[BARDI ensaio]

Jochen Eisenbrand is Chief Curator at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany.




[*] original article written in English, commissioned especially for Bardi Magazine


The Sesc Chair is the firts piece by Lina Bo Bardi to become part of the collection of the Vitra Design Museum, in 2020.



In 1986, upon completion of the sports and cultural centre SESC Pompeia, Lina Bo Bardi was asked to talk about the project’s history and her design concept. Reminiscing how the project had evolved, she used the opportunity for a harsh attack on postmodernism, the architectural movement, that had come to international prominence during the decade that she had worked on the SESC commission. Locating postmodernism’s roots in the United States, Bo Bardi viewed it as „a dubious return to historicism as well as „reactionary and anti-contemporary“. She also expressed her hope that Brazil would not „head off down the same path as those culturally bankrupt societies“. As if to show an example of how architecture and design in Brazil could move into a different direction, she pointed out the SESC Chair, „made completely of wood and without upholstery“, that she had designed for the project [1]. A modest looking yet very architectural chair, much unlike most of the furniture launched by other architects and designers at the time. What Bo Bardi did not mention on the occasion was the genesis of this seemingly simple piece of furniture that actually reached back quite a few years beyond the SESC commission. Neither did she address the material it was made of – a special type of laminated wood – and its origins. The complete story of the chair hence seems worth unpacking, not only as an opportunity to speak about Bo Bardi’s approach to design but also to explore how it related to reigning design idioms at the time.

Auditório do SESC Pompeia – cadeiras. Foto José Reynaldo Magalhães

In 1976, the Servico Social de Comércio (SESC) commissioned Bo Bardi to transform a former factory site in Sao Paulo’s Pompeia neighborhood into a center for culture, sports and leisure time activities. When the SESC Pompeia was completed ten years later, Bo Bardi had repurposed, renovated and refurbished the existing factory buildings to integrate a theatre, a library, studios and a restaurant; rather than tearing everything down to start from scratch she had used and enhanced structures that already existed, thereby also empowering the cultural initiatives that had already appropriated the premises prior to Bo Bardi’s commission. To the complex, Bo Bardi had also added three tall towers in exposed concrete, one housing gyms and a pool, a second one next to it containing the vertical circulation and locker rooms, a third one to store water.

But the design program did not stop there: Bo Bardi also designed a logo and wayfinding system for the site, livery for the SESC staff, and furnishings for several interior spaces. Among Bo Bardi’s furnishing designs was the SESC Chair, used to this day in the SESC restaurant and in the meeting and reading area adjoining the library, where the chairs are grouped around large round communal tables. The chair is made of four thick interlocking wooden planes. Created for use by the public it seems well prepared for rough treatment and heavy enough not to be carried away easily. According to early sketches, the chair was initially planned to be constructed out of three interlocking planes only, apparently in an attempt to achieve the most with the least: one vertical plane for the backrest with a rounded incision at the top, one horizontal for the seat and a third one as the base supporting the seat.


But as first tests must have shown, the chair needed another support below the front end of the seat to keep it from tilting. With the assistance of architects André Vainer and Marcelo Ferraz, Bo Bardi considered different kinds of support, from blocks at the bottom to triangular pieces added on both sides. Eventually, what now seems like a natural choice, a fourth slab supporting the seat in front, mounted parallel to the one in the back, was chosen [2]. For stability, the base slab pierces the ones in front and back. In addition, four pairs of hidden metal rods help to keep it all together. In the design of the SESC chair, Bo Bardi made no material distinction between base, backrest and seat, in tune with her belief that “to make a chair, it is not worth going through the trouble of looking for an [elaborate] design solution, since all you need is a surface [to sit] and four legs […] the same way that in order to create a clothes hanger, a nail suffices” [3]. The limitation to just one material must have been the very first decision in the design process and the design solution was the logical outcome of using what was actually an engineered architectural building material.


The material Bo Bardi used for the SESC Chair was laminated pine wood, laminated in thick blocks rather than from thin layers as used traditionally in the making of laminated wood or plywood. The material had been developed by the engineer Vinicio Walter Callia (1923–1994) as a building material, with the intent to create large wooden trusses for architectural structures of wide open spans.

Vinicio Callia em reflorestamento. Itararé, 1956. Foto Acervo Laminarco

Callia, who happened to be a friend of Lina Bo Bardi and her husband Pietro Bardi, was the third son of a family who had, just like the Bardis, migrated to Brazil from Italy. In 1949, Vinicio and his older brother Edmundo, who had still been born in Italy, founded the company Callia and Callia specialized in wood structures and constructions. For his research, Vinicio collaborated with the renowned Instituto de Pesquisas Tecnológicas (IPT) in São Paulo. He focused on the Paraná pine, a type of wood already used by the plywood industry in the South of Brazil. As Callia discovered, this fast growing tree was not only especially suited for industrial processing but also for use in architectural structures, because of its regularly distributed fibers and high stress values. Building on studies of laminated wooden structures as introduced by Otto Hetzer in Germany and US American research T. R. C. Wilson published in the 1930s, Callia tested Paraná wood in regard to all the fundamental operations needed for manufacturing glued laminated wooden structural members: drying, gluing finishing, and treatment with wood preservatives and flame retardants. When he published the results of his research in a Bulletin of the IPT in 1958, Callia made an important contribution to establishing a new national norm for building in wood. [4]

