Two years ago, architect and designer Marcelo Rosenbaum transformed the facade of Josiane Mateus’s waterfront São Paulo home. Rosenbaum was a great get for the job. At 36, he’s one of Brazilian design’s busiest boldface names. Telegenic and well-spoken, he hosts Lar Doce Lar (roughly, "Home Sweet Home"), Brazilian TV’s take on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. His interior work on dozens of shops, restaurants, and nightclubs forms the plush backdrop for much of well-to-do Paulista life. You could furnish an entire home with his signature products, from carpeting to tablecloths to cushions.
The Mateus job was unusually minimalist—just a few coats of purple paint. But Mateus, a petite, round-faced woman with smooth olive skin and golden highlights in her hair, gushes that it was not just a color change but also a paradigm shift. "People should believe that things in the world can be changed," she says. "A long time ago, we didn’t believe it. We didn’t even have color! Many people doubted it, but it came true."
This is not the histrionic talk of a decor-obsessed society doyenne. Mateus’s home is in a favela—or slum—called Parque Santo Antonio, where it fronts a fetid stream of green-gray water that’s sluggish with sewage. During heavy rains, her house floods unless she remembers to block her front doorway with a jerry-rigged floodgate. Before the paint job, her facade was just bare concrete block—but at least it’s concrete block. Many houses in the sprawling favela are higgledy-piggledy arrangements of plywood and scrap metal. A decade ago, this slum was so crime-ridden "that you wouldn’t have been able to come in," says Mateus, eyeing me as we pick our way along the stream’s edge. In recent years, the municipal government has worked to boost security and services in Parque Santo Antonio, which is home to more than 100,000 people. But the psychological scar tissue from more than a century of economic desperation and societal neglect lingers on. "No health care, no sewage system, no education," says Dagmar Garroux, who in 1994 opened an educational center there called Casa do Zezinho. "It was total abandonment."
When Rosenbaum and his team arrived in 2010, saying they wanted to paint houses, the residents of Parque Santo Antonio were skeptical. "When you live here, you can’t believe someone from the outside would come and do something for you," says Mateus, who was hired as a community liaison to help convince residents. "People would say, 'Why? Nobody will come!' They thought it was a lie."
The painting project was a small, getting-to-know-you step in a much larger effort by Studio Rosenbaum called A Gente Transforma—literally "We Transform," which is meant to suggest collaboration between the studio, which did the work pro bono, and its newest clients. Phase I, completed in 2010, also included building a library—the neighborhood’s first—which Mateus now helps manage with her husband, Eduardo. The 13 bookcases along the walls may be half-empty, but the spare facility has been a success. Locals have embraced the space as a community center. They come to use the four Lenovo PCs. There’s been talk of knitting classes. And they borrow books; Eduardo says the most popular titles are foreign fiction in translation, including The Cabana, by William Young, and the Twilight series.
From the library’s porch, past the soccer field and new chain-link fencing that A Gente Transforma helped the residents obtain from the municipality, you can see the patchwork of brightly painted houses—purple, Pepto-Bismol pink, sunshine yellow. "Everything really started with this project," Mateus says. "We have more of a sense of community now. Neighbors talk to each other. You don’t even see as much garbage in the street anymore. We have a Dumpster that we didn’t have before; then, we just had the river."
These things are not unimportant. But they seem more the product of community organizing than of traditional architecture. And when I tell Rosenbaum that I see little physical evidence of his work in Parque Santo Antonio, he smiles. "What is architecture?" he asks in his heavily accented English. "It’s structure. It’s about architecting—can I say this word? Architecting society?" He doesn’t need to build beautiful buildings, he adds. "I prefer to build connections, contacts, relationships, ways to learn with people. We put a magnifying glass—magnifying glass, yes?—on possibilities."
And, as he explains, the favela is only part of his "social architecting." To understand the whole endeavor, you have to look elsewhere.
