Visiting Brooklyn’s Brazilian Power Couple

In honor of our Havaianas partnership, we’re featuring New York’s happiest marriage, courtesy of Brazil

We’re back with another Member Spotlight, because our members are FRIGGIN’ AWESOME and always worth bragging about!
This week, in big part because of our partnership with Havaianas, we wanted to push the Brazilian theme to its limit. So a few of us got together and asked ourselves: “Do we know any Brazilians up to amazing sh*t?” And, of course, we did (else I wouldn’t have written that prior sentence)!
So, I’m happy to bring you my conversation with Diego and Nina Zambrano. This is one of the most pleasant interviews I’ve written yet, having been invited into their lovely home to bug them about their work and personal lives.
But it’s important to give context to what may seem like a somewhat disjointed feature: My initial idea was to discuss Diego’s work as a design partner for Work & Co, a fantastic design and development company whose work you may already be familiar with. But it became very clear that so much of Diego’s work, personality, and life as a whole is influenced by his better half — Nina, and her newfound passion and craft, ceramics.
At which point the interview migrated, from the absurdly wonderful Dumbo offices of Work & Co, to Diego and Nina’s absurdly wonderful apartment a few blocks over.
Check out our conversation below if you want one of the best insights into marital bliss I’ve ever witnessed:

I took a look at your Instagram, it’s a wonderful trove of food porn. Tell us more about that.

Cooking is my passion. Food was an interest back in Brazil, but when I came here, I realized the access I had to amazing ingredients and food. That totally unlocked this passion; now I take it very seriously.

To be honest, there’s something more interesting for this piece, which is my me and my wife’s relationship to design, and the things she’s started doing in the last year and a half. She’s become an amazing ceramicist. She’s doing this professionally now and she started doing it only a year ago, which is insane. She got hired by one of the best ceramics studios in Manhattan and people are now reaching out to her to do commission work.

Was it a hobby before?

I think both of us before we ever knew each other have been passionate about creative artistic stimulus of different forms. And she maybe even more than I. Because she comes from a family of musicians; her father owns a music studio, one of her brothers is a drummer — was one of the top fifty in the world — the other a bass player. She played the piano, studied communication, was a professional dancer, she taught flamenco dancing back in the day, she almost became a professional photographer.

But it’s almost as if all those different things that she experimented with started merging into something she wasn’t necessarily quite sure of. But she just kept exploring new things. She started painting and illustrating here and there. She got into cooking as well, but she’s almost the opposite of me in the way she thinks, so she started baking, which is something I was never super interested in. But she loves it, so she started really researching it. I’m more of an artistic kind of cook; I feel things and I do them. I’m not the guy that’s going to measure one gram of this or two grams of that, but she’s great at that. So she became this amazing pastry cook actually considered going to pastry school to become a pastry chef. She almost did.

But at some point a friend of hers invited her to go do a ceramics class, and she’s always in this spirit of experimenting different things, without necessarily having a final goal, but life will connect the dots and something will come out of this. I think a little over a year ago she went to this first class, and enjoyed it, but if you’ve never learned to throw on the wheel, it’s not easy at the beginning for anyone, and a lot of people give up after a few classes. But for her, she just kept going, kept exploring, kept pushing, and I think last year at some point towards the end of the year she started making some very good pieces, and that was just after six months of dedicating herself to the craft. Since then she went all in, got invited to join the studio as a potter, joined the staff.

What was interesting was to see everything she’s done before coalesce into one single craft. Everything she learned, from painting, watercolor, even dancing — there is a posture and a control over gestures that allows her to throw these massive bowls. It’s insanely hard.

But there was another side of the story. You don’t want the story to be like “OK she does this and he does that” and there’s no connection. So where it does connect is the moment I started getting so excited about this work of hers, but at the same time I felt that I couldn’t necessarily have an educated conversation with her about it. So I decided I had to learn as well. If I don’t learn, I’m not going to be able to support my wife at her craft at the level that I’d like to be able to support. And I wouldn’t be able to have more creative conversations, even brainstorm ideas on how to solve problems, and how to do things in a different way. A little bit over three months ago I said “Fuck it, I’m going to learn this thing.” So I got one of the teachers from the same studio where my wife works, and we hit it off and became good friends , and he’s been my teacher for three months. Stopped being my teacher last week, I applied to be a studio potter at the studio and got accepted yesterday. Now I’m a design partner at Work & Co and a studio potter at La Mano Pottery.

It’s good to be developing other skills. There is life outside of work; that balance is important. So three months ago I started and right away there was this new things I started to learn that allowed me to talk to my wife on a different level. So I started feeling more comfortable; and that just unlocked a whole new creative relationship at home. Not just at home, we’ll pass ceramics stores on the street and see these things in a wholly different way. We added a whole new layer to our relationship.

