Secret coast lines, beautiful beaches, lively cities and of course football, there are many reasons to visit Brazil. But now there’s one more. Brazil’s thriving contemporary art and design scene has taken off in a big way, says Kat Hopps, as she learnt on trip to São Paulo and Trancoso on the southern Bahia coast
Brazil had been on ‘the list’ for some time. Lured by thoughts of samba, bronzed bodies and caipirinha-soaked hedonism, it never once crossed my mind to consider the country’s dazzling contemporary art scene – but what an oversight. Thanks to the country’s new economic powerhouse status, an international art and design revolution is underway. São Paulo is a major player. Galleries once confined to upper-class neighbourhoods have become younger, edgier and mobile, and I was to spend a brief day visiting the city’s new art scene before sampling pared-back design at a boutique hotel in sleepy Trancoso on the Bahia coast.
However, culture is never a priority after 20 hours’ journeying – sleep was my only agenda. Hotel Unique in the exclusive Jardim neighbourhood demands more. Designed by the Brazilian architect Ruy Ohtake, the hotel’s contemporary exterior is shaped like a boat’s hull, with portholes windows and green-weathered copper slates that gleam at night. It’s sleek and sexy. In the lobby, blood-red armchairs resemble open Dracula cloaks while corridor landings are dimly-lit curves. My companions and I were suddenly wide-eyed. We ate Brazilian dishes and drank cocktails in the buzzy rooftop Skye restaurant before collapsing into bed. I failed to make it to the luminous fitness centre next morning, but a fellow traveller proclaimed the waterslide entrance a hoot.
Creative expressionism is not just confined to São Paulo’s hotels and museums. City-approved murals and graffiti line main highway Avenida 23 de Maio, providing an antidote to the city’s greyness. After a morning spent at Henrique Oliveira’s awe-inspiring exhibition in the Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC) – an immersive sculpture of architecture through time formed of brick entrances, clay rooms and tree passageways – we headed downtown. The area once labelled undesirable is now cool, full of young galleries and studios – the Shoreditch of São Paulo.
We met with artist Rodrigo Almeida who had created art for UXUA Casa Hotel & Spa (our next stop) and Lucas Simoes, the next artist-in-resident there; like others, his brief was to create rustic modernist pieces for the hotel’s interiors to reflect the carefree southern Bahian lifestyle. His São Paulo studio was based in PIVÔ, a public, independent and non-profit art space that gives up-and-coming artists the creative freedom to pursue projects in a fluid environment – an inspired, open area.
And so on to our next destination…Trancoso sits midway down the Bahia coast, a settlement built by Jesuit missionaries in 1586 seeking a hidden utopia. It remained a tiny community of 300 indigenous people until hippies arrived in the 1970s, welcomed into its free-thinking bohemian culture. It’s still low-key despite being a chic destination, and it’s very pretty. A place where you saunter. The cornerstone of the community is the Quadrado, a large rectangular village green lined with colourful casas and overlooked by the 16th-century white São João Batista church at the far end, beyond which lies the sea. By day you pass children’s football games and locals’ craft stalls where jewellery is suspended from trees. At night you sit under the stars, soothed by the stillness and golden glow from nearby casas, many of which are now restaurants.
Wilbert Das, former creative director of Diesel, was so taken with Trancoso he moved here permanently, creating his gorgeous hotel UXUA (pronounced ‘Ooshua’ and meaning ‘wonderful’ in the native Pataxo Indian language) in 2009. Having restored four original casas on the Quadrado, he built a further six amongst tropical gardens, each with a particular style. From the traditional fisherman huts to the hideaway treehouse, all are intimate hippie palaces full of reclaimed and organic materials that feel as luxurious as any five-star hotel. I would have been happy to bed in permanently at my Casa, Eugênia. At 228 sq ft, it is the biggest one, with two bedrooms for six people, a living area, kitchen with outdoor dining and a private stone-made pool. The straight angles and space made it feel refined but the tree trunk shower heads and rattan-lined lamps were still present.
UXUA’s grounds are verdant, and craftsmanship is everywhere. Local artisans were originally employed using traditional techniques, and now, Wilbert invites visiting artists to create objects. Rodrigo Alemeida had just completed his residency; his quirky chairs made from old windows, rope and leather lay in one of the pretty casas we visited. Another artist had created vases made of mud, tree limbs and recycled ceramics.
Understanding the network of the hotel’s relationships with community, art and design gives you a deeper appreciation for its visual elements. You might find yourself spending a good ten minutes examining a bathroom cabinet with toothbrush in hand. In fact, don’t be surprised if you come back home believing you’re a art/design connoisseur. That’s the effect Brazil had on me.
Fly London Gatwick to São Paulo return with TAP Portugal from £684 incl. all taxes & surcharges (flytap.com). Rooms at UXUA Casa Hotel & Spa from £303 per night incl. breakfast (uxua.com). Rooms at Hotel Unique from £301 per night incl. breakfast (hotelunique.com.br). A 7 night trip with Journey Latin America (journeylatinamerica.co.uk), with 5 nights at UXUA in Trancoso and 2 in Sao Paulo, costs from £1,920pp based on 2 people sharing with B&B accommodation, transfers & domestic flights.