Design by Jose Zanine Caldas, Brazil’s Master Woodworker

May 19, 2016 9:35PM

Wood is vital to Brazil. After all, the country was named for its abundance of brazilwood, and the national liquor, cachaça, gets some of its distinctive flavor by aging in barrels made from various types of local wood. It’s not surprising, then, that wood takes center stage in the exhibition of works by midcentury Brazilian designer Jose Zanine Caldas currently on view at R & Company in New York.

Zanine is at his best when he allows the wood to speak for itself. A late series of tables consists of glass sheets placed on top of tree trunks. From above, the cross section of wood creates an abstract, serpentine composition. When arrayed with food or flowers, the table’s surface forms a kind of tree-like canopy.

Another table, this one carved into an hourglass shape, calls to mind trickling sand used to measures the minutes—a lyrical compliment to the way tree rings mark the passing years.

The show also includes work from the designer’s early days producing low-cost furniture. Zanine began his career making models for the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, whose graceful curvilinear forms influenced Zanine’s early pieces, including small coffee tables with amoeba-like surfaces and a chaise lounge that cuts a sinuous profile. Even in these works, Zanine’s fascination with wood is clearly evident. Viewed straight on, the arms of the chaise lounge proudly present a striated cross section of plywood, a nod to the materiality of the wood and the industrial processes that allowed Zanine to make his work affordable.

The show’s most poetic work is a one-of-a-kind console from the 1970s in which two hexagonal blocks support a long, rectangular tabletop. The sharp angles were a marked departure for Zanine; however, set within the tabletop, a small piece of glass affords a view of the rough-hewn tree trunk adjoining the two hexagonal bases. Amid the straight edges of human manufacture, Zanine invites us to look beyond, to the natural grain beneath artistic ambition.

—Brett Lazer

Jose Zanine Caldas’ work is on view at R & Company, New York, May 2–Jun 23, 2016.

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