Design Rewind: Portuguese Design

A quick visit to Portugal and you’ll be instantly captivated by the reality of life around you: the sweltering heat, the 19th century architecture, the history contained in the ancient hand-painted azulejos

It’s a simple matter of looking at things with fresh eyes.
Wall art in Lisbon
Wall art in Lisbon
House in Rua do Paraíso, designed by fala atelier. Porto, Portugal. 2018

Located in the extreme southwest of Europe, Portugal gets a lot of attention as a traveler’s destination but, it turns out, it’s not a bad place to shop for design either. Let’s dive in.

History is deeply ingrained in Portuguese design

Portugal may be a small country, but its excellent geographic location between the Americas, Africa and Europe gave birth to generations of adventurous seamen and world-class explorers. 

A great seafaring empire, Portugal benefited substantially from its rich cultural legacy: Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Celtic, Visigothic and Moorish. 

In addition to wines, cod and egg-based sweets, Portugal is also well known for the quality of its olive oils, being the sixth-largest producer in the world.

As history goes, the Portuguese paved the way for cultural globalization and cross-pollination. They were the first Europeans to reach Japan in 1543, introduced tea to the British court in 1662 and brought the ukulele to Hawaii in 1879. 

Naturally, the country’s 500-year history of colonial and commercial empire-building in Africa, Asia and the Americas brought a unique mix of styles and design elements we can still see today. 

Moorish influences have remained in Portugal’s architecture, language, customs and in Mouraria, the Moorish neighborhood in Lisbon.

A distinct aesthetic and cultural heritage contribute to Portugal’s unique character.

There are a number of unique characteristics that have contributed to Portuguese design:

1.  A blend of heritage and modernity

Portuguese design is characterized by a blending of traditional elements with modern design. A mix of European, Brazilian, African and Oriental influences produces a unique aesthetic that is both timeless and contemporary.

Azulejos first came to Portugal in the 15th Century, when parts of the Iberian Peninsula were still under Moorish rule.
Oriente Station. Lisbon, Portugal.

Examples of this include ornate patterns and baroque architecture, such as intricate Moorish tilework and Portuguese azulejos. We can also uncover late-Gothic, Manueline elements like pointed arches, vaulted ceilings, and elaborate stone carvings.

The Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Reading is an example of neo-Manueline architecture: wooden bookcases for books and memorials, a chandelier and an iron-structured skylight.
Futah is a Portuguese towel brand that offers products made with a unique fabric, inspired by traditional Arab towels. 

2.  The use of natural materials

Portugal’s landscape, climate, and cultural heritage inspire the use of natural materials such as cork, wood, clay and stone. These materials give Portuguese design a distinct visual language that exudes the authentic beauty of the country’s natural environment and its strong connection to numerous well-preserved historical sites.

The Whistler Cork Teapot in MoMA’s Destination Portugal collection designed by Raquel Castro. 2012.  Approximately 50% of the world’s cork is produced in Portugal.
IKEA’s 2015 Sinnerlig Collection featured furniture and home accessories, designed by Ilse Crawford and produced in Portugal, using cork, ceramics, glass, seagrass, and bamboo.

3.  Bold use of color

Portugal’s colonial history in Brazil has also had a significant impact in design. Elements such as colorful patterns and tropical motifs reflect Brazilian influences.

The Three Cusps Chalet documents the region’s history and diaspora in a clear example of the Brazilian influence over 19th century Portuguese architecture, brought by a historic wave of rich expats returning from their South American travels.
Poster art by Sebastião Rodrigues, one of the most important figures in the history of Portuguese graphic design. His visual language lives on geometry, transposed in simple forms and smooth colors.

In the early 20th century, the Art Deco movement that emerged in Portugal was characterized by its use of bold colors, geometric shapes, and intricate patterns.

Yesterday and Today: graphic design during Portugal’s dictatorship.

Portuguese artists of the first and second avant-garde modernism used traditional elements combined with modern design to produce an eclectic and decorative fusion in graphic design, advertising, scenography, cinema, and decorative arts.

The Estado Novo itself saw the movement as an effective vehicle for propaganda and the affirmation of its authority.
Art by Sofia Ayuso.

4.  Attention to detail

The use of intricate patterns and designs by Portuguese designers are reflective of the country’s past.

Traces of Art Nouveau in Aveiro, Lisbon and Oporto are predominantly seen in the fields of architecture and decorative arts. The movement that spanned between 1904 and 1920 articulates a high sensibility in front facades, woodwork and traditional decorative tiles.

Contemporary Portuguese design uses organic shapes such as the curves of waves or the shapes of flowers that give designs a sense of fluidity and movement. The country’s Moorish past left a significant impact on Portuguese design, with elements such as geometric patterns, arabesques, and intricate tile work reflecting Islamic influence.
Art Nouveau facade at the A Perola do Bolhao grocery store on Rua Formosa in the Ribeira old town.

5.  Emphasis on craftsmanship

The work of Portuguese designers is often characterized by an emphasis on quality craftsmanship. Craftsmen cleverly combine their ancestral know-how with delightful contemporary creations.

Blown and fully handcrafted by master glassmakers without a mold, the Cloudy Butterflies collection, designed by Claudia Schiffer in collaboration with Vista Alegre, is the product of the brand’s eminent command of the ancestral incalmo technique, in which two types of glass unite to form a single body with bands in different shades.

The country’s long tradition of crafts include unique forms of embroidery, lace, tapestry, weaving, jewelry, basketry and hand painted ceramics.

Goathi Coffee table by Alma de Luce. 2018.

From the perfect carving of the wood to the exact cut of the design, Portuguese woodworking is an example of continuity evolution. The region’s ancient art is anchored in history and a constant appreciation of hallmark artisanal techniques.

Gilded woodcarving, or talha dourada in Portuguese, is along with tile one of the country’s most original and rich artistic expressions used in the interiors of churches and cathedrals, as well as noble halls in palaces and large public buildings.

Traditional Portuguese elements create a unique brand identity

Portugal is home to a globally recognized design-led talent pool, whose work contains echoes of cultural and cross-cultural traditions.

A strong brand identity connects with consumers on an emotional level.
A brand with a deep heritage is integral to Portuguese culture and history. The blue tiles of the city are the inspiration for White Studio’s open and evolving identity for Porto in 2014.
Packaging of Jose Gourmet’s tinned products designed in-house by illustrator and curator Luis Mendonça, aka Geméo Luís.
The Portuguese food brand specializes in the distribution of luxury native products, aiming to elevate Portuguese cuisine to the level of international repute.
Serra Dourada’s bold traditional brand identity and packaging design, designed by PACKLAB.

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