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Portugal by Design

Portugal remains one of my favorite countries on the planet, and I'm delighted this week to be working with two separate clients who will include Portugal in their summer plans. One is a family group traveling from Barcelona to San Sebastian and ending in Lisbon. The other is a couple making it to Portugal at last after postponing it for years due to the pandemic. The family is traveling with adventuresome children, and the couple love art and wine. Portugal has a spell to cast on everyone! When it's time to find souvenirs, the shopping in Portugal is next level thanks to designers and makers reinventing Portugal's artisan traditions and crafts. Leave room in your suitcase on your next trip here! 


Excerpt below from 6/23/2023 Virtuoso article by Chadner Navarro can found here. 

 

When I started visiting Lisbon more than 15 years ago, I generally avoided shopping. For those who know me – a man so materialistic he once owned 120 pairs of shoes – this may come as a shock. But staring at a wall of bags made of cork, kitschy ceramic bowls, and T-shirts with roosters and the word “PORTUGAL!” screaming at me, I wasn’t exactly compelled to fill up a second suitcase. Back then, the best mementos from my many trips to Portugal were bottles of wine or boxes of pastries that were unlikely to survive the flight home. I yearned to find beautiful Portuguese things to take back with me.

 

A lot has changed since then. Over the last decade, a new generation of makers and designers has emerged as rightful heirs to Portugal’s rich art and craft traditions. They’re not only putting their innovative stamps on a legacy, but also making covetable products much more accessible to visitors like me. My luggage has never been heavier.

 

On my most recent trip to the country, I set out to experience this renaissance for myself. While travelers typically come to Lisbon’s riverfront Belém neighborhood to see some of the city’s most historic attractions – the Monument to the Discoveries, the fifteenth-century Jerónimos Monastery, the famous Pastéis de Belém bakery – I was here to visit Portugal Manual, a contemporary homage to Portuguese handiwork. Opened in 2020 inside the Belém Cultural Center, it’s the kind of shop I would have lost my mind in ten years ago. Perusing its 40 brands, I suddenly realize I’m touching everything: thick-gauge wool sweaters from Lobo, which works with textile factories across the country to make use of scrap materials; curvy-but-delicate glass vases by Catarina Pacheco; and whimsical felt hats by Cascais-based brand Avo. The variety is a testament to Portugal’s robust design scene, but the common denominator is each brand’s relevance – I could picture one of Lobo’s chunky fisherman-style cardigans in my closet at home – and its focus on handmade techniques.

 

“My objective is to tell the stories of artisans who dare return to handmade production,” says Filipa Belo, Portugal Manual’s founder. She credits this renewed interest in Portuguese craftsmanship to the marriage of ancient professions and young, talented creatives. Together, they’re rejuvenating heritage techniques through products that resonate with new generations of buyers, who want to shop for things they can’t find anywhere else – items with cultural heft, a sense of place, and no shouting roosters in sight. “Designers know how important it is to show who’s backstage.”

 

I want to see this old school-new school magic in action, to dig deeper. We start in Caldas da Rainha, a quiet, ancient city about an hour’s drive north of Lisbon. Known historically for its healing thermal waters – Queen Dona Leonor built what’s now the world’s oldest thermal hospital here in the 1480s – Caldas’ soil is bursting with clay, a resource that supports its thriving ceramics industry. (Ceramics are arguably the most visible of Portugal’s creative achievements – the most obvious example being azulejos, the tin-glazed ceramic tiles that cloak entire buildings and are about as prevalent as pastéis de nata.) One of Portugal’s most iconic brands, Bordallo Pinheiro, was founded here in the nineteenth century, and many other ceramic showrooms, shops, and factories have since followed suit.

 

Caldas may have started as a destination for ceramic making, but its design schools, lower rents, and easy proximity to Lisbon have seduced creatives of all types. “Some of Portugal’s most famous makers have had a foothold in this town,” says my guide. He takes me to Silos, an old brutalist grain silo that’s been transformed into workspaces for many of the region’s most promising talents, from ceramists and glass blowers to basket weavers and woodworkers. In their shared ground-floor workshop, designers Eneida Tavares and Samuel Reis show me what they’re working on. Reis, who’s known for his otherworldly blown-glass creations, hands me drinking glasses and bottles molded from petrified wood. Their textures are unusual, shaped by the curves and ridges of a tree branch. Then Tavares surprises me with vases that are half ceramic, half pine-needle basketry. Her parents are from Cape Verde and Angola, and after some research, she learned of an Angolan spiral coiling technique traditionally used for sieves and containers that can also be used to weave baskets. The resulting products are as dynamic as that global inspiration.

 

“Design as a discipline is quite new in Portugal,” Tavares says, noting that while there’s an incredibly rich history of craftsmanship, it isn’t a regulated practice or industry. “It almost feels like each of us is creating by our own rules.”

