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Narciso Rodriguez in Rio

Tierney Gearon

Photo: Tierney Gearon

A giant flying saucer precariously balanced on a liquid landing pad, the museum is a sci-fi utopia realized in a natural paradise. "From the photographs I'd seen, I honestly thought that it wasn't very attractive," Rodriguez says. "But when I first visited, the building was closed, and I was able to really focus on its relationship to the surroundings." At one level it has the comic aspect of a Woody Allen film set; you enter via a looping fallopian passageway. The interior, however, is disappointing—the future, utopian or otherwise, has no place for acres of gray carpet. Which only proves once again that architectural statements tend to be antithetical to the display of art.

In Rio, what may be lacking in art is more than made up for by the richness of design. "I love very clean things, objects that marry line and form," says Rodriguez, who is determined to discover a source of Brazilian Modernist design. We follow a tip and head for the Shopping dos Antiquários, an indoor market in Copacabana. The ground floor is a letdown, with most of the stalls carrying the sort of early-20th-century and Deco bric-a-brac common to the street fairs. Once we're upstairs, however, Rodriguez's eyes light up. Graphos Tradição is a treasure trove of work by one of Brazil's best-known designers, Joaquim Tenreiro. Nothing is expensive. We're offered a set of six chairs designed in 1960 for less than $1,000. The combination of wicker and dark jacaranda has a sleek modernity that is instantly appealing. The chairs are tempting, but in the end a Tenreiro tripod side table is more so. "It's work that I admire," Rodriguez says, "because it seems to reflect a life in which the boundaries between art, craft, and design no longer matter."

The look of Rio owes as much to Modernism as to a peculiarly Brazilian ability to fuse disparate styles into something altogether unexpected. And nowhere is this skill more evident than in the country's music. Rodriguez discovered Brazilian music in his teens. When he's in Rio, he's likely to head to the Lapa, a working-class neighborhood where you can hear forro, a type of dance music that's heavy on accordion and is influenced by the blues, and is particular to Brazil's northeast. Sometimes he prefers to visit the samba schools in the hills or the chic clubs of Leblon and Ipanema. In Rio, music is part of the air you breathe. And for Rodriguez, who has become fast friends with Veloso, tropicalismo's founding genius, it's about something else too. "Caetano embodies so much of what Brazilians are about," he says. "Soul, spirituality, kindness, and warmth—he and his family just opened their arms to me."

The flip side of the city's irrepressible fun-loving vibe is a lingering bass note, an undertow. Poet and lyricist Vinicius de Moraes (author of "The Girl from Ipanema") captured it on one of bossa nova's greatest standards, "A Felicidade": Tristeza não tem fim/Felicidade sim. (Sadness has no end/Happiness does.) It's a song written for Carnival about the beauty of the transient; it's a song that makes melancholy sexy.

On a rainy afternoon, back at the apartment, Rodriguez pages through a Niemeyer monograph. "I can get very intense in the early stages of designing a collection," he says with a sigh, putting the book down for a moment, "but there is something special that happens here that pushes you to relax and just go with it."

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