I also think the cooking connects really well with the ceramics. Because once she started doing ceramics, she started getting really excited about making ceramics for the food I make — what’s the right plate for steak? What’s the right bowl for salad? It was interesting to see both our crafts collide and become a point of interest for the both of us. And it started shaping our interest in doing things for the home that are actually functional. And it’ll have an impact on my cooking as well, because I started thinking about what best ceramics go with what food. There was this epic moment where there was this problem in the kitchen I didn’t have a solution for — when you cook a steak, the juices from inside the fibers stay in between the fibers, so if you cut it too soon, the juices just flow out and you lose all this flavor. So the easiest way to do it is lift it a little, with like a fork or a spoon, but it’s not perfect. So one day I mentioned it to Nina, and she had this amazing idea to solve it. She came up with this amazing plate that I never could have imagined. The plate has a set of concentric semi-circles with a little spout at the edge; she’s not selling it yet, but it feels like the very beginning of this amazing moment.

It’s at this point that Diego invited me back to his home to meet the practically mythic Nina and take a look at all this work. It’s an amazing space, imbued with life and personality, dominated by vast collections of everything, from towers — yes, towers, plural — of cooking books, shelves of antique glass bottles, a dozen-ish axes, rocks, heaps and heaps of rocks collected from all over the world, and of course, Nina and Diego’s wonderful pottery.

Diego gave me a quick overview, but you’ve been doing this for a year?

Nina: I always knew I was creative — back in Brazil I’d paint, but when I came here I wasn’t able to work with the visa I was on. So I just tried to stay active, and satisfy that creative itch. About a year and a half ago, a friend of mine suggested we do some pottery — this wine and pottery event, and I agreed. I was then convinced to take a couple of classes, and with a new, and engaged teacher, I was hooked. At the end of an eight week course, I went over to one of the studio workers at the kiln, and asked him if I could start learning to use that. I felt I’d only learned half a skill at this point, there’s so much more that goes into pottery than shaping it. And the rest is history; now I’m there every day.

So Diego started learning as well?

N: We have always been able to talk, because he has a background in design, I have a background in design. But when I started to learn a new thing — talking about getting silica and mixing it with feldspar, his eyes would glaze over and he’d get lost.

Diego: I felt like we’ve always been able to help each other in our creative processes, and at that point it became a block for me to be able to cooperate in the way I’ve always done over the last ten years since we’ve met.

How does he affect your creative process?

D: I’m going to leave the room.

N: I’m more of a control freak. I don’t like to experiment too much, and I think I’m more emotional, and he’s more rational. It’s a good counterbalance.

We go to a lot of restaurants together, and it’s gotten a little ridiculous, because we’ll take pictures of the food itself — and it has to be the perfect picture — as the food gets cold. But additionally, now when we finish we lift the plates up to see who made it. It’s the next level — we’re food and ceramics critics now.

We’re both perfectionists, but it’s a different kind of perfectionism. I’d like to work with porcelain, but it requires such high temperature and expensive kilns, that I’m happy working with earthenware clay now. Some of the pieces I’m working on right now use it to give off an illusion of weight, but are actually pretty light. I’m trying to do exactly what I want with what I can.

D: I’m all about feeling and emotionally how a thing connects with me. Where Nina focuses more on perfecting the technique.

N: It has to be round. But I’m starting to explore other forms, hand-throwing pieces that aren’t quite so perfect.

Any favorite pieces?

N: It’s kind of like choosing your favorite child.

D: But everyone has got a favorite.

N: I like some of the more volcanic pieces. We went to Iceland and I was inspired by some of the pottery I saw there; it’s totally independent from Western and Eastern pottery, drawn from the geography of the country.

Is your work on display to the public yet?

N: Not yet, I’m trying to work on perfecting a few specific lines and my technique. Being on display isn’t that important to me yet.

D: What has been really exciting is seeing some of the commission work come into play.

N: I love providing these people with exactly what they need, almost bespoke to them. I get them to send me pictures of their houses, colors, their favorite textures especially, and then come up with sketches and work that reflects those elements. All within my own sensibilities and taste, I make sure to retain ultimate control over the design of these pieces; it has to be aligned with my own creative vision.

Do you guys ever get homesick?

N: Everybody asks that.

D: Let’s be honest, we don’t feel like we are tied to any place. We don’t miss Brazil much because we both have this mentality of living in the moment. We live in the now, we enjoy this moment right now, so we try not to think about the past or the future. I don’t necessarily feel that way towards New York either. When we travel, we miss our house; this space has been designed and shaped to represent who we are and where we are at in this moment.

We do miss Paris. We go for Christmas every year, and stay in the same place in the Marais. Half the days we cook, half the days we eat out. If we feel homesick for any place, we feel that towards Paris.

You’re bon vivants!

New York is the perfect city for us to live in right now, with work and friends, but Paris is the culmination of everything we love, from food, design, architecture, art. Everything.

It’s interesting, because we also have this relationship with life that — there are too many rules established by society, celebrations, religion. We are totally disconnected from all those things. We don’t celebrate our birthdays, we don’t celebrate anything. Looking at life that way allows us to have a slightly different angle on things. People celebrate occasions — birthdays, winning a project, you name it. We live life sort of doing what we want to do — we don’t go through life waiting for some special trigger to enjoy it; if I want to get Nina a gift, I get her the gift.

N: It frees us from these obligations we have.

That’s it for this week’s Member Spotlight. Make sure you follow Nina’s Instagram account for updates on the unassumingly complex pieces she is throwing — and get in touch if you need some custom pieces! — and Diego’s for some of the best food porn this side of the web.

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