Designer Hugo França Reclaims the Rainforest
by Don Schmaltz, Senior Specialist for Modern Design
In the Art & Design auction on March 8, 2020, Toomey & Co. offered a rare Hugo França Iguacu coffee table made from pequi wood on wheels accompanied by a certificate of authenticity as Lot 584 with a $3,000-5,000 estimate that sold for $5,625. França’s designs have been exhibited through R & Company at fairs worldwide for over 15 years. As of late, furniture, decorative works, and sculpture by França have been trading at increasingly high prices, with multiple records above $50,000. Within this context, the March 8 auction presented a prime opportunity for collectors to own a table like no other for a reasonable price.
Background and Jungle Forays
Hugo França was born in 1954 in Porto Alegre, Brazil. In 1981, França left his industrial design career in São Paulo to move into the jungles of Northeast Brazil and for 15 years lived with the indigenous Pataxó people in Bahia, where he learned generations-old woodworking techniques. During this period, he connected with the rainforests and developed a design philosophy embodying reverence for the tree.
Throughout his career, França has worked exclusively with reclaimed, indigenous Brazilian hardwoods salvaged from old-growth trees, which were burned or cut down during the rampant destruction of Brazil’s rainforests in the 1960s and 1970s.
Using a labor-intensive intuitive process, França creates one-of-a-kind, hand-carved, and environmentally friendly designs that are primarily formed from the pequi tree, which is a massive oleaginous tree averaging 148 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter.
Repurposing Timeless Wood
França’s way of making focuses on thoughtfully carving the timber to expose a new volume, design, and visual property, thus transforming the tree’s function. This process yields timeless forms reminiscent of the sculpture of Constantin Brancusi or designs by Isamu Noguchi.
And yet França arrived at his aesthetic in an independent, organic manner via trial and error. It was only after returning from his first extended stay in the jungles near Bahia that França learned about the studio craftwork of contemporary designers like George Nakashima.
Remaking Trees Inside Out
“My process is very intuitive,” França has said. “The main inspiration is each tree — not only because of its beautiful natural form, but also because it has a history.”
França works between his atelier in São Paulo and the fishing village of Trancoso, Bahia, where he maintains his studio and collaborates with locals to source fallen trees for his designs.