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Joaquim Tenreiro

Joaquim Tenreiro was born on 26 april 1906 in Melo, Portugal.  After having lived in as well Portugal as Brazil, Tenreiro decided at the age of 22 to move to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for good.

Following the trade of his Portuguese father and grandfather, who worked as joiner and carpenter, Tenreiro went into furniture making. In the beginning he worked for various furniture companies like Francisco Gomes, Leandro Martins and Laubisch & Hirth, where he had to copy traditional European designs for their wealthy but conservative clientele. An occupation that was very much disliked by Tenreiro. Until on a sunny day in 1943, life showed it’s bright side and handed him a shining opportunity.

While working without a foreman one day at Laubisch & Hirth, an assignment came in to design the complete furniture of a house being built by rising star architect Oscar Niemeyer in Cataguases, Minas Gerais. Breaking with tradition and inspired by the modern design of the residence, Tenreiro boldly proposed a truly modern design.

Niemeyer and his client, the writer and industrialist Francisco Inacio Peixoto, were both excited and Tenreiro’s proposal was chosen for their project. Not only would it be the first of many collaborations with Oscar Niemeyer, it mostly was the prove Tenreiro needed that his ideas were viable. Only one year later he started his own furniture company, Langenbach & Tenreiro. Later followed by Tenreiro Móveis e Decorações.

Free from his yoke and obligation to copy European styles, Tenreiro started working on his own vision, to modernise Brazilian furniture while making use of the best Brazil had to offer; The various wonderful species of wood, combined with traditional materials like Palhinha Indiana (woven cane). This way he could not only create very modern design free of excessive ornamentation, as was the International trend, but also give it a truly Brazilian soul and character and make it suitable for the Brazilian climate.

Because Teneiro was exposed to wood and woodwork techniques from a young age, and we presume sheer will and passion, the craftsmanship Tenreiro showed in his work, was second to none. Combined with his maniacal perfectionism, Tenreiro managed to achieve the highest execution grade you could and will find in handwork in (South) America.

At the hight of his success Tenreiro had a shop in Rio de Janeiro and Sâo Paulo. His numerous designs from chairs and couches to tables and lamp, all had his gracious skilful trademarks and were welcomed by a small audience of front-runners looking for truly modern design in Brazil.

Sadly enough dark clouds gathered over Brazil and the optimistic days of President Kubitschek, Bossa nova (‘the new trend’) and the feeling of endless opportunity came to an end when Brazil was taken over by a right-wing military coup in 1964. What followed was repression, a deep economic crisis, cultural bitterness and a very sour climate for design and business in general.

This fact and a strong personal feeling that he couldn’t renew himself anymore, made Tenreiro decide to retire from furniture making and focus solely on painting and sculpture making in 1968.

Forgotten and some say somewhat bitter, Tenreiro retreated himself and lived quite a reclusive life during the 70’s and 80’s. Only shortly before his death in 1992 he finally received some well deserved recognition when a retrospective exhibition was organised at the Rio de Janeiro’s design centre. Months later he died.

Joaquim Tenreiro leaves behind an unparalleled legacy and by many is now considered as the father of modern Brazilian furniture design. ~HG.

Available literature:

Tenreiro, Soraia Cals, Bolsa de Arte, Brazil, 1998