Brazilian artisan Hugo França gives old trees new life.
By: Lianna Patch
To understand the scale of Hugo França’s work, you’ll need to have a very flexible neck. That’s because the pequi tree, from which França fashions most of his famous “furniture sculptures,” can grow to well over 100 feet high and 1,000 years old — not to mention up to 10 feet in diameter.
Luckily for you and your neck, França makes most of his work from charred, six-foot pequi stumps left over from logging runs or forest fires. Only rarely on his trips to find these stumps in rural areas near coastal Bahia, Brazil does he happen across an old-growth pequi that, though dead, is still standing.
With a team of men and machines, França harvests these enormous pequi remnants and totes them back to his studio in Trancoso, Brazil, where he cuts, sands, carves, and planes them into sofas, chairs, tables, and accoutrements. The simplest of his works go for nearly $20,000 each; the more a piece’s complexity increases, the more zeroes you can add to its price tag.
You could call França a pioneer in the now-booming realm of “eco chic” furnishings, but the reality is that his work is less about capitalism than conservation. By bringing the environment into his audience’s yards and homes, he calls attention to the plight of deforestation and to the issue of sustainability as a whole. Widespread regions of the Brazilian cerrado have suffered the effects of agricultural development and deforestation, with virgin land turned into plantations, industrial centers, and livestock ranches.
The limited availability of pequi wood means that França’s work is not just original — it’s finite. When the old-growth pequi runs out, there will be no more 20-foot, wood-slab dining tables or 11-person Jacuzzis carved into colossal stumps. There will be no more craning your neck to peer up … and up … and up the trunk of a tree 10 times older than your parents.
This is the message França hopes to convey. In 1981, at the age of 26, he left a career as an industrial engineer to live closer to nature. He moved to Trancoso, which was then a remote village, where he began studying woodworking with the Pataxó indigenous tribe. He began working with old Pataxó canoes, moving on to pequi trees thereafter, and simply asked local farmers to guide him to the trees’ locations.
Now, Trancoso is a thriving seaside tourist destination, and França’s work is known far beyond Bahia. After spending 15 years learning his new craft, and nearly 20 years since then practicing it, he has developed a sixth sense about the underlying forms — bowls, utensils, tables, chairs — hidden inside his hulking, raw media.
França’s glossy finished pieces showcase each tree’s first life, scars and all. Bowls and utensils beg to be touched and used; richly grained sofas and chairs seem to grow straight out of the ground they stand on. His collectors include a host of art dealers and gallerists throughout the Americas, and mining magnate Bernardo Mello Paz has purchased several of França’s long pequi benches for Paz’s public art park, Inhotim.
Because França knows better than anyone that within the next decade, there will be no more pequi trees to transform, he’s experimenting with other hardwoods in his Trancoso and Sao Paulo workshops. He is represented by R & Company. eco furniture, eco design. eco designer, Brazilian furniture, eco-friendly furniture
Lianna Patch is a writer and editor from New Orleans, LA, whose portfolio spans copywriting, cultural publications, and literary journals.