Percival Lafer ⏤ When Innovative Design Becomes Accessible
A retrospective organized during São Paulo design week earlier this year gave a unique chance to learn more about the history and overall production of Brazilian designer Percival Lafer.
Demure and unused to spotlights, the architect/designer has a 5 decades long career, although the Brazilian public only started to gain more interest in his work over the last few years. However, this cannot be said for the rest of the world, especially in North America and Europe, where the designer has been known and endorsed for many years now.
Overwhelmed with the unexpected attention and the complete and wisely organized archive that was put together for his recent homage, Lafer disclosed his history as a designer and manufacturer, his vision about his products and the evolution of his aesthetics over time, while remaining attached to his greatest passion: mechanisms and joinery.
Soon after the end of his studies in architecture, the sudden death of his father, a well succeeded furniture dealer with the dream of producing his own line, made Lafer and his brothers step in and turn the embryonal manufacture into a real furniture factory. With his brothers taking care of business administration, Percival made the most out of this new reality and focused on the design and product development aspects of the company.
In a context where good and well-made design was only for the upper class, Lafer went for a design and production approach that could be more widely distributed.
Benefiting from the his manufacture’s economy of scale and distributing his furnitures in department stores used to sell at lower prices, Lafer’s pieces were the first to combine innovative design, great materials and fair price.
Innovation has always been the leitmotiv of his way of thinking about design, since the very first MP-1, in 1961. Made of iron and wood, this armchair innovatively used a polyurethane foam layer instead of the classical metallic springs, all supported by rubber belts, all in a very new and fresh design aesthetic.
The MP-13, his first complete living room set, was also a great example of his innovative use of traditional materials: leather and jacaranda wood connected with iron supports in a meticulously designed joinery, thought to make it very simple to assemble.
In 1965, the very first mechanical movement was introduced on the market, allowing to transform the MP-7 sofa in a twin bed.
This passion for mechanisms followed the designer to present days. After various sofa-bed models, dismountable dining rooms and reversible components designed to serve various purposes, Lafer brought his mechanical sophistication to his most modern pieces, such as the Ion sofa and the Adele reclining armchair.
In the 1970s, in pursue of innovation and technologies to improve his production, Lafer started using fiberglass more widely. With center tables, lamps and pivoting windows already in production for a nationwide commission of public payphones, Lafer understood that his factory could support the production of a sport car, another of his passions. In 1974, based on the platform and mechanical aspects of a VW Beetle, a small production line was set up to build and assemble the MP Lafer, a very iconic MG lookalike national car. Once more, design was at reach for everybody who couldn’t afford an international sport car. Against all odds, and despite the mid 1980s economic crisis, the MP Lafer was produced in over 4000 units over the course of nearly 20 years.
Also from the 1970s is the WoodStick system. Very versatile, the interlocked wooden panels were used for shaping both tables and wall fixtures, enabling customers to create wooden paneling in households and offices. Once again, innovation and versatility for a larger public.
Pragmatic, Lafer always thought of design as a way to make technology and comfort available to all people. Instead of idealizing design or thinking of it as an art, he believes that a product is only good when people like it, not just the designer himself.
Ultimately, what most characterizes and identifies his work from the 1960s and 1970s is the very Brazilian soul of his pieces.
Barely influenced by northern European design compared to most of his colleagues in his early days as a designer, his work has always been traced back to his Brazilian roots. The diffuse use of local woods, the strength and hardness of his elegant designs and the warm colors of his fabrics and leathers, make him a fundamental figure in the evolution and affirmation of Brazilian design, both inside and outside the country’s borders.
The retrospective took place at Loja Teo during the month of August, 2017.
Special thanks to Teo for the initiative and all the support to make the article possible.
Images Percival Lafer personal archive