To Rosenbaum, the favela—filthy, crowded, crime-ridden—is not precisely the problem. Brazil’s urban slums are symptoms of a bigger systemic dysfunction: the persistent dearth of adequate employment and economic prospects, especially in rural areas. This is especially striking given the nation’s recent boom. GDP has quintupled from about $500 billion in 2003 to approximately $2.5 trillion this year, while the jobless rate has plunged from around 13% to less than 6%. More than 30 million Brazilians have risen to middle-class status. But 50% of the population still must live on $7 or less per day.
Rosenbaum could help Parque Santo Antonio look prettier and its people feel better, but he realized that to attack poverty’s roots, he’d have to reach the feeder communities from which eager workers have emigrated for generations. In other words, to have any hope of helping redesign a city slum, you also have to create a model for remaking desperate regions far, far away.
According to Rosenbaum, a dismayingly large percentage of the residents of a caterpillar-shaped state in northern Brazil called Piauí make the 1,500-mile trek to São Paulo’s favelas—so he decided to take A Gente Transforma there. Over the past decade, Piauí has had the slowest-growing economy of Brazil’s 26 states; its annual per-capita GDP of $3,000 also makes it the nation’s poorest state. (In São Paulo, Brazil’s richest state, annual per-capita GDP is nearly five times Piauí's.) "The dream in such places is to go to São Paulo, and they go directly to favelas," Rosenbaum tells me when I meet him in his loftlike atelier in Pinheiros, a posh neighborhood best described as an anti-favela. "They come; they are disconnected. What do they have? They have drugs. They have prostitution. They don’t have sanitation—you see shit in the river! Then they lose everything they have, including their dignity. But if we can change the reality in Piauí, they won’t go."
Last year, with the help of a Brazilian not-for-profit called Sebrae, Rosenbaum decided to focus on Várzea Queimada, a drought-plagued Piauí community of 900 people of mixed indigenous and black ancestry. Most of its residents are subsistence farmers, but the village also has rich, if undervalued, artisanal traditions of weaving and rubber work.
In February, he went to Várzea Queimada for 15 days, taking a 47-strong team that included designers, photographers, graphic designers, an architecture professor, and a social entrepreneur with indigenous roots and the status of a spiritual leader. They shared stories, sang, and ate together with the locals. Rosenbaum asked them to teach him about their craft traditions, and with other designers recruited from as far afield as Portugal, he worked to convince them that what they had, what they knew, could be woven into economic opportunity. "This whole project is basically about self-esteem," he says. "We have to say, 'What you make is beautiful.' But they don’t believe it. They don’t think it’s true. They’ve seen in soap operas how people’s houses are different—all that furniture, the richness. So they look at you funny."
Rosenbaum and his team took the community’s craft traditions and tweaked them for the modern marketplace. In collaboration with designers Rita Joao and Pedro Ferreira of Lisbon’s Studio Pedrita, Várzea Queimada’s weavers created big, slouchy, hamperlike baskets woven from carnauba straw. The baskets’ droopy rims make them look like the dishabille cousins of wide-brimmed summer hats. Along with Piauí-based designer Kalina Romeiro, the rubber artisans designed a collection of black-rubber baubles and rings. The pieces are chunky, angular, and strikingly modern.
But these items, lovely as they may be, are the means, not the ends, for A Gente Transforma. "It’s not about baskets," Rosenbaum insists; the baskets are "excuses" for residents to stay in their native states. Success will come when the goods gain access to the broader marketplace. "I know about the markets," he says, "about what people like now. I can say, 'Make this a little bigger. Make the finishing better.' But what I don’t know is how they make these beautiful things. I have to say, 'Teach me!' So we learn together. It’s an exchange."
