Interview Fairs Brazil

In plain view: the wood and the trees

Living with a rainforest tribe for 15 years shaped Hugo França’s distinctive approach to furniture-making

França with his favourite material. Picture: André Godoy

Hugo França, 59, was born in Porto Alegre, Brazil. After graduating in industrial engineering from the Pontificia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul, he worked for a computer company in São Paulo before resigning to spend the next 15 years living among Bahia’s native tribes in north-eastern Brazil. He now works between his studios in São Paulo and Trancoso, Bahia, creating functional and sculptural work from fallen trees. His work is in the permanent collections of São Paulo’s Museu da Casa Brasileira and Centro Cultural dos Correios and the Museu do Açude in Rio de Janeiro. He is represented by R20th Century Gallery, New York.

The Art Newspaper: Your work has been compared with that of George Nakashima and Alexandre Noll.

Hugo França: It’s an honour to be considered alongside these master designers. The foremost similarity is our love of trees and their natural characteristics. I see the same reason for our work—a need to keep the memory of each tree alive and bring it into people’s lives. The main difference is that Nakashima’s pieces are very delicate, while Noll explores the wood’s volume and heaviness. I’m more interested in exploring the organic forms, textures, cracks and holes.

You spent 15 years among the Pataxós in the Brazilian jungle. What did you draw from this experience?

To respect nature in a deeper sense and the importance of using its resources responsibly. I also learned how to live in a different culture. Back then, most people in Trancoso couldn’t write or read, and there were no urban comforts. Of course they had other kinds of knowledge, but the first contact was very difficult. When I found I had a talent for working with wood debris, it was like finally discovering my place.

How do the woodworking techniques you learned differ from contemporary techniques?

The ancient techniques involve handcrafting with simple tools—adzes and axes. Using the trunk is also very primitive. Although we still employ the old tools in my workshop, we also use chainsaws, reversing their application from tree-cutting to a sculptural process, and electric planers and sandpaper machines.

Why did you resign from your first job?

I realised I was unable to handle a corporate environment. I just didn’t fit in. I longed to live in a primitive community and learn a whole new way of living. Today I live between Trancoso and São Paulo—the city and the forest and sea.

Why do you work primarily with the pequi tree?

Pequi was part of my “new life”. What’s amazing is its longevity. It matures at 200 years and can live up to 1,200 years. Working with ancient wood feels like archaeology. Pequi has unique characteristics that make conventional carpentry useless, so I had to learn how to deal with this very wild wood. It’s a constant challenge.

Why do you alter a tree’s natural shape and lines only very minimally?

The most important thing for me is to keep the memory of each tree. Its characteristics are always different. My will is to bring back the tree to live together with people in the most natural way possible. And although my approach is Minimalist, my pieces are sensually very rich with all those shapes, textures and holes.

How do you deal with a tree’s roots?

I love the roots—they are the tree’s hidden part. They also contain the highest quality of timber and the most amazing shapes. The process involves digging, little by little, to discover the root. It’s very exciting.

Why is it important to maintain a monolithic scale?

Because it resembles the monumentality of the pequi itself. It’s an important reference to the raw material.

How do you find functionality in a tree’s existing form?

It’s a very intuitive process. I look for different types of functionality to create a design that requires some new kind of perception and interaction.

Which do you prefer, your functional or sculptural pieces?

I like it best when I can unite these two qualities so you no longer focus on one quality or the other.

Which is more important to you, environmental concerns or artistic sensibility?

Both are the basis of my poetics.

Does your work benefit from being seen in a natural environment, such as the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, rather than in a city gallery?

We’re talking about a tropical garden with all its exuberance and monumentality, something that’s hard to achieve in urban situations. Pequi is a tropical tree. The pieces will fit naturally and create a dialogue in the garden. Perhaps this environment will give people a better understanding of the work, but I can’t deny that I also love how pequi looks in beautiful urban settings. It brings warmth, closeness to nature and a new balance into contemporary, everyday life.

“França at Fairchild” (until 31 May 2014), Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Coral Gables, Miami. Website: The show is organised by Cristina Grajales of Cristina Grajales Gallery, in collaboration with R20th Century Gallery, as part of Design at Fairchild. Both galleries are showing at Design Miami

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