With São Paulo's fashionable Forum flagship, architect Isay Weinfeld shows that sensuous minimalism can hold its own.
Raul Barreneche -- Interior Design, 11/1/2001 12:00:00 AM
If Rio de Janeiro, that legendarily photogenic city of Carnaval and Copacabana, represents the soul of Brazil, its commercial heart is São Paulo. Unfortunately, this metropolis of 11 million is landlocked and congested, with generic high-rises shoved cheek by jowl, smothered in smog—truly a Blade Runner kind of place. Few buildings have the kind of sensuousness or verve of, say, Oscar Niemeyer's in Brasília. In business-minded São Paulo, there's not much room for romance.
Luckily, the city is getting a dose of native soul, courtesy of Isay Weinfeld, an architect and filmmaker. (He has cowritten and codirected 14 shorts and a feature.) Weinfeld's architectural work marries sleek minimalism and Brazilian earthiness. Think reddish wood floors and sumptuous walls of local stone warming up what might otherwise be just a white box full of Eames chairs.
Weinfeld's new flagship for Brazil's toniest fashion label, Forum, also puts a local slant on minimalist design. Instead of using Mies van der Rohe chairs, for example, he found furniture by Brazilians; but his approach goes beyond mixing in a native object or two. "Forum's owner and stylist asked me to translate into architecture his concept of clothes, which draw on Brazilian themes such as bossa nova, Cinema Novo, Rio de Janeiro, and fruit," Weinfeld says. Don't let the mission statement give you the wrong impression, though: Forum is Brazil's version of Calvin Klein, not some peddler of Carmen Miranda frocks. The architect evoked a broader tropical mood with the tones and textures of traditional materials, many surprisingly humble for such a rarified retail environment.
The store's monolithic quartz-and-glass façade stands out on Rua Oscar Freire, among Armani, Dior, Versace, and Vuitton boutiques practically identical from one continent to the next. Inside, the L-shaped 13,000-sq.-ft. space is predominantly white because Weinfeld finds that "color interferes with clothing." The first floor is devoted to dressier women's and men's clothes; sportswear is upstairs. Merchandise is displayed in racks and cases recessed in the walls, never cluttering dramatic vistas illuminated by large skylights.
Weinfeld packs his one punch of color far away from the clothes, on the monumental main staircase. Tiny vitrified red tiles cover the steps themselves, while the wall behind is a huge expanse of taipa, a wattle-and-daub used to build houses in northern Brazil. Lining the taipa wall are a long wood-topped coffee bar and chunky stools made from tree trunks.
The architect's ode to South American modernism plays out in seating areas throughout the shop. Wood-framed armchairs by 1950s Brazilian designers Jacob Ruchti and Joaquim Tenreiro sit on white rugs made from fabric scraps, a typical handicraft in the northeastern part of the country. Like the rough taipa against the sleek display walls, the rag rugs provide a rustic counterpoint to the furniture's geometric polish.
This earthy chic is a welcome relief from the repetitive minimalism embraced by so many international fashion houses, all waging an endless war to see whose version of "less is more" sells more. Weinfeld also reminds us what Mies and Le Corbusier missed out on when they espoused a neutral global architecture. By rooting itself in vernacular traditions, modern design can shine brighter.