The only consistent aesthetic theme in Rosenbaum’s design work is Brazil. His patriotism is not an abstract ideal, but a vivid passion. He pays relentless homage, in his designs for wallpaper and rugs and textiles, to his nation’s natural and cultural bounty—the colors of jaca fruit and pau-brasil flowers, the textures of traditional rubber lithography, the patterns of Portuguese tile, the undulations of Brazil’s rivers.
In this, he’s weird: Brazilians put little premium on Brazilian-designed, Brazilian-inspired, or Brazilian-made. "We’re still developing our vernacular," says the São Paulo curator Marisa Ota. Adds Adriana Benguela, an architect who is Rosenbaum’s business partner: "This is a new rich country, and the rich here don’t know the traditions or the culture well."
People pay extra for things that come from Europe. So this past spring, Rosenbaum took Piauí-made products to the Milan furniture fair. His target audience: Brazilians, who make up the fair’s third-largest foreign contingent. "Everything from outside is seen as better and more important," he says. "I have to go out so that others can come back and say, 'Ah, yes, it’s good and beautiful and chic and sophisticated.' "
Taking the products to Milan was symbolically important on another level: Italy set a model for how traditional, underappreciated craftsmanship can be elevated. "Fatte a mano—that’s handcrafted. And that’s expensive! That’s how Prada does bags, and Bottega Veneta," Rosenbaum says. "Maybe in 30 years, we can be like this." Rosenbaum sees Brazilianness as vastly undervalued. "Decor is a very big business in Brazil—60 billion reais a year [about $35 billion]. But you can’t see anything in this industry from the tradition of Brazilian handcrafts," he says. "We want to bring this back so that it generates income for the people and for the country."
Which raises an important point: A Gente Transforma is not charity. Rosenbaum views his work at the bottom of the economic pyramid, which now takes as much as 70% of his time, not as a donation but a contrarian investment. While all the proceeds of the Piauí-made products go to the craftsmen, Rosenbaum sees a truly unique path to profitability.
Start with his belief that, especially in a fast-developing economy, the poor have enormous potential not just as producers but also as consumers. This idea is anything but mainstream: Few consumer goods are designed for the people known in Brazil as the C-class—those hovering at or just above the poverty line.
Yet as he and his team spend more time in places like Parque Santo Antonio and Piauí, they’re gaining a deeper understanding of life there. They’ve been wowed, for instance, by the ingenuity they’ve found in the favela, particularly in homes that lack facilities most of us take for granted. "They invent everything," says Benguela. "I’ve seen an interesting system for drying clothes, different kinds of steps to get into the house, a system to take a shower. They just figure everything out." Rosenbaum hopes to use these innovations as models for new products. He also wants to partner with major consumer-product companies, in the hopes that they will share his enthusiasm for creating goods for these populations—and, ideally, with these populations. "I have always said I want to design for the mass class," he says. "In the favela, we have a lot of talent. What we have to do is to go understand, hear, and make with them solutions."
When I suggest that some people might read an element of exploitation into this narrative, he waves the notion away. "This is a business with a social element," he says, a classic multiple-bottom-line operation. He stops and stares at me for a moment, as if to say, Is that so hard to understand? What he actually says is that some of his potential critics have a tendency to help little yet say a lot. "I go to the mayors, the municipalities, the health secretariat—nobody knows nothing! Nothing!" he says. "We come inside these houses to know how people really live. We are beginning to think about what we can do to generate income, to create partnerships with companies, to build interest in the new class that’s rising in the market."
"Design is more than a product, a cup, a chair," Rosenbaum insists. "We can promote other things through the excuse of design. And this is my job: to think about structure." In this sense, what he is architecting—to borrow his term—is a grand umbrella, a conception of the design business that’s big enough to include strategy, marketing, new modes of production, and some social engineering too. "I am trying to bring more people in. I am trying to make more connections. The feeling I have is, we just have to try this," he says. "I believe in the possibility—and I’m betting on it."
Additional reporting by Michelle Seddig Jorge
A version of this article appears in the October 2012 issue of Fast Company.