Fernando Brízio's designs are humorous and intelligent at the same time. The Portuguese designer develops objects, furniture and clothes that tell the story of their production, tracing their life cycle like seismographs. His "Target-Table" transforms an archery target together with arrows into a side table, over the course of an evening the "Restart" dress is decorated with a colorful pattern, depending on which felt pens are in each of the little pockets that pepper the white cotton dress. Throughout the cultural biennale, ExperimentaDesign, all of these astounding works will be on display in the Antigo Convento da Trindade in Lisbon as part of a large solo exhibition that allures its visitors into a shimmering world of ideas. Sandra Hofmeister spoke to Fernando Brízio about design processes, local handicraft businesses and Buster Keaton.
Sandra Hofmeister: Which criteria did you consider when selecting items from your personal archive for the Lisbon exhibition?
Fernando Brízio: Together with the curator, Carla Cardoso, I reviewed everything I have worked on up to the present day. Carla was impressed by the quantity of work that had never been shown before. I had kept all of the drawings and models that I created when I was a student. Back then – I finished my degree in Lisbon in 1996 – there were no computers nor Internet, no magazines nor fancy design books. That's why my archive isn't a digital one, but is instead filled with papers, sketches, prototypes, models, and other documents. When reviewing all of it with Carla, it emerged as a single, more or less individual work.
Many objects you have designed say a lot about the design process itself. What significance does the finished product have at the end of the process?
Brízio: When I have a commission to work on, the product of course has to resolve the "serious" issues presented by the brief, and ultimately the client has to be happy with the end result. When on the other hand I develop my own projects and ideas with no client involved, my intention is to come out with something useful. When I left university, I conducted my projects together with artists and had many doubts about which direction I wanted to pursue. But I made the decision to work as a designer, because I want people to use my ideas. I am interested in how they handle the objects. The process can involve either series or hand-crafted production – I am always intrigued by what people take away from these processes.
You refer to Buster Keaton as your favorite role model on how to use everyday objects. Do you believe that this question of use should be combined with humor?
Brízio: I am just happy when people like my work. But my approach is not to proceed from the question of use in terms of the physical and functional aspects. Usually I work with specific typologies, whose functional issues have been long resolved. I work with and on the emotions that surface when you look at or handle objects. I am interested in their ability to tell a story, to display qualities that can make us fall in love with them and want to touch and use them. For me design is not just about shapes, but about people: their culture, their desires, wishes, needs and emotions. So design for me means having these ideas for other people. In this sense it is very important that people intuitively understand these ideas. When they look at my objects and smile that is a sign of success. I always look for a human basis that does not depend on cultural background or sophisticated social skills; it has nothing to do with a high or popular culture.
Which role do you see technology and craft assuming in relation to your design and where do you see their significance for the future?
Brízio: Personally I think the role played by people will be the most important. But development in design will continue in different ways, and technology is of course a very important aspect. I myself don't tend to work with high-tech very much because these technologies are usually very expensive. In any case, I'm based in Lisbon, not Germany. I use craft techniques, working with materials such as ceramics and wood, which works out cheaper and also allows me to work together with the craftsmen – potters, for example – in my neighborhood. I believe that you should always be careful with technology in general; some of it can be dangerous, it changes our perception of reality.
The interrelation of the virtual and the real world has become a big issue in our society. Do you consider this dangerous?
Brízio: For instance, I personally consider the idea of "augmented reality" stupid. If you go to a Gothic church for example, and walk around with an iPad reading about its history, the sculptures and other architectural details... your experience and perception of the space will ultimately be altered in a negative way. I am convinced that we will pay for this kind of technology some day. We are destroying our feeling of the space, the light, the temperature, the sound. When the use of such devices becomes more important than our feelings in that precise moment, we cancel out our ability to have a holistic experience.
During your studies there were no digital aids, how do you deal with that today?
Brízio: I don't work directly with software, but should the need arise I have somebody in my studio who can help me with that. I still draw by hand, even to full-scale, and I also make models. I think computers are extraordinary, but they create an unreal world. As a professor, I sometimes have trouble explaining this correlation to my students. They think that everything can be designed using software. If they need a certain material or a technical solution, they don't head to the workshop around the corner or search in archives, shops or libraries, but stay at their desk in front of the computer. This can only lead to failure because you can't get a real sense for a project like this.
Does the economic crisis represent an opportunity or a risk for you as a designer?
Brízio: Of course, we all know the economic rules in the design world. But design is a huge field and a profession for a lot of different people. Many of them don't take part in the international design circus but choose to develop projects in a different way. After all, design is a powerful way to consider reality and the future, the human and cultural condition, and evolution. I am convinced that we as designers can change this evolution. What I don't like about present-day tendencies is that design is more or less always subject to the same patterns, shapes and ideas. We have lost this feel for original sources and replaced it with a globalized view. Magazines are full of reports on events that are taking place simultaneously in Beijing, Berlin or anywhere else for that matter. This attitude erases a place's identity.
Does that mean that our cultural diversity is subject to the rules of the market?
Brízio: Everyday objects that are always the same bore me. In Lisbon, for example, traditional craft businesses have been gradually disappearing, little by little. Old trades are being substituted by imported, international trends, brands, images and spatial experiences. I fear that soon it will be difficult to find an authentic café in Lisbon, one that is different from those in Rome or New York. The same brands and items are now sold in different countries all over the world. This tendency will cause us to lose our cultural diversity and identity. Design must be responsible for the primary identity and the constant renewal of that identity. And so, I prefer not to think global, but to work on regional solutions. There is a chance for this kind of identity – even in the globalized world.
Interview: Sandra Hofmeister