Friday, 31 August 2012


This article was first published in Architecture Ireland #264

Having recently relocated to Lisbon in Portugal, I have been getting to know a whole new design scene. Previously, I knew very little about Portuguese design but gradually I’m getting a sense of a small but very active community of creatives both here and in Porto in the north. While architecture is explored at the Lisbon Architecture Triennale (next edition in 2013) as well as through the Triennale’s ‘Intervalo’ programme between editions, design has its outings too. Design is experienced and exhibited at MUDE – the Museum of Design and Fashion on Rua Augusta (one of Lisbon’s main shopping streets), while for two months every two years the city centre is home to EXD (ExperimentaDesign) – an international biennale dedicated to design, architecture and creativity, which returns in autumn 2013.

Shortly after arriving in the city I attended the launch of a book entitled Introspectiva at MUDE. Published to follow an exhibition of the same name held during last year’s EXD’11, Introspectiva takes a look at the work of one of Portugal’s most established product designers, Filipe Alarcão. Alarcão works across various scales, from tabletop ceramics right up to spatial design, bringing to each project a clean aesthetic and unique perspective.

Introspectiva was not a retrospective of Alarcão’s work; rather Alarcão himself used the exhibition to reflect on various threads that have run through his work or ideas previously unexplored to the full in commercial or commissioned projects. As such, Introspectiva presented a collection of new drawings and objects by the designer. Taking archetypes such as the bench, chair, mirror and rug and reducing them to their essence, Alarcão produces a range of objects that are entirely functional yet completely untethered by functionalism. Minimalist yet decorative, at times playful and witty, Introspectiva displays how design can marry aesthetic form, concept and function so well.

Some of the objects presented in the exhibition (and further elaborated on in the book) make interesting use of materials, including Wall Felts (pictured top) – decorative geometric wall hangings in a muted yet striking colour palette, made from felt and cork, materials with excellent thermal and acoustic insulation properties. Other explorations of material include a slab-like side table made from marble and a cork seat made from interlocking blocks (pictured above). Other exhibits utilise forms and archetypes to ask questions or create metaphors: the Absent Chair removes seat and back to leave a carbon-fibre skeleton of a chair, while a pair of adjoined stools, hinting at support and reliance, is called Banco Solidário – a play on the double meaning of the Portuguese word ‘Banco’ meaning both bench and bank (pictured below). The theme of Introspectiva itself is explored most literally through a series of mirrors. Black extrusions from behind each mirror add an additional layer to the work: while a mirror reflects what is in front of it, it also hides what is behind it – Alarcão’s mirrors inhabit and highlight this erased space.

Introspectiva, both the exhibition and the book, showcases not only the work of an influential Portuguese designer but the potential of design to explore concepts, play with form and function and ask questions. The book – which is in both Portuguese and English – includes Alarcão’s own reflections as well as critical essays from Director of MUDE Bárbara Coutinho and MoMA’s newest Contemporary Architecture and Museum Design Curator Pedro Gadanho among others and is available to buy from the publisher, Imprensa Nacional Casa da Moeda.

(All images by Luís Silva Campos, courtesy of Filipe Alarcão)