RUE Magazine : From Lisbon to New Jersey and back again..
as seen in RUE MAGAZINE, Issue 51
Carlos João Parreira is a New York City- based designer and founder of LUSITANO STUDIO, a brand that celebrates modern Portuguese craftsmanship, bringing the work of local artisans to the United States. As a young teenager, this Lisboeta (the name for those from Lisbon) moved with his family to New Jersey to begin a new life but found himself adapting to his new country’s culture a bit too much. Carlos shares his story of what it was like coming to a foreign country at such a young age and how he found his way back to his original cultural heritage and brought it into his professional life.
It all changed when I met the Brit. On a New York summer's day, on the first date with a charming man who'd eventually become my husband, it dawned on me: How could he consider himself an 'expat' and proudly showcase his accent and background while I’d been calling myself an 'immigrant' all this time and dropped my accent as soon as I could? As we shared our experiences of coming to America, it started to be extremely clear…
Having only been in New York for a few months from London, he felt right at home. New Yorkers loved his accent - they were captivated by everything he said. Moving from one cultural capital (London) to another (New York) was a smooth transition for him, with much sunnier days. He kept his connections to the UK strong, reveling in the culture of his new hometown but also maintaining his own identity. And it helped that everyone thought he was from Downton Abbey – perhaps it’s because many Americans are Anglophiles and have so many positive associations about the Brits, but it allowed him to celebrate his “Britishness” in a way that many immigrants with less celebrated accents might not be able to. This comfort was incredible to see first hand, and it gave me something to think about. At first I might’ve been a bit defiant, I mean he didn’t even have to learn a new language! But seeing his ease in navigating this new city as an expat encouraged me to celebrate my own heritage in the same way.
However, my own move from Portugal to the US over a decade earlier wasn’t quite as smooth. Packing my life up from Lisbon, an European cultural capital in its own right to start a new life in the middle of suburban New Jersey felt like entering another world altogether. Not speaking any English and with a name like ‘Carlos’ at a time when no one could even point at Portugal on a map, meant that my classmates' assumptions about me were not exactly enlightened. But I do love a challenge.
I learned English and dropped the accent as quickly as I could. I watched as much Dawson's Creek as I could stomach, dressed in the best slogan t-shirts the mall could offer and re-branded from 'Carlos João' to 'CJ' as if I’d I just stepped out of the 'Peach Pit'. It wasn't exactly an overnight transformation, but after a few tricky years no one would ever think I was from anywhere else but suburban USA.
Despite the outward assimilation, a big part of me still identified with a completely different culture, and having everyone think I was American later felt like denying who I was. Growing up in Portugal was amazing. Culture is accessible and an intricate part of life, the weather and food are unbeatable, and the people are as friendly as they get. When I was little, my Dad would take me all over the country, learning our history and traditions, meeting men and women that made things the old-fashioned way. Although to be honest at the time I didn't appreciate it and thought everything was, well, old-fashioned.
Looking back on it now, it all sounds a bit unreal. Although I was raised a city kid who’d run up street blocks to the bakery for a breakfast ‘papo seco’, like most Portuguese we were lucky enough to escape to a family house in a country village a couple of hours north of Lisbon: Maceira – it was my idea of heaven. My grandmother was born in that house, a place that has been passed down through generations. It was a twenty minute drive through pine forests to miles and miles of beach. To this day, the minute you first arrive at the pine forest a sense of calm washes over you that I now crave on many hectic New York days.
With the Maceira house as our home-base, only later did I realize how my dad’s passion for Portuguese culture was such a strong part of my childhood. We learned to blow glass in the workshops nearby that used the local lumber for its ovens. Driving through the northern Douro region, we once stumbled onto a roadside stand that was showcasing traditional black pottery, created by drying the clay in open fires on the earth. Later when visiting an old village in the mountains, we happened to meet an old woman still making goat cheese in her tiny stone house. Sadly the cheese was just for herself since the EU had requirements she couldn’t certify, but nonetheless she welcomed us into her home and showed a bratty kid (me, not the goat) an experience he’d never forget, even if he didn’t realize how special it was at the time.
As the years passed I began to not only miss it, but became more and more proud of it. As I graduated design school and navigated the New York design world, all of the things that we now paid more attention to like craftsmanship and visual traditions weren't 'old-fashioned', they were scarce, authentic, sustainable. In many instances companies were presenting "craftsmanship-inspired" pieces that were actually mass-produced. So I began to tell anyone who'd listen about all the great artisan work still happening in Portugal but totally unknown to the US. As people were buying home decor with the same voraciousness as fast fashion, things that they’d just throw away later, many artisanal traditions elsewhere were fighting to stay strong.
During this time, the Portuguese Mediterranean aesthetic was becoming increasingly recognized. As Portugal recovered from the financial crisis of the late 2000s, its historic 17th century buildings were being renovated with a perfect mix of old and contemporary. Rustic, organic spaces that we once felt insecure about for their humility now felt authentic and free from modern pretension. The idyllic landscapes of hidden beaches and breezy lunches of freshly caught fish began to be covered by travel magazines.
So with Portugal starting to become better known as a travel destination and my new-found perspective on my own “expat” experience, I thought it was now or never to bring it into my professional life. In 2016 I launched LUSITANO STUDIO, a home decor brand that introduces the US to Portuguese craftsmanship. Everything is made ethically in Portugal by our artisans, but with a contemporary design point of view.
Now, my Dad and I have switched roles. Every time I have the chance to go to Portugal I’m the one striving to find those last artisans keeping up traditional methods. Thankfully it’s a tight community, where they are happy to share and spread the word about peers that they admire, whether in the same discipline or in a completely different field or geographical location. The Portuguese government has also stepped up, creating a few organizations that support and even certify unique techniques.
Through my experience in the NY design world together with their craftsmanship, we’ve created unique pieces that not only showcase their talents, but are relevant to global audiences. One of my favorite examples is an upcoming collection where I’m working with artisans from an area in the north of Portugal whose embroidery techniques and patterns have recently been copied by a large US chain and made elsewhere - together we’re taking back ownership and looking at these traditional methods and designs with fresh eyes. In a way, I am connecting the two countries that have had such an impact in my life.
It took me a while to get back here, but finally feel that we should celebrate what makes us different, because it is truly what makes us special. And now, it’s a toss up to see whether people are more keen to find out hidden gems in Lisbon or London.
- Carlos João Parreira