Our dinner companion, a celebrated designer in his own right, is the grandson of Brazilian mosaic muralist Paulo Werneck, a leading artist in the modernist movement from the 1940’s through the 1970’s. Gaspar Saldanha keeps his grandfather’s legacy alive in the contemporary interpretations for the home.
Alice Garbarini Hurley: You had a very close relationship with your grandfather, what was your pet name for him?
Gaspar Saldanha: I called him Vovô Paulico, or Grandpa Paulico, his nickname. He called me Pinta. He had a major influence on my upbringing until his passing in 1987, when I was 33. I spent a lot of time with him in his studio and in our family home on the island of Paquetá in Guanabara Bay, Rio de Janeiro. The house there was designed by acclaimed architect Marcelo Roberto, one of his classmates. My grandfather collaborated with him, designing everything inside it, including the bathroom tiles.
AGH: Did you see your grandfather at work in his studio?
GS: Yes. He was an extremely methodical and organized person – so neat and meticulous. All of his pencils and tools were always parallel or perpendicular. He was passionate and dedicated to his craft. He taught me techniques and better ways to do things, especially with the process of making posters, which were very trendy at the time. He also loved my textile designs. I did a lot of tropical prints on just about anything – interiors, menswear, T-shirts.
AGH: How would you describe your Vovo’s personality?
GS: He was a very colorful, warm and happy person. He loved Carnaval, samba and Brazilian culture.
AGH: How do you characterize his art technique?
GS: He was a perfectionist at everything he did. He perfected the mosaic technique and executed all his murals for 35 years in his studio. He also worked in wood, cement, glass and acrylic.
AGH: Explain your grandfather’s influence on the art world.
GS: I grew up with this incredible legacy. I could talk for the whole day about him. He was a pioneer in Brazilian abstractionism and on the cusp of the Modernist movement. He worked with every important architect. His murals at the church of Saint Francis of Assisi in the Pampulha region, which were commissioned by architect Oscar Niemeyer in 1944, were the first abstract murals in a public space in Brazil. The relevance and extraordinary beauty of his oeuvre have always been a motive for me to re-edit the work for contemporary times. My approach is to stay true and close to his aesthetic, which I know so well.
AGH: His work is timeless, yes?
GS: I consider his work in the Modernist movement to be ageless and the “new classic” for our times. His most famous pieces are in the Pampulha church, the Federal Senate in Brasilia and the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro.
AGH: How are you interpreting your grandfather’s designs, specifically in home decor?
GS: Paulo Werneck Home Decor began in 2012, when Etel, a luxury furniture manufacturer in São Paulo, Brazil, launched replicas of his mosaic tables. Since then, we’ve added new pieces that I reinterpreted, such as a sideboard, tables, trays, lamps and decorative boxes, all in mosaics. In 2013, Kravet rolled out a collection of hand-tufted carpets, and Arthur Casas, a prominent Brazilian architect, commissioned two swimming pools designed with Werneck’s mosaic patterns. This year, Studio Printworks in Hoboken, NJ introduced Paulo Werneck wallpaper. Using his original gouache drawings, they digitally reproduced five of his famous mosaics, including Seagulls and Itamaraty.
AGH: Your brand of home decor is named after him. What is your background as an artist?
GS: My academic training is in fine arts and industrial design, but I grew up in a family of artists. My mother was an art teacher, and my aunt and uncle were acclaimed painters. So I grew up surrounded by art and design. I also designed menswear and had my own label in the 1990s. Then I launched the Kenneth Cole menswear label after that.
AGH: How have your designs been received?
GS: The furniture line has had great commercial success in Brazil. It’s also sold through Avenue Road, a Toronto showroom. I intentionally wanted to begin the commercialization of Werneck’s designs through a very select, high-end clientele. The wallpaper collection will certainly speak to a broader audience. I consider it to be the pop version of his work. It’s at a very different price point and is a much more attainable product, but still, it’s made with high standards. I really wanted to be comfortable with the quality.
AGH: What’s next?
GS: An extension of the carpet line will be produced by a Brazilian company, and we hope to do tiles, china and textiles. The kitchen and bathroom tiles are next.
This time, we asked our dinner guest to answer questions about his famous grandfather,
the Brazilian artist Paulo Werneck.
What was Paulo’s usual attire?
He was always dapper, dressed in tailored pants and a short-sleeve shirt, sometimes untucked, due to the tropical weather in Rio. Every day he had on English lavender cologne, which I still wear.
Any favorite nature spots? Ways to decompress?
He spent every weekend in our family home on the island of Paquetá. He was the first person I knew to practice yoga, while I listened to the Beatles.
Did he enjoy his food and drink?
He lived large. Loved both. Sometimes in excess.
Did he play an instrument?
We occasionally had jam sessions in our house, which his
best friend recorded. My mother sang, and he played percussion.
Was he a dancer?
He loved to dance, and at every Carnaval, he joined the samba parade. He designed his own costumes.
How big was his house?
He and my grandmother lived in a very comfortable three-bedroom apartment, which my younger sister, Claudia, now owns.
Did they have a garden?
We had a huge garden at our island home. He was very active in its design and maintenance, always bringing new species to plant – like a miniature mango tree someone brought from India.
Did he visit the U.S.?
He never traveled outside Brazil.
Were his parents creative?
To my knowledge, he had little family influence. His forward-thinking and creative drive was fueled by his friendship and collaboration with Marcelo Roberto, Oscar Niemeyer, Joaquim Tenreiro and several other pioneers of the Brazilian architecture and design movement.
Where did he study art?
He was self-taught, but took some drafting courses.
In the early 1940s, when he was a draftsman at the Roberto Brothers’ architectural firm, Marcelo Roberto (who was his mentor) suggested he experiment with ceramic materials for a new commission they were working on. Marcelo was friends with the owner of an important mosaic tile company, so he then began experimenting and mastering the technique with support from both of them.
He, along with most of his peers, including Niemeyer, Candido Portinari and the Brazilian intelligentsia, supported socialist causes. Their work, which was often placed in public areas, reflected their credo: To create art for all the people, not just a few.
Books or art he loved?
He favored works by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, writer Jorge Amado and other Brazilian writers who wrote about our culture and social causes. He had a broad taste in art. He loved classicism but favored experimentation and modern means of expression.
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