad?

Well, you have to make a distinction here: When you say foreign influences, most people automatically think of institutional educational opportunities, of university exchange programes or the travels of Brazilian desi­gners abroad, and of the publications to which these experts have access – books, magazines and recently the digital media. All that is important, but I do not mean these forms of influence. What I mean are the day-to-day achievements of creative and independent designers who have set themselves up in Brazil and have built up a kind of contact which, for want of a better expression, I call organic. In my opinion that is the deeper and more lasting influence. My conclusion is that we have been very fortunate with the foreigners who have come to us. The best that has been produced in Brazilian design over the last two centuries, goes back to these people. We are a diverse nation, that is without doubt. 


To find out more about Brazilian design, take a look at our February issue: novum 02.17