 

If anyone’s reinventing the rule book, it’s Italian transplant and Caldas resident Luca Colapietro, who’s turning azulejo tradition on its head with Surrealejos, a project that infuses Dalí- and Duchamp-inspired motifs with unexpected production techniques. Using ceramic decals created via digital and manual collage, his most striking works feature hot-air balloons, flamingos, and colorful, circuslike scenes. “My visuals are an instinctive mix of elements that recall my past and those typical of Portuguese culture,” he says.

 

I head back to Lisbon in time for our appointment at the Bairro Alto production facility of Leitão & Irmão, a 200-year-old jeweler that used to make baubles for the Portuguese royal family. Classic pieces dominate the space – enormous silver shells that evoke Portugal’s seafaring history, dainty tiaras festooned with gemstones, and a lot of gilded religious paraphernalia – but thanks to the storied brand’s recent partnerships with contemporary talent, I spy trendier pieces as well.

 

“It’s very important for us to feed our curiosity and be willing to learn from and welcome youthfulness,” says general manager Jorge Leitão, a sixth-generation descendant of the jeweler’s founder, José Pinto Leitão. A recent, tightly edited ten-piece collection with Lisbon-based label Carolina Curado, known for its bold, feminine costume jewelry, wonderfully showcases the beauty of collaboration. Leitão & Irmão artisans lent their expertise on silver, gold, and precious gems such as diamonds – new materials for the Carolina Curado team – while Curado brought fresh ideas. I spot a pair of chunky ear cuffs resembling a bouquet of calla lilies. The master jeweler putting the finishing touches on one of the cuffs tells me that in her decades with the casa, she’s never worked on anything like this.

 

Lisbon's design scene can hold its own, but most Portuguese consider Porto – three hours by train from the capital – to be the country’s true creative center, thanks to its proximity to northern manufacturing towns. I’ve always loved scoping out the scene at Scar-ID in the Cedofeita district. When the boutique opened in 2013, owners Sílvia Pinto Costa and André Ramos stocked a lot of exclusive drops from independent Portuguese fashion designers, and over the years, they’ve expanded to include home goods to accommodate expats looking for local merch. In 2019 the couple launched their own line, Ater Objects, featuring ceramics designed by Costa herself. Some pieces are practical (plates and cups), but others are more abstract, including a two-pronged vessel I can’t quite identify – a water jug, maybe, or a vase, or just an objet d’art to be used as a conversation piece.

Costa and Ramos were pioneers of championing local brands, but it wasn’t always easy. “All of our clients were devoted to labels from France and Italy,” Ramos says. “But now, everything has changed. Portugal is a brand.”

 

Included in that brand is knitwear designer Susana Bettencourt, who started learning her craft at age 5 from her grandmother. “My Azorean heritage brought me to knitting,” she says, adding that, growing up, her family in those Portuguese isles made most of their clothes at home. She learned foundational techniques – knitting, crochet, embroidery, and bobbin lace – from them before studying fashion at Central Saint Martins in London and returning to Portugal to create some of the most eye-catching knits coming out of the country. Scar-ID carries Bettencourt’s more subdued creations, including a jacquard cotton-blend dress depicting Portugal’s windows, but her full range of work is more avant-garde: skirts with peekaboo hems, for example, and hand-crocheted, boho-style ruffled pants you’d hardly expect to see someone wearing while prancing through the quiet villages of São Miguel Island. But Bettencourt’s vision is all about looking toward the future. “My goal is to modernize knitwear, keep the heritage alive, and pass the knowledge on,” she says.

 

Bolstered by an inspiring week, I finally decide to track down some cork worth bringing home. Portugal produces hundreds of thousands of tons of cork (some 50 percent of the world’s supply), and I had yet to find a single cute cork creation. But if it exists, it must be in Porto, I thought. In their downtown studio, Gustavo Macedo and Filipa Mendes, the founders of furniture and lighting outfit Galula, are excited about how they’re reimagining the possibilities around the country’s greatest crop. “A lot of people don’t think of it as a noble material,” Macedo tells me as I palm a handsome shallow cork bowl that would look fabulous holding a bunch of bananas on my kitchen table. “And I understand, especially if you only see cork as a wine-bottle stopper, a fridge magnet at the souvenir shop, or an ugly purse.”


Galula’s most popular items are its ultramodern pendant and desk lamps, which feature exposed bulbs fixed to magnetized pieces of cork, and the duo’s chairs and tables, which are fashioned out of different varieties of cork: some dark, some dense, some with a tighter grain. “Working with cork for furniture is completely different to producing bottle stoppers,” Macedo says, before adding that convincing manufacturers to even take on their projects was a massive undertaking, requiring a mutual interest in learning from each other, something I’ve heard a lot of on this trip. “We teach them; they teach us,” Mendes says. “And together we become ambassadors for Portuguese design.”

 

As I consider which bowl to bring back with me, I remember those cork bags of souvenir shops past. It may seem like the country’s local crafts have come a long way, but they’ve always been there. They just needed a generation of artists to see them anew.

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