How Sergio Rodrigues revolutionized Brazilian design

. Aug 01, 2018
sergio rodrigues Brazilian design mole armchair sheriff furniture Sergio Rodrigues, one of the beacons of Brazilian design
sergio rodrigues Brazilian design mole armchair sheriff furniture

Sergio Rodrigues, one of the beacons of Brazilian design

It was in 1957 that famous Brazilian fashion photographer Otto Stupakoff turned to his friend Sergio Rodrigues, then a 30-year-old architect, for a “mission.” He wanted a comfortable armchair on which he could relax after a long day’s work. That request ended up propelling Rodrigues to international fame, as it pushed him into creating one of the world’s most famous and unique pieces of furniture design: the Mole armchair (the word means “soft” in English).

Known outside of Brazil as the “Sheriff,” the piece was launched in August 1957 at Oca, Rodrigues’ store in Ipanema, one of the most affluent areas of Rio de Janeiro. At first, however, the Mole was not well appreciated. According to Rodrigues’ own accounts, the chair sparked the wrong kind of attention from clients, who thought the piece to be “very expensive for a dog chair.” His partners wanted to remove it from the shop’s window and place it in the back, hidden from casual bystanders.

sergio rodrigues Brazilian design mole armchair sheriff furniture

Mole, a masterpiece of Brazilian design

But Rodrigues’ faith in his own work eventually paid off. Prominent jet-setters from Rio slowly started to appreciate the piece – including then-Governor Carlos Lacerda, who demanded the architect send the Mole armchair to a design competition in Italy. The Brazilian design piece ended up snatching the first prize in the 1961 International Furniture Competition, in Cantu, Italy.

Once considered an “expensive dog chair,” the piece was now praised in Europe for giving a relaxed atmosphere to a room, thanks to its loose cushions thrown on the structure, made out of jacarandá, or Brazilian rosewood. It was supposed to represent the way Brazilians sit, an informal, relaxed, and lazy body posture. Like Mole, most of Rodrigues’ creations were considered to be examples of “Brazilian-ness.” He clashed with the European standard that was so often copied by national furniture producers.

Sergio Rodrigues’ history

Rodrigues, one of the beacons of Brazilian design, was born in 1927, in Rio de Janeiro, into a family of intellectuals. One of his uncles was Nelson Rodrigues, among Brazil’s most iconic playwrights; the other was Mario Filho, a journalist after whom the Maracanã soccer stadium is officially named after.

He started his design career by joining the project of the Curitiba Civic Center – one of the landmarks of Brazilian modernist architecture. The building is among the most iconic in modern Brazilian architecture. Slowly, Rodrigues moved from designing buildings to creating pieces to decorate them; and started creating furniture. This change of focus would put his name in history.

A contemporary of other legends such as Oscar Niemeyer, Rodrigues was invited to take part in the construction of Brasilia. Until today, many public buildings, including Congress and the University of Brasilia, have pieces of furniture designed by Rodrigues spread around their offices.

sergio rodrigues Brazilian design mole armchair sheriff furniture

Sergio Rodrigues in his office

Influences and legacy

Since his college years, Rodrigues had two main influences: Portuguese sculptor and designer Joaquim Tenreiro, and the industrialized furniture of José Zanine Caldas, an architect from the city of São José dos Campos.

He was also influenced by members of the so-called “Italian artistic mission” in Brazil – such as Lina Bo Bardi, Giancarlo Palanti, Dominici, and Carlo Hauner – with whom Rodrigues opened his first shop, Móveis Artesanal Paranaense.

But Rodrigues also left his mark on many Brazilian designers. According to journalist Adélia Borges, groups of designers inspired by the creator of the Mole armchair began popping up, such as Carlos Motta, in São Paulo, and the Marcenaria Baraúna team. These artists, like Rodrigues, valued the use of Brazilian wood to produce furniture.

Rodrigues believed that every architecture student should have experience in woodwork and use construction techniques to create. “Many times, the designer imagines many beautiful things that sometimes don’t work,” he said.

He died in 2014 from a liver failure, and was survived by his wife, Vera Beatriz; two daughters, Adriana and Angela; a son, Roberto; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. 

The Itaú Cultural Institute, near São Paulo’s Paulista Avenue, is currently holding an exhibition to honor Sergio Rodrigues’ body of work and life. “Ser Estar, Sergio Rodrigues” features 500 of the designer’s works spread over the building’s three floors. There are creations from his childhood and the pieces he designed before his death. The exhibition also has documents, photos, rough drafts, videos, and blueprints.

Diogo Rodriguez

Rodriguez is a social scientist and journalist based in São Paulo.

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