November 5, 2008 Mid-Century Modern

The Influence of Niemeyer’s Brasilia

(This post was written by Modern Capital reader Rob King, a graphic designer in Washington.)

Washington’s Art Museum of the America’s recently staged an excellent exhibit on world-renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, best known for designing the modernist city of Brasilia. Built on empty fields in the early 1960s, Brazil’s capital city became a massive project that included the president’s house, several ministries, a cathedral, performing arts spaces and residential buildings.

Brasilia’s Cathedral

Niemeyer used the Bauhaus-era International Style as a jumping off place to develop his own more idiosyncratic aesthetic, characterized by swooping, parabolic curves rather than rectilinear cubes. Many of Brasilia’s structures appear to float on tapered columns, raised off the ground thus freeing the space underneath to be open and integrated with nature. The vast structures of Brasilia are punctuated by modern sculpture, reflecting pools and cubist-inspired ceramic tile patterns designed by Niemeyer.

Brasilia Designs for the Home

The exciting forms of this new modernist city garnered attention in the United States, inspiring American furniture manufacturer Broyhill to create the Brasilia line of furniture in 1962. The furniture emulates the spirit of Niemeyer’s designs, complete with his distinctive swooping curves, which are repeated in wave-shaped drawer handles and upholstery patterns. Constructed of carefully matched walnut veneer with frames of solid pecan, the extensive line includes pieces for the living room, dining room and bedroom. Broyhill’s Brasilia was sold throughout the 1960s and discontinued around 1970.

Palácio da Alvorada and the furniture it inspired.

Mid-century collectors have recently been rediscovering the mod, swinging style of Broyhill’s Brasilia, and the nation’s largest dealer of vintage pieces is right here in Alexandria. Retired couple Arthur and Bonnie Friedman fell in love with the Brasilia line when it was new, back in the 1960s. They bought a few pieces when furnishing their first home as newlyweds, then added to their collection years later after they discovered eBay. They enjoyed collecting the furniture so much that they recently furnished a second home with the line, then started buying, restoring, and selling the furniture themselves. Their business is called Brasilia Connection. Their website includes photos of their offerings and illustrations from the pages of the original 1960s Brasilia catalog. There were more than 50 pieces in the original line.

The Brasilia Connection has been up and running for about five years. Friedman ships all over the country, including to the West Coast, where a slew of next-generation modernists have made the furniture line especially popular. Friedman says many of his customers are young adults who are completing collections they have inherited from their parents or grandparents. “They either love it or hate it,” he said. “The ones who hate it come to us to sell. …The ones who love it come to us to buy more.”