In a decidedly countercurrent move, young Portuguese designer João Abreu Valente has recently set up a studio in Lisbon, Portugal.
The country is witnessing a difficult economic and social period, and most of its youth is leaving the country in search for opportunities abroad. But Valente, following the completion of his masters studies at the Design Academy Eindhoven, decided it was time to come back home. The 28 year-old set up shop at Rua da Rosa 237, in Bairro Alto, a vibrant neighbourhood in the centre of the city, and shares his studio space with other designers and architects, using it as a workspace, workshop venue, event space and meeting point. In June, Valente will also use the space to host a shop and gallery to showcase his and other local creative work. Apart from all that, Valente has his own, quite singular, perspective on design that he aims to develop further in future design projects.
Valente started the masters in Contextual Design at the Design Academy Eindhoven back in 2010. Despite having completed a successful first year, he was advised not to follow through to the second year, since his work was deemed “too poetic”. Fortunately, he didn't follow the advice and the second year proved to be of paramount importance to consolidate his perspective on design. “That was the time when I began to understand how I wanted to pursue my ideas,” Valente says. “There, I started to focus on the process. In Portuguese schools you don't talk about that at all.”
His thesis project was a reflection on the design process, and consisted of two projects: the Teapot’set and Wood Casting. Both rely on the idea that the final object should somehow reflect its production process, and thus create a more meaningful dialogue with the observer. This perspective follows Valente's concern on how consumers become estranged from the origin of the products they use, but also on how designers are fundamentally disconnected from the “material world”, a consequence of the usage of predominantly digital tools. These concerns were already expressed in Valente’s 2010 project Another Contemporary Chair, shaped like the shadow of a chair, it reflected on the relationships between designers and objects.
The words of philosopher Vilém Flusser in The Shape of Things — where Flusser states that the factory of the future should also be a place for learning — resonated with the designer, becoming the starting point for his thesis project and the work he is currently pursuing. Valente seeks to explore the educational potential of the design process. “The process of the future should allow people to understand how objects are made,” he states, pointing out how functionality should shift to the process as in Teapot'set, where a single teapot mould produces the whole tea set, creating a process that is functional in itself. In Wood Casting, on the other hand, a wardrobe produces its own mirror in cast aluminium, and “the process of transformation generates its own ornament and function through a material interaction”.
In both projects, Valente didn't know what the final object would look like. “I merely put the materials in contact and let them do the rest”, he states, noting how he welcomes whatever the final result may be. Valente admits a dislike of polished things, preferring to acknowledge the rawness of the material. He does not disregard the digital resources but uses them with restraint, arguing that digital mediums are not the only resource available for designers, and the understanding of materials can only come from the “material world”. In his own process, Valente values direct contact with the material he wants to work with, in an obsessive exploration of its materiality, which is only then followed by a design exercise.
This goes in tune with the Portuguese context Valente returned to. The country still has a fair amount of manufacturers using artisanal methods. Since these are small-scale industries, they allow for connection and interaction with production processes. “Despite what everyone says, I think every country has its own material identity, and ours is very interesting”, Valente states.
Valente recently finished working on a series of his Teapot'set for Anthropologie. At the present moment, he has been exploring ceramic tiles in a local factory, and will soon start exploring another material: glass. For now, his most important project is his studio at Rua da Rosa 237. The studio is shared with other designers, such as the multidisciplinary collective Subvert, and designer Mafalda Fernandes. Rua da Rosa 237 also hosts an informal weekly gathering where young people can present their work. Titled Conversas [“Conversations”], the series was started by Fernandes and artist Constança Saraiva, and recently celebrated its 50th meeting.
In the works is Arquivo 237, a shop and gallery integrated in the studio space, opening directly to the street. Valente’s aim is to showcase projects that, somehow, refer to the idea of process, and he is currently inviting participants with relevant work. At the end of each year, he plans to publish a catalogue with everything that was presented at Arquivo. The designer advocates there's a lack of places in Lisbon where a more experimental approach can be displayed, and with Arquivo he hopes to offer a platform to initiate fruitful discussions. Inês Revés (@ines_reves)