Why Porto is Portugal’s new design powerhouse
There’s so much more to Portugal than sunny city breaks, windsurfing and pasteis de nata washed down with a chilled glass of port. Over the past decade, it’s been busy designing itself out of a major recession by reinvesting in heritage homeware brands that celebrate the country’s diverse artisanship and rich craft traditions.
Much of this is being driven by entrepreneurs in their forties, who were born post-dictatorship and, as a result, are international in outlook and keen to champion the “Made in Portugal” label on a world stage.
The nation’s slightly shabbier second city, Porto, is the design powerhouse. With a long tradition for furniture and textiles manufacturing, it has yet again become a hotbed for creativity.
The latest local brand ripe for reinvention is Claus Porto, a 130-year-old soap and fragrance company. A national treasure its exquisitely packaged soaps are sold in the US and Europe and yet it remains relatively low profile. Beloved of design aficionadas Portuguese private equity firm Menlo Capital spied its potential as a global lifestyle brand and bought a stake of the family-owned company in 2015.
Cue a team of European creatives led by Porto-born CEO Francisco Neto, who has worked alongside Aquiles de Brito (great-grandson of the entrepreneur who first boosted the brand’s fortunes in the 1920s and 30s) and Amsterdam-based art director Anne-Margreet Honing, to relaunch Claus Porto. New flagship stores by architect João Mendes Ribeiro have just opened in Lisbon and Porto, but there are also new and improved product lines. Leading British perfumier Lyn Harris is instrumental in the brand’s revamp and she’s started by remodelling Deco, a range of scented candles.
“Claus Porto was known for its packaging but not its fragrance,” says Harris. “They had created fragrances for the Portuguese royalty through different eras, but they had lost that side of it, and it had become mainly known for its soaps.
“For the Deco candles, we came up with a palette of materials that represent Porto and Portugal and being proud of the richness of the land,” she explains.
“For example, Favorito is about red poppies, but they don’t have a scent, so I did something abstract which is rosy, intense, a bit fruity, vibrant and green.”
Although all are completely new formulas she has in the most part worked with the existing notes. “The brand has this quirk, it’s very eclectic and crazy and I wanted to protect and enhance that heritage,” she says. Seven new fragrances will follow later this year, including one that captures the “amazing clementines” that come out at the beginning of the year in Porto. They just launched handwash, and a range of teas and stationery is also in development.
Harris, who recently worked on a series of scents for French heritage brand Cire Trudon, says working with the Portuguese was a very different experience. “They are too humble, they don’t speak out — but I really think now is their time.”
This certainly appears to be the case in the furniture industry. A host of new luxury Portuguese brands, launched in the past decade and mostly based in the Rio Tinto area just outside Porto, have been targeting the British home market in recent years.
Paula Sousa launched furniture brands Munna, specialising in elegant deco-inspired upholstery, and Ginger & Jagger, whose pieces — in hammered metals, marquetry and hand-sculpted marble — are inspired by nature. Both brand’s have been used to furnish Dior stores around the world. “The UK market has been instrumental for our brands since they began, and keeps on being that way,” says Sousa.
“We have great relationships with fantastic interior designers there, it’s very thrilling to work with such a mature market in all senses, both on the design and business ends. This new culture represents a sea change for a land of discoverers. A unique story is being designed and made here.”
Also making their mark here is the Covet Group, run by 38-year-old Amândio Pereira whose six brands include Delightfull lighting, a specialist in extravagant mid-century modern-inspired brass and marble creation (their hero chandelier is a riot of trumpet horns). Sibling brand Boca do Lobo has signature pieces that include lavish tables with bases incorporating the Portuguese azulejo tiles that grace their buildings’ façades.
Pereira is proud to be part of Portugal’s new design era, “I see the world as a place to be discovered and enjoyed rather than feared, unlike the older generations. We love challenges and want to deliver our products to design enthusiasts all over the world.”
This is high-end design in noble materials of wood, marble and bronze, aimed at the international market. For some, exports counts for 95 per cent of their turnover. These brands are part of the new maximalism, creating statement pieces that revel in Portugal’s skills in marquetry, joinery, upholstery and metalwork — sideboards with decorative marquetry façades in exotic woods, cast-bronze tables with marble tops and velvet sofas with flamboyant fringing.
Renowned for ceramics, heritage porcelain brand Vista Alegre — whose new Porto store neighbours Claus Porto’s — is also raising its game, commissioning world-famous designers such as Jaime Hayon and the Maison Christian Lacroix to design new decorative tableware. Portugal’s expertise in ceramics and textiles is also luring in companies like Anthropologie and Habitat and others, who may have previously invested in China, but are recognising the economic and logistical advantages of sourcing in smaller batches and closer to home.
Polly Dickens, creative director of Habitat, is a big fan: “Portugal is often considered a sleepy nation, but we’ve found they are constantly experimenting, particularly in ceramics, with semi-craft techniques like embossing and reactive glazes. They’ve had a terrible recession and lots of factories closed, but the ones that survived are the really good ones, producing some fantastic stuff.
“Two of our bestselling ranges, Olmo tableware and Washed bedlinen, are from Portugal. The new generation have had to innovate, and we’ve found them very collaborative and creative.”
Right now, there is a joyous exuberance to be found in Portuguese design, a new-found confidence that goes alongside a passion for their strong craft heritage. And it’s been a long time coming.
Closed to the outside word for 48 years under the dictatorship which ended in 1974, things didn’t immediately improve. When Portugal joined the EU in 1996 the multinationals moved in and global conglomerates thrived to the detriment of homegrown Portuguese brands, which were perceived as backwards, old-fashioned and tinged with poverty and repression. Today though, armed with a positive international outlook and in defiance of recent tough financial times, Portugal has regained the spirit of Vasco da Gama through design, and is ready to take on the world again.