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Nuno Matos Cabral

"There are things that look like rubbish, but which can be transformed into luxury”

The leap from law to design was not an act of magic, but the truth is that the magic was always there. Ever since he was a child, Nuno Matos Cabral found himself caught up in the beauty and pragmatism of things. So, even with the strong influence of his family, his essence spoke louder. Today, the head of creativity at Gato Preto looks back over a career lasting 22 years, packed with learning and success. Friendly as can be, he shared some of his life with TRENDS, in an interview which took place in Lisbon’s beautiful Rocco restaurant.
Today you are a very well-known designer, but your career didn’t exactly begin in this field...
No. This is true and I think I’m a good example that you can change careers. Often, when we are kids and don’t know what we want to do, we are influenced by our family. For me, this influence did indeed end up taking hold. This led me to study law. I did the entire course and even worked for a year as a legal adviser in an international insurance company, but I found out that wasn’t who I was. I believe that life and destiny end up placing us in the right place, at the right time, on the path we should follow. So this is where it all began.  

How and when did you make that volte-face and start dedicating yourself exclusively to design?
Ground zero, first of all, was having people in the family who invested in property. We’re talking about the year 2000. I started to give some tips, colour palettes, tiles, coverings... At that time, I still didn’t call myself a designer, rather a decorator, because in the meantime I took a short course at the Escola Superior de Artes Decorativas [Decorative Arts College]. In 2004, a house I had worked on appeared on the front cover of Máxima Interiores, a very well-known magazine at the time, which gave me some visibility. From then on, things started to flow. Up until, in 2008 I decided to go to Milan to study. I was one of very few students, I might even have been the first, to enrol in a master’s course in interior design without a degree in architecture or design. I was accepted thanks to my portfolio. Between 2009 and 2010, I experienced a real ‘growth spurt’ and, from then on, I thought I was actually an interior designer. 

Has the issue of sustainability been part of your way of working from the beginning, or did it gradually begin to gain importance in your work? 
I think it always has been, because as I have always been a very creative person, I was thinking up a use for the things I found. Sometimes, when I was in the street playing with kids, I would look at those things and think "oh, this would be nice if it was... something”. That was the bug that, somehow, I could always feel in me and that, later, somehow, ended up leading to Primeira Casa da Rua, which is a blog that appeared in 2013, where recycling, reusing and recovering were, and are, the motto. So, from a very early age I was sensitive to that and to waste, which is something that gets me very confused. 

How can we decorate our spaces in a sustainable and beautiful way at the same time?
First, we have to make a distinction here, because sustainable is not only the environmental part. We have the environmental part, the social part and the cultural part. In other words, when we talk about sustainability, it is not only the project itself and the choice of materials, but where do these materials come from, which suppliers are giving us these materials, how are they produced? So, first of all, I think recycling, reusing and recovering things at home is already a good start. And I’m not exactly a radical. I’m aware that implementing a 100% sustainable project today, with these three components, still isn’t easy. We have to do ‘baby steps’ even though the planet is running out of patience to wait. But we have to go as far as we can. These first steps, in our homes, recycling, recovering and reusing those things that are still good, is important. And if we don’t need them in our house, we can pass them on to other people, who need them. With this circular economy, things will follow its process.

Do you feel that those who come to you for your professional side also come to you because you are someone who emphasises sustainability, or because of the beauty of what you do?
I think they are looking for both. My greatest challenge is to somehow find a balance between the sustainable, the sophisticated and the elegant. I don’t know if those are the right words, but I think they are. If there used to be - I think that this isn’t the case anymore -, the prejudice that sustainable wasn’t beautiful, which isn’t true, nowadays we see big luxury reference brands committing to sustainability, and effectively, in my opinion, that’s the way to go. In other words, no brand today can be 100% sustainable tomorrow, but we have to start somewhere.

"Increasingly, there are international certificates that tell us which products are environmentally friendly”

You are not inexperienced in this field; you’ve been at this for a long time. Don’t you think that these same brands might be ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ having realised that this greener side actually adds a touch of luxury to marketing?
Yes, this is possible. But even so, if they’re doing it, for me that’s enough. As long as it isn’t a matter of greenwashing. There are brands that take advantage of certain names to associate the brand with a more sustainable mood, when in reality it is not. If these brands are effectively implementing sustainability in their process, regardless of the motives, and the ultimate motive is actually helping the planet, I think it’s fantastic. For me it has no relevance whether they are taking advantage of it or not. What is important is that we implement and develop production processes that effectively lead to more environmentally friendly products.

For those of us on this side of things, sometimes it’s difficult to know if we can trust something or distinguish something that is sustainable from something that isn’t...
One of the ways to get a clearer understanding of this is by looking for certification. Increasingly, there are international certificates that tell us which products are environmentally friendly. I can’t tell you right now, by heart, but I know that they even exist in the field of decoration. It’s a matter of paying attention, from the paints, to the materials, to the woods, there are who knows how many certificates that give us that warning about whether we are talking about greenwashing or not.

Let’s talk about your projects. How has your career developed and how was it to take on this mission of being head of creativity at Gato Preto? And also what is in your mind for the future?
First and foremost there is and will continue to be the issue of sustainability. Wherever I am, I will always try to make those who work with me aware of this issue. In my previous projects, I always tried to implement a lot of ‘green’, plants, natural materials, which are very important things to me. This is right across the board, if you look at projects from 2004 and projects from now, this concern is there. With regards to products, I really like to work with companies that are already sensitive to the issue of sustainability. I have already worked with very interesting brands, including my own furniture brand, under my own name. I have also paid attention to varnish, to wood, forgetting solid wood, which is also a preconception we often have, that only solid wood can be used in furniture, which is not true. I committed to using reconstituted veneers, where only a very thin sheet of wood is used, so that there would be as little impact on the environment as possible. That said, the new challenge is Gato Preto, something very recent, from a few months ago, that was proposed to me and which I’m loving. I love challenges and this one makes me very proud because we’re talking about a brand that has been in Portugal for more than 35 years, which is in the Iberian Peninsula, and I think my contribution is going to be very interesting: how can I continue to bring it into this 21st century with all these things happening. We’re talking about more than 60 shops, hand in hand with the environment… 

"My greatest challenge is to somehow find a balance between the sustainable, the sophisticated and the elegant”

However, in the midst of all this, before you knew it, you were someone who was loved by the media...
It makes me blush (laughs). Actually, I don’t think I am, I still don’t see any of that. I’m making my way and, as I usually say, the path is made by walking. Whoever wants to join in, fantastic. For me, the important thing is to get the message across, and this interview makes me very happy because it’s a sign that I can say and do some things. If this media coverage you mention, and which I cannot see, can somehow contribute to a better world, fantastic. 

Looking back on a career spanning 22 years, what are you most proud of?
Having collaborated on the interiors of an exhibition at the Design Museum, in Milan. Seeing my name on the acknowledgements was something that touched me. Then, the collaboration with Vista Alegre was something I really enjoyed. My signature on the back of the piece made me proud. Bordallo Pinheiro and then the A Casa da Rua blog, which is something I wanted to do to show people that, in fact, sometimes a lot can be done with little money. And that there are things that look like rubbish, but which can be transformed into luxury.
T. Filomena Abreu
P. Nuno Almendra
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