‘People would say, “This is hideous!’”: how ‘tacky’ Portuguese style took over the UK

‘People would say, “This is hideous!’”: how ‘tacky’ Portuguese style took over the UK

Pastéis de nata, a Bordallo Pinheiro cabbage bowl and Portuguese tinned sardines.

Colourful and gaudy, traditional Portuguese designs, most famously the cabbage plate, were long dismissed as old fashioned. But this special brand of maximalism is undergoing a revival and has paved the way for a wider appreciation of all things from Portugal

In a north Lisbon neighbourhood, between Sporting’s football stadium and the campus sprawl of Universidade de Lisboa, is a garden. From the outside it seems discreet, but once you are inside, it is wild. A fountain is filled with lurid green frogs, snakes climb the walls, a giant wasp and alligator perch on hedges, crabs stretch out and a swan sticks its beak into the mouth of a dog.

This is Jardim Bordallo Pinheiro and the animals are the work of Raphael Bordallo Pinheiro, artist, ceramicist and titan of 19th-century Portuguese culture. He launched his factory, Fábrica de Faianças das Caldas, in 1884, creating decorative and utilitarian tableware and wider ceramic pieces, colourful and gaudy, approaching folk art, using glazed earthenware that was cheap to mass produce.

At the garden, which opened in 2010, you get the essence of Portuguese maximalism. The fake fauna and flora by Pinheiro are extravagant, kitsch and beautiful, but almost overwhelming. Their exaggerated detail is humorous, if unsettling – Pinheiro was also a caricaturist. The pieces are nestled among the verdant greens of living shrubs and a pride of real-life peacocks, adding to a sensory overload.

The style of Bordallo Pinheiro has enjoyed a revival in the past two decades. Its traditional homeware, with patterned plates and crockery in the shape of fruit and vegetables, has always had a dusty place in Portuguese homes. But recently its cabbage plates and bowls have been popping up in the UK, in craft stores, boutiques, large chains and department stores.

Ceramics at A Vida Portuguesa and a Bordalla Pinheiro cabbage.

Among the muted greige of understated Scandinavian design at lifestyle brand Arket, the cabbage crockery offers a playful alternative, beside the wild flower bowls of the closely related brand San Raphael. It’s quite the turnaround for a design that was once seen as dowdy and tacky and it reflects a wider appetite in the UK for Portuguese design, lifestyle products, food and wine. You can’t move for coffee shops selling pastéis de nata of varying quality, while vinho verde is everywhere. There are, of course, plenty of older Portuguese delis, cafes and pastelarias around the UK, particularly in south London. In west London, the Lisboa Patisserie and Café O’Porto eye each other from opposite sides of Golborne Road.

But Olga Cruchino and Dina Martins – who were childhood friends in Portugal and are now a couple – are part of a new wave of Portuguese immigrants bringing food and ceramics to the UK. They have been running their shop and cafe, A Portuguese Love Affair, on and around Columbia Road in east London since 2013 and wanted to do something slightly different. They focused on Portuguese products, taking in design pieces, but also perfumery, soaps, tinned fish and wine. Today, homeware brands such as Costa Nova, Casa Cubista and Vista Alegre are gaining broader international attention but the Pinheiro ceramics laid the groundwork.

Sensory overload … painters work beside a big ceramic lizard at Fábrica de Faianças das Caldas.

“At the beginning, I heard comments such as: ‘This is hideous,’” Cruchino says. “People would come to me rudely and say: ‘Why do you have this? This is horrible.’” But gradually, tastes changed. Once Monocle magazine showed an interest, other magazines began borrowing pieces from the shop for shoots. “All of a sudden we felt a real increase in the acceptance and the love for Portuguese design. It was from nil to a lot.”

Cruchino and Martins were inspired, in part, by the journalist turned entrepreneur Catarina Portas. If you have ever picked up a Pinheiro cabbage plate, Ach Brito and Claus Porto toiletries, Emílio Braga notebooks, Couto toothpaste or even the designs of new Portuguese makers, it’s likely that she is responsible.

Sardines and soap on sale at A Vida Portuguesa.

By the end of the 90s, the Pinheiro designs had all but disappeared. Then, in the early 2000s, Portas was researching a book about life during the António de Oliveira Salazar dictatorship, which led her to look at everyday products and their manufacturers. During the dictatorship, which lasted until 1974, the country remained relatively isolated, and so household items were produced locally. But once the country opened itself to the outside world, people turned to international products. The tableware, textiles and cosmetics of local companies seemed a vestige of an older, darker time.

