As difficult as it is to interrupt the progress of Manhattan pedestrians, a Poltrona Diz chair by Sergio Rodrigues succeeded in doing so this past fall, when it sat in the window of TriBeCa’s R 20th Century gallery. “It literally stopped people on the street,” gallery owner Zesty Meyers says of the deep-seated, curvaceous, rosewood chair, which was part of a retrospective of the Brazilian furniture maker’s work from 1957 to the present. “I have never had a chair—particularly one that was made in 2002 and is obviously still in production—stop people who weren’t purposely coming here.”
During the gallery show’s seven-week run, Meyers sold at least 12 of the chairs, a staggering number considering that they are priced at $8,000 and are made by a designer whose work is virtually unknown outside of Latin America. Such anonymity will not last; American and European collectors are discovering the mid-to-late-20th-century works of Rodrigues and fellow Brazilians Joaquim Tenreiro and Jose Zanine.
Galleries and auction houses already covet the one-of-a-kind or limited edition sofas, dressers, desks, and side tables (produced while Brazil was still under military rule) for their innovative and often sultry organic shapes. Some production pieces—such as Rodrigues’ slouchy Sheriff chair, which won first prize in Italy’s international furniture fair in 1961, or one of Zanine’s two-seated Namoradeira rockers made after the country’s democratization in 1985—have attracted collectors willing to pay in the five-to-six-figure range.
Sotheby’s in New York recently acquired one of the 30 or so three-legged chairs that Tenreiro constructed from four different colored woods in the 1940s. Victoria Rodriguez-Thiessen, assistant vice president of Sotheby’s 20th-century design department, estimates the chair will fetch from $40,000 to $60,000, while Meyers places the chair’s price tag in the six-figure range. “It is unusual in that it has two samples of wood alternating in color in the center and the sides, and the seat is made of another two colors of wood that are actually sandwiched together,” says Rodriguez-Thiessen.
The work of each of the designers is distinct, notes Meyers. “Tenreiro is a minimalist,” he says. “His pieces look simple, but just try to make one. The slight curve on his chair is carved from a giant piece of wood. And there is a lot of attention to the joints, the details. Rodrigues’ work is more organic, an up-from-the-ground sort of thing.” Zanine, Meyers points out, was an architect and model builder for Lucio Costa and Oscar Neimeyer, as well as an environmentalist. (Rodrigues also was an architect by training; Tenreiro came from a furniture-making family and took up the craft at a young age.) “[Zanine’s] later furniture designs in the 1970s and 1980s were these solid, superthick pieces of wood—most of it made from fallen trees in the rain forest—carved into shapes that make George Nakashima’s work look like he’s in kindergarten.”
As a whole, the Brazilian designs are distinguished by the depth and grain of the woods. The shiny finishes and complicated curvature only add to the allure. “In Brazil, everything is sexy,” says Meyers. “And these pieces have a certain succulence and sexiness about them, too.”
R 20th Century, 212.343.7979, www.r20thcentury.com
Sotheby’s, 212.606.7170, www.sothebys.com