Rediscovering the great crafted treasures
A Vida Portuguesa
Written by Ivan Carvalho
Photography by Stefan Jermann
Situated on the fringe of Europe, Portugal has been trying to play catch up ever since the country’s Carnation Revolution of 1974 overturned the authoritarian Estado Novo regime and brought in democracy. Keen to modernize, an inward-looking populace sought inspiration from the outside world, happy to follow trends found elsewhere. Shopping malls – the bigger, the better – and foreign brands became popular as the Portuguese were hungry for all things new. Yet in the rush to join the rest of the globalized world Portugal’s consumers risked losing out on a big slice of their heritage. Fortunately, in stepped Catarina Portas, a journalist turned shopkeeper who got locals to rethink their retail ways and who put some pride back into the “Made in Portugal” label.
A visit to Largo do Intendente square is not complete without a stop at her shop, A Vida Portuguesa, which stocks classic goods all manufactured in Portugal. Part social anthropologist, part entrepreneur, Portas came up with the idea in 2006 to create an independent retail space where people could purchase some of the forgotten brands from the country’s past. The idea came to her while she was doing research for a book on 20th-century daily life in Portugal. “When I started to look at the historic brands, I noticed how quickly they were vanishing,” she says while gesturing to a shelf in her Bairro Alto office that holds ceramic coffee mugs from a now defunct Portuguese supplier. “I wanted to counter what was going on in Portugal, a kind of retail that saw 20 years of malls, hypermarkets and multinational brands coming in to take over. I loved these old Portuguese products and I didn’t want them to disappear, but I also thought that the country needed a little bit of self-esteem, to appreciate its own products.”
A self-described fan of factories, she loves to drop in on workshops scattered across the country to meet with owners and workers as she hunts for items that were once common on store shelves in Portugal, including ceramics, foodstuffs and toiletries. One of her most popular items is a range of exquisitely scented, hand-wrapped artisanal soaps from Claus Porto, a family-run firm from Porto that has seen a renaissance in recent years thanks to her efforts. She also carries an 83-year-old brand of local toothpaste, Couto, that is prized for fighting receding gums and which Portuguese pharmacies had all but forgotten about in recent decades as they pushed the likes of Colgate to clients who had grown accustomed to well-known foreign products.
Today, her assortment of goods extends from classic plates by Vista Alegre, a leading porcelain maker based in Aveiro with a history dating back nearly 200 hundred years, to traditional cobertores de papa
wool blankets woven in a tiny factory in the Serra da Estrela mountains – there are even colored pencils from Viarco, the last producer of its kind on the Iberian peninsula. In addition to her array of popular foodstuffs such as tinned fish, Azorean tea and local olive oil, she recently has expanded her inventory to new Portuguese labels, including Porto clothing brand La Paz that weaves super cozy wool jumpers inspired by looks worn by local fishermen and footwear label Green Boots, which reinterprets traditional work boots for city living and uses a factory in central Portugal that makes shoes for the Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace.
Portas started A Vida Portuguesa with €1,000, some small-business advice from a friend and some bartering skills. Today, she operates 4 shops, one in Porto and three in Lisbon, and the Intendente boutique she opened in 2013 is easily her most impressive. Given her love of manufacturing, Portas was delighted when she discovered that the former tile factory of Viúva Lamego
in Intendente square, with its elaborate hand-painted façade, was available to rent. Founded in 1849, Viúva Lamego
is a testament to Portuguese design. Its decorative work comes in various styles and the company, now based in Sintra, has collaborated over the years with artists and architects, including Álvaro Siza Vieira for the Portuguese Pavilion at the Lisbon Expo 98 site and Rem Koolhaas, who won the commission to build the Casa da Música concert hall in Porto.
Portas’ eyes light up when she talks about the space. “Before it was so full of ceramics that you could barely get in and walk around. The company has worked with important figures in the past. There was Maria Keil and the modernist tiles she created for street murals in Lisbon and for the first subway stations in the city in the 1950s and ’60s.” While her first shop in the Chiado district of Lisbon was geared towards toiletries and food, her 500-sqm Intendente shop let her expand the offering into homewares. Colorful cups and trays, cutting knives and even toy airplanes – all proudly made in Portugal – compete for the attention of visitors.
The presentation is museum-like, with brief descriptions on brands and their backstory. When talking with suppliers she insists on using the original packaging instead of trying to revamp the product’s image to cater to new tastes. “All of these items show that Portugal makes a lot of interesting products. The problem for years with Portuguese industry has been that they make things for outsiders, supplying products to foreign brands and never developing their own brands. Today in Europe we are becoming simply consumers and have to import everything. We have forgotten how to make things.”
With Portugal still emerging from the debt crisis that crippled its economy, her emphasis on supporting local manufacturers has helped to turn the tables. On any given day, her shops are filled with tourists eager to stock up on everything from lavender cologne to kitchen rugs, and who are happy to fork over their hard-earned euros since they know it is going to support traditional businesses, some family-run, that don’t produce in sweatshops in mainland China.
Her ability to create a beautifully curated inventory of brands that have survived the passage of time has shown others in Portugal that there is tremendous value in highlighting the quality of Portuguese manufacturers. Today, one sees in Lisbon and Porto shops sprouting up that try to promote local goods in much the same way, although none are able to offer the vast selection that Portas offers.
Her approach is proof, if ever proof was needed, of the social and economic value of heritage. Yet Portas, who is twisting the wrapper on a popular cough candy that she sells in her shops, is adamant that she is no sentimentalist. “Sometimes visitors come into the store and think all of this is about nostalgia for the past but it’s not. It’s about identity. Identity, rekindling local manufacturing and national pride.”