Many of these older manufacturers were in the doldrums but Portas persuaded several to give her some stock, which she displayed in themed boxes at museums and concept stores. Interest blossomed and by 2007 she had transformed the idea into a larger brand and shop, A Vida Portuguesa (the Portuguese Life), using an old perfume factory warehouse in the Chiado neighbourhood of Lisbon that she restored, maintaining its counters and wooden shelves. At the time most shop owners were modernising, but Portas wanted to show that “it’s possible to keep all these old interiors and [have] a very innovative shop”.

“I just picked something that was there,” says Portas. “Because everything was ready, it was by chance it was me. It attracted all kinds of people. The younger people that didn’t know these products and also older people. People from the left, people from the right. It was so funny. It was like a shop full of Proust madeleines [with memories unlocked by the products]. I wanted to put a camera for people to tell their stories but I didn’t have time.”

Catarina Portas.

She also never got time to write her book, but she adds: “I used to say that I started my business in the library and not in the bank.”

Portas’s ability seemed to be not simply in relying on nostalgia, but spotting the value in overlooked things. “It was never about nostalgia. It is about identity, which is completely different. Because identity looks to the future. And I think the past is full of interesting solutions for the future.”

The Jardim Bordallo Pinheiro was another Portas initiative, in collaboration with the artist Joana ​​Vasconcelos. And in 2009, Portas and a friend fixated on the old kiosks dotted around Lisbon; some were operating as tobacconists but most lay in disrepair. They persuaded city officials to let them run a cluster, reviving them as cafe-bars specialising in traditional Portuguese soft drinks and juices. After a few years they stepped away, but the point was proved and, with the city’s help, a growing network of kiosks or quiosques has sprouted up.

By the end of the 2010s, A Vida Portuguesa had five shops; the pandemic forced them to permanently close one Lisbon space and the Porto branch. However, in late 2021, another initiative was launched with the Depozito shop, also in Lisbon. Run in conjunction with the Portugal Manual network of artisans, the shop is split between traditional craft products and new designers.

Nuno Mendes: ‘I’m trying to showcase Portugal.’

Portas has fielded many requests to extend the brand across the country and internationally. In the past, she has helped Labour and Wait (a store in London) to bring products to the UK, while A Portuguese Love Affair was born partly in her image. But she has resisted further expansion, happier for others to grab the baton.

Cruchino and Martins also cite London-based chefs Nuno Mendes and Leandro Carreira as inspirations in pushing a modern Portuguese sensibility. In March, Mendes opened Lisboeta on Charlotte Street in central London. The restaurant is an extension of his 2017 book of recipes and reminiscences, also called Lisboeta (meaning someone from Lisbon). It’s a love letter to his home city and a culmination of his London years, which has included the restaurants Viajante and the Chiltern Firehouse, his own Taberna do Mercado and the experimental Mãos.

In his youth, Mendes tried to distance himself from Portugal. In the early 90s he was involved in Lisbon’s punk scene, where he says he lost friends to drugs and suicide. The economy was in a bad way and there were few opportunities.

Plates at Lisboeta.

“Looking at Lisbon as a city of light, you really could see how much dimmer it was,” he says. “There were all these beautiful buildings derelict and abandoned, and a lot of young people were gone.

“I was part of the problem because I also left,” he adds. In 1992, at 19, he started studying and travelling and saw the connection to Portuguese cuisine in former colonies and in places with historic trading links. While cooking in a restaurant in California, a conversation with the head chef led to an epiphany of sorts. The chef assumed Mendes was Spanish and could barely recognise any distinction between the two countries. Spanish cuisine was in vogue, while Portuguese tourism focused on what they assumed visitors wanted – Italian, Spanish or Indian food.

In 2005, he settled in London. “I battled for many years with the idea of going back to Portugal,” he says, “but at some point I almost felt like my work is more valuable outside.” At Lisboeta, Mendes offers a slightly more relaxed vision of his often adventurous take on Portuguese cooking.

The design was carried out by Mendes’s friend, the architect João Guedes Ramos, who has a practice, Pencilmen, in London and Lisbon. Their aim was to gently draw inspiration from Lisbon. On the ground floor, the limestone counter and dark wood cabinets recall old pharmacies; the multipatterned floor nods to industrial tiling and street paving; the green of the central stairs is one of Lisbon’s official colours. A wall in the upstairs dining room is filled with art from the Feira da Ladra flea market. Out front, on a small terrace, are some Gonçalo chairs, a classic of mid 20th-century Portuguese industrial design. “I’m trying to showcase Portugal,” says Mendes. “To speak about the culture, speak about the food. I’m trying to learn and whatever I find I share.”

Lisboeta.

Portas is surprised by how far and wide what was initially a small research project has gone. She tells a story of seeing an episode of a Brazilian show on Portuguese TV some years ago that landed on a familiar plot point. “At the end [of the episode] there was a couple of young people, and they say to each other: ‘We are going to England.’ ‘What should we do?’ ‘Oh, I know. We can open a shop of Portuguese products.’”