Reinventing Rio

The Brazilian city is enjoying a creative revival.

WORDS Nick Remsen
May / June 2019

Photography by André Klotz

In the buildup to sunset in Rio de Janeiro—a highly anticipated event, with postcard-perfect hues—crowds gather at a promontory that juts into the Atlantic. The place is called Pedra do Arpoador, which translates from Portuguese to English as, approximately, “harpoon stone.”

It’s an apt moniker. The grooved slab is the definitive landmark that separates Rio’s curving, famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, spiking the sea like some elephantine arrowhead. I overhear a visiting Turkish couple call it “the sunset spot.” Vendors sell freshly made caipirinhas on trays; locals and tourists alike sip Brahma beer, swim or surf in the heaving waves, and people-watch before snapping no-filter-needed Instagram photos. Arguably, though, an equally viable and markedly more posh “sunset spot” is the minimalist yet comfortable indoor-outdoor ground-floor terrace of the hotel Arpoador, located just west of the rock, on Rua Francisco Otaviano.

The 49-room venue underwent a complete renovation in 2019. (Until then, it retained more of a hostel vibe; I actually stayed there as a teenager, and remember dark rooms and no hot water.) Now, it’s all contemporary-sleek, with smooth surfaces, a rooftop pool, angular shapes and an industrial-natural blend of glass and wood. The renovation was overseen by Thiago Bernardes of Bernardes Arquitetura, a firm with offices in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Lisbon, Portugal.

Lounge atthe Janeiro hotel

The Arpoador’s reinvention bolsters the notion that Rio is hitting a fresh creative stride, blending the textured glory of its past with an eclectic present, and embedding a unique urbanity within its unrivaled tropical environment. “Amidst the city’s everyday turmoil, Cariocas stroll through a plethora of natural and urban settings that unfold in a spectacle of color, texture, sensation and culture,” says Bernardes. “This constant immersion dictates the way we create.

“Rio is a liminal city,” he adds. “It grew in a place where there should have never been a city. Everything is tucked between something else. There is this pressure in Rio, but Cariocas find a way to cope with it through our laid-back approach toward life. Our beauty comes from this.”

As for the Arpoador, he says, “We wanted it to be fully embedded into the beach and its culture. Even the colors of the staff’s uniforms are informed by the shades of the beach.”

View from the Arpoador

Two miles away, through Ipanema and into neighboring Leblon, stands the Janeiro hotel. This beachfront property also opened in 2019, under the eye of Oskar Metsavaht, known for his fashion label, Osklen, as well as his far-reaching advocacy for responsible and eco-friendly design practices. I meet his daughter, Caetana, there. She is on Osklen’s creative board, and says her role is to “integrate all aspects of the label’s visuals, bringing together its mood and atmosphere.”

The Janeiro—an extension of Osklen’s eco-chic aesthetic—has 53 rooms. Built into a slender tower, they are replete with travertine marble, natural straw accents and certified sustainable freijo wood. Its rooftop—dubbed the “Little Pool Bar and Veranda”—is the selling point. The pool is indeed little, but it is flanked by glass panes that stunningly frame their respective vignettes. Look east, and there’s the long golden band of Leblon morphing into Ipanema. Look west through a porthole cutout, and there’s a close-up of the sky-piercing Morro Dois Irmãos rock formation, as well as the vibrant Vidigal hillside community. Look straight out, and there’s nothing but Brazilian blue, dotted with inhabited green and gray islands.

“We have a strong, fresh identity now,”says Oskar Metsavaht. “We have a global collective of people here, but are still very much our own.

The Rio aesthetic is balanced between the cosmopolitan, the European and the natural world. It’s something people dream about, but we really have it.”

“Balance” is a word heard often when speaking to designers and creatives here, as is a shared sentiment about the city having recently come into its own on the global stage, beginning a new chapter in its cultural history. All over town, there’s a sense of positivity and buoyancy.

Thomas Azulay and Patrick Doering at their boutique, The Paradise

The fashion label The Paradise, by Thomaz Azulay and Patrick Doering, is “born and raised in Rio.” The pair operates their own boutique in Ipanema and sell online. The Paradise’s wares are print-driven, with a unisex appeal and a flair for luster, punchiness and theatricality. The look is akin to what one would imagine if, perhaps, Gianni Versace had been inspired by Rio instead of Miami Beach. The Paradise is a favorite shop among Brazilian editors and stylists, and Azulay and Doering say they want to start selling in the United States.

“Everything is made here, and this is something we’re very proud of,” says Azulay over drinks at the Fairmont hotel at the far western tip of Copacabana Beach. “It’s more expensive because of this, as it’s harder to realize the product because expertise in clothes-making might not be as strong as elsewhere.”

“But people are more aware than ever about small and independent designers here,” adds Doering.

“People are very aware about where the product comes from. They think about the supply, and the quality. The consumer here does not want to buy more. They want to buy better.”

“The feeling here now is that people have come back to an idea of dressing and expressing themselves,” says Azulay. “Over the past few years, the feeling was plainer and more subdued. Today, it’s optimistic.”

“And we are known for our brightness,” says Doering. “We were doing about 90 to 95 percent of our designs with prints. That number is now at about 80 percent, as we are trying to balance it out.”