By the mid-1960s, using a special kind of glue as well as large hydraulic presses and ovens, Vinicio Callia had perfected his technology to prefabricate laminated trusses for bi or tri-articulated and arched structures in a factory. He established a new company named Laminarco and built a plant in Itararé, a city about 300 km southwest of São Paulo. Deeply committed to environmental protection, Callia surrounded his factory by reforestation plants, meaning his raw material was not only renewable but also sourced locally. One of the first architects to use Callia’s laminated wood was Sergio Bernardes, for the design of his Clube de Regatas Jaó, Goiânia, in 1963 [5]. In the years to follow, Laminarco beams and arches were used in countless architectural projects all over Brasil. 

Viga em arco sobre boléia de caminhão. Foto Acervo Laminarco

The idea that the laminated wooden blocks produced by Laminarco could also be used beyond architecture – for exhibition displays, artworks or furniture – was brought forward by Callia’s wife, the singer Stella Mares, who was also a close friend of the Bardis, in the 1970s. Around 1977, Bo Bardi made first use of Laminarco at the Sao Paulo Museum of Art (MASP), the building that she had completed more than ten years earlier and that had gained her first international recognition. When Bo Bardi was commissioned to design a library and a restaurant for the MASP on the occasion of the museum’s 30th anniversary, she decided to use Laminarco for benches and tables of the restaurant as well as a number of pedestals for artworks.

The use of the material can be seen as a testimony to Bo Bardi’s appreciation for the work of Vinicio Callia and her recognition of the importance of a locally sourced and locally engineered material. But it is also a testimony to her appreciation of structural engineering in general. For the daring structure of the MASP, Bo Bardi had collaborated with Jose Carlos de Figueiredo Ferraz, who had founded one of Brazil’s leading engineering companies in the 1940s; when she recalled her first visits to the factory buildings at the SESC site built of concrete, Bo Bardi expressed her admiration for the work of Francois Hennebique, a 19th century pioneer of building in steel reinforced concrete; and for the round water tower of cast concrete on the SESC campus, she experimented with engineer Toshio Ueno on site to develop a system of semicircular molds to erect the tower ring by ring [6]. Teamwork was key for Bo Bardi, in architecture as in product design, as she had already stated in 1958: „Ours is a collective time. The work of the autonomous artisan is being replaced with teamwork, and people have to be prepared for this collaboration where there is no hierarchy separating designers from producers. Only then can we recover the joy or moral participation in a work. Collective rather than individual participation, the technical outcome of the craftwork of our day: industry.“ [7]

Vigas Laminarco / Galpão em São Paulo. Foto José Reynaldo Magalhães



In 1977, Bo Bardi had also envisioned wooden row seating for an auditorium at MASP. Even though a prototype out of Laminarco had been built, this project remained unrealized. When it came to furnishing the theatre of the SESC, Bo Bardi picked up the idea again. The SESC theatre features a central stage framed on two sides by ascending rows of wooden seating for around 1.000 people. Here, Bo Bardi used long beams of Laminarco to serve as both seats and backrests. Armrests of the same material divide the benches off into individual seats, round incisions in the back mark each single seating position. In light of this prehistory, the SESC chair appears to have been a derivative of this theatre seating: the same basic design idea transferred to a single unit.

Bo Bardi’s appreciation of teamwork may also have fed her love for the theatre where each single production is a collective effort. Discussing the design of the SESC chair, Bo Bardi explained that her reference point had been medieval plays or the Greco Roman theatre where the audience would be standing up, even walking around or sitting on stones. „Upholstered seating”, she rejected, because it “appeared in Europe in the court theatres of the 1700s, and it continues to be used for the comfort of the Consumer society.” “The wooden seating at Pompeia”, she further explained, “is a simple attempt to restore to the theatre its quality of ‘distancing and involving‘ rather than merely seating.[8]“ This was a clear reference to the Brechtian notion of the theatre, of not wanting the audience to be lulled by the play but kept at a critical distance to what it was seeing [9]. Brecht’s approach to the theatre resonated with her design approach that laid structures bare rather than cover them up. At the SESC, the aesthetic of the laminated wood seating was hence matched by other unadorned material textures and design details: unpainted walls made of simple cinder blocks; exposed concrete showing the imprints of the wooden paneling; or the layered look of the façade of the water tower showing how it had been made. „This lack of polish, this crudeness, this carefree appropriation is the driving force behind contemporary Brazilian architecture”, Bo Bardi had stated three decades earlier. “It requires a continual mixing of technological know-how with the spontaneity and passion of primitive art.“ [10]



