"People always run their fingers over the carving," observes dealer Stephen Hurrell as he surveys the assemblage of voluptuous Brazilian beauties lining the walls of Notus, his shop in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan. "Unlike highly polished French furniture, Brazilian baroque is very approachable," notes Hurrell. "It wants to be touched."
Antiques addicts can’t resist petting the cantador with its ripple-carved drawer fronts, smoothly turned baluster legs, and bun feet reminiscent of 17th-century Dutch baroque. In Brazil, however, the opulence of ornate carving and turning was the rage as late as 1810, long after it petered out in Europe. "Baroque refers to style, not date," explains Hurrell.
Sugar barons had a sweet tooth for deliciously carved cabinets. In the 18th century, when about 70 percent of the world’s gold was mined in Brazil’s Minas Gerais state, freshly minted millionaires went for baroque. Working in the mother style of Portuguese baroque, skilled Brazilian artisans, many of African descent, delivered eye-popping furniture that dazzled as brilliantly as gold. "Colonial Brazilian is like colonial American furniture," says Hurrell. "As cabinetmakers grew more confident, they strayed from the pattern books and became freer, less retrained by convention."
Without looking over their shoulders, Brazilian artisans crafted furniture with a new look-pumped-up proportions and more dramatic cuts. A handsome rosewood table sports super sized ball-and-saucer legs and spiraling twist supports that appear to spin in place. A leafy apron looks less like hand-carving and more like natural growth. Pierced brass escutcheons shimmer like diamonds against rich, violet-hued rosewood. "The dramatic play of light is in keeping with baroque style," says Hurrell, who, with wife Julie Sherlock, scouts for antiques in Petropolis, home to Brazil’s 19th-century imperial court.
Designers know a good thing when they see it, and Brazilian antiques are now leg-to-leg with some very exclusive company. "They’re so bold, graphic, and architectural-a nice counterpoint to sleek modern furniture and quiet antiques," says Elissa Cullman of Cullman & Kravis. "And the inlaid pieces mix well with American folk art," she adds. Compared to prices for its European cousins, Brazilian baroque scores again.
And there’s no need to play the name game. "The pieces aren’t signed," Hurrell reports. Instead, collectors learn about the three "noble" woods-cedro (cedar), vinhático (no English equivalent), and jacaranda (rosewood). Among the most prized woods in the world, jacaranda ranges in shades from dark-chocolate brown to violet black. "Even the drawer sides and bottoms are made of rosewood," marvels Hurrell.
But it’s what’s on the outside that appeals to nascent collectors. "The Brazilians were using hardwood 100 years before the English discovered mahogany," enthuses the British-born dealer. "Brazilian carvers had more time to practice."