Haight store

Haight, by Marcella Franklin, is a Rio de Janeiro-based swimwear brand that has taken the world with the force of a rip current, selling at major boutiques and on e-commerce platforms. Minimal and sporty in silhouette, Franklin’s one-pieces and bikinis project the image of the Carioca beachgoer—tall and tan and young and lovely, as the famous song “The Girl From Ipanema” goes.

A menswear swim brand, Frescobol Carioca, has also become popular outside of Brazil. Established by Harry Brantly and Max Leese in 2013, Frescobol Carioca features trunks boasting polychrome geometric patterns—some recalling the Roberto Burle Marx tile inlays of Copacabana and Ipanema’s much-photographed mosaic boardwalks. Brantly, who grew up in Rio’s Jardim Botânico area, says,

“There has certainly been a new wave in recent years of Brazilian creatives who have been instrumental in fueling the sense of Rio as an artistic center within South America.

It has always been a creative hub, but it is finally getting the recognition it deserves around the world. Rio is unique. It’s laid-back and indefinitely cool. It combines a fun-loving lifestyle with an incredible backdrop, rain forest, beach and urban architecture. The aesthetic diversity of Rio is what makes the place so exciting—it’s contradictory but complementary.”

Designer Alix Duvernoy (with Gato) at her residence

Angela Brito is a local fashion house founded in 2014; Brito’s designs mix minimalism and elegance, with results that are filtered through an effortless, warm-weather sense of chic. Alix Duvernoy is another resident label, featuring breezy, comfortable garments with charming naïf prints inspired by the jungle or Rio’s ubiquitous graffiti. Duvernoy takes by-appointment meetings with clients at her studio in the city’s Santa Teresa neighborhood.

“There are countless places in Rio where you can see its culture coming to life,” she says. “Samba and funk parties can happen under highways or in a beautiful square in the old center of the city. The informality, spontaneity and sensuality of the Carioca way of living is reflected in its architecture, music and design.”

The through line connecting all of the above? A universal feeling of ease. There’s little overwrought conceptualization in Rio de Janeiro’s sartorial circles. Rather, the takeaway is one of cumulative lightness, and of a singular, relaxed élan.

In the busier, off-the-beach precinct of Lapa, there is a hidden oasis of a gallery, Mercado Moderno. It was founded in 2001 by Marcelo Vasconcellos and Alberto Vicente, and their timing was excellent: Since the turn of the millennium, the global appetite for Brazilian mid-century-modern furniture has increased significantly. Vasconcellos and Vicente still comb Brazil for rare finds by designers from this era, though they represent living names, as well.

Designers Gisela Simas, Bernardo Senna, Guilherme Sass and Fernando Mendes at the Mercado Moderno gallery

When I stop in on a haze-filled afternoon, the gallery had just received a Bullet chair by the São Paulo-based Alê Jordão, featuring a seat and back of reinforced glass. Jordão had physically shot the panes, rendering bullet-induced fractures. Next to that is a just discovered sofa and chair set from the late 1960s, retailing for around $30,000. Nearby, an Oscar Niemeyer Rio rocking chair is being readied to ship to a design fair in China.

“Creativity is historically the definitive trait of Rio de Janeiro and its people,” says Vasconcellos. “If you look from the 1950s to the 1970s, you’ll realize that the most prominent designers were based in Rio. These included Joaquim Tenreiro, Sergio Rodrigues, José Zanine Caldas and Oscar Niemeyer.”

Vasconcellos adds that Rio de Janeiro has become a more established creative hub in recent years. He credits this to the area’s “huge diversity. The result is a cultural scene that is very lively.

“Rio de Janeiro has its own personality,” he continues, “and the production that comes from here is usually warm, inviting and upbeat. It is about nature, casualness and being laid-back.

We love the designers who capture and translate this Carioca essence—Fernando Mendes, Bernardo Senna, Brunno Jahara and Gisela Simas among them.”

Vicente adds that Rio is a great city to explore for its architecture, both long-standing and recently completed. As it happens, UNESCO has named Rio de Janeiro its World Capital of Architecture for the year 2020, the very first designation of its kind, made in partnership with the International Union of Architects (UIA). Architects and urban planners from every continent are visiting Rio this year for panels, summits, discussions and tours focusing on “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities.”

Furniture by Cimo, Oscar Niemeyer and Ricardo Fasanello at Mercado Moderno

“Visiting the museums can be a pleasant and surprising experience,” says Vicente. “Even the city’s port area has been renovated, and now you can see two museums there: Museu de Arte do Rio and Museu do Amanhã, an amazing project by the architect Santiago Calatrava.” Calatrava is a Spaniard, but one can no doubt see Niemeyer’s curvilinear influence in his work.

Design and creativity are ongoing in Rio de Janeiro. Trendiness is not really something that dominates, at least not in the way that, say, fads arise during the European fashion-show circuit. Rather, this city moves at a slow burn, its visionaries letting the vaporous air and the cacophony of their improbable home fuel their calm, casual and, yes, balanced ideas. Oskar Metsavaht sums up Rio de Janeiro’s creativity best in a single word.

“When I design, being both from here and someone who travels often, I think of what is needed,” he says. “And that is simplicity.”


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