In 2020, the Vitra Design Museum acquired a SESC chair for its collection. Coming from a gallery in Belgium the chair had previously been in the possession of a Brazilian collector to whom it had been sold in the mid-1980s, possibly from a surplus production from the chairs made for the SESC site. The SESC chair is the first piece by Bo Bardi to become part of the collection of the Vitra Design Museum where it joins other chair designs from a long tradition of pioneering work with laminated wood and plywood. What the SESC has in common with these designs, created decades earlier, is the respect for the beauty of engineered and processed wood. However, whereas the Aaltos had used laminated wood in order to bend it, and the Eames had used plywood because it could be shaped three dimensionally, Laminarco was created and used for precisely the opposite reason, that is, to keep the wood from bending and warping over time.

What then, if one compares the SESC chair to some of its contemporaries on the shelves in the collection of the Vitra Design Museum? In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the design world celebrated the structural expressionism of high tech furniture and Philip Starck’s playful, highly individual mannerism; it admired Memphis’ totem like furniture pieces and Venturi Scott Brown’s chair series for Knoll, where laminated surfaces turned into signifiers. With postmodernism at its peak, design and architecture revolved very much around itself, sometimes ironic, often steeped in self-reflection. In this company, the SESC chair, with its somewhat archaic appearance, seems almost like it has fallen out of time; the result of working collaboratively and combining grass roots thinking with an interest in art and engineering, not for their own sake, but as tools in pursuing a sociopolitical agenda. Knowing the context from which the SESC chair evolved, one cannot help but conclude that Bo Bardi did find her own path, a path that still offers today’s architects and designers a direction worth considering.


[*] My sincere thanks to Sol Camacho for providing important archival documents and to Isabella Magalhães Callia for sharing valuable information about the work of her father and mother.
[1] Lina Bo Bardi, “The Architectural Project (1986)”, in: Lina Bo Bardi, Stones Against Diamonds, Architectural Association London 2013, p. 99. First published in Giancarlo Latorraca (ed.), Cidade da Liberdade (Sao Paulo: SESC 1986). Text adapted from a translation in Drifts and Derivations: Experiences, Journeys and Morphologies (Madrid: Reinfa Sofia, 2010)
[2] E-Mail from André Vainer to the author, 28 June 2020.
[3] Zeuler Rocha Mello de Almeida Lima, „In Search of Modern Brazilian Furniture“, http://bobardi-palanti.com/read, quoted from Lina Bo Bardi, “Desenho industrial”, in: Habitat n. 5, 1951, p. 62
[4] Vinicio Walter Callia, A madeira laminada e colada de pinho do Paraná nas estruturas, Bolletim N° 57, Instituto de Pesquisás Technologicas, São Paulo, 1958.
[5] https://docomomo.org.br/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/012_M04_RM-ClubeDeRegatasJao-ART_jose_frota.pdf
[6] Zeuler Rocha Mello de Almeida Lima, Lina Bo Bardi, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2013, p. 173.
[7] Lina Bo Bardi, „Industrial Art“, in: Bo Bardi, Stones Against Diamonds, op. cit., p. 67. First published in Diario de Noticias (Salvador, Bahia, 26. October 1958).
[8] Bo Bardi, „The Architectural Project (1986)“, op. cit., p. 99
[9] In 1969, Bo Bardi had created the set design and costumes for a production of Brecht’s early 1920s play In the Jungle of Cities and she also quoted Brecht off and on in her own writings.
[10] Lina Bo Bardi, „Beautiful Child“, in: Stones Against Diamonds, op. cit. p. 38. First published in Habitat 2, January – March 1951.



Jochen Eisenbrand is Chief Curator at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany. In this role, Mr. Eisenbrand has curated exhibitions and written extensively about some of the most prominent figures of 20th-century architecture and design, including Alvar Aalto, Louis Kahn and George Nelson.


1 Auditório do SESC Pompeia - cadeiras

Foto José Reynaldo Magalhães

2 Vinicio Callia em reflorestamento. Itararé, 1956

Foto Acervo Laminarco

3 Vigas Laminarco / Galpão em São Paulo

Foto José Reynaldo Magalhães

4 Viga em arco sobre boléia de caminhão

Foto Acervo Laminarco

5 Mesa SESC Pompeia / Espaço de Leitura e Jogos

Foto José Reynaldo Magalhães/ Acervo Laminarco

6 Projeto Lina + Callia / Cadeira SESC Pompeia

Foto Isabella M. Callia / Acervo Laminarco

7 Desenhos de Lina Bo Bardi para a cadeira do Auditório do SESC Pompeia

8 Desenhos de Lina Bo Bardi para a cadeira do Auditório do SESC Pompeia

9 Desenhos de Lina Bo Bardi para a cadeira do Auditório do SESC Pompeia

10 Foto de divulgação do site Vitra Design Museum