A short train ride outside of Lisbon and I’m flanked by the sea on one side and an interchangeable variety of buildings on the other. Behind one of these nondescript apartment blocks are some old storage units, invisible from the trainline. The style of these apartments are the uniform semi-modern pop-up blocks that can be found all around the outskirts of Lisbon’s historical center. From the outside, they look like the kind of garage you'd leave an old car under a dust-sheet, but inside one of the units is something pretty special.
I knocked at the metal door after being sent the address the day before and a dog starts to bark loudly, making me recoil a little. I was immediately disarmed when João Fernandes answered the door with the diminutive Balthazaar in his arms. Big bark for a small dog I said, so João explained that dogs are actually unaware of their own size, hence you often see small ones trying to pick a fight with much larger ones, just like his was doing as he was was telling me this.
His studio contains a large open-plan space that instantly felt cosier than the morning sun outside. A large claret Chesterfield sofa sits in the middle of the room, slightly worn from years of use, atop a Persian rug in a similar condition. Despite the mess on the design table to my left, nothing seemed out of place, except a Danish pommel horse that João had picked up from an antique market. João is a big guy, built more for rugby than gymnastics, so I had already assumed it was just there for decoration. Above the design table on my left was a flag in simple clear copy, black on white, in the style of old Americana stamp logos. In the middle it said 'CAPA'.
Life started out for João a few stops further along the trainline that took me here, in the seaside town of Carcavelos. As was expected of him at that time, he would get a job, a house, a wife and never make it too far out of his hometown - but it didn’t work out quite like that. As a young kid, João had a fascination with computers and began hacking in the 1980s, doing things that made us both laugh in the way that two people talking would find it funny, but not two lawyers in a courtroom. His work life began at his local municipality after completing university with a degree in computer science. He was pretty good at this job by all measures, creating a new algorithm for the refuge services that stopped the binmen of Lisbon’s narrow cobbled streets from wasting petrol and waking up the elderly demographic.
He was so good in fact that he embarked on what he calls a ‘mission’ for the United Nations. He was a geek, that’s for sure, but a geek that had people skills, thanks to the time he spent away from his computer screen at his local skatepark. His 'mission' was to improve the voting system in the former Portuguese colony Guinea-Bissau. The stakes were higher than the time he done a very similar job back in Portugal. Here he ran the risk of inciting a civil war if things didn’t run smoothly. Predictably enough, they did.
In his outings to Africa, João witnessed rituals and blessings taking place at the hands of the townspeople as they paid respect to the souls of the deceased. To them everything had a soul - the chairs they sat on to the forks they ate with. This had a profound effect on a still young man and João's binary way of looking at things started to change - there was more than algorithms and numbers. He began to think about the souls of the things that he worked with.
After arriving home and having a bust-up with a VCR player, after it deleted precious footage of his, he couldn’t fathom how he could work with complicated machines but not a relatively simple home appliance. It came down to basic communication. This is a moment he recalls as his 'epiphany'.
The UN paid well enough to enable him to pursue a new and more soulful direction in life and where better than the center of the creative world in the mid-90s, New York. Over a period of two years, years that he remembers as the most creative in his life, he managed to rub shoulders with Lou Reed, Tom Waits and enrolled in a design course taken by Milton Glaser and a semiotics course by Umberto Eco. Eventually his money ran out and he returned home with a reinvigorated CV, ready to begin work in a creative environment.
He found a job advertised at Euro RSCG in their ‘cyber lab’, something we would now see as digital. He got the job and his stock quickly rose - his reputation as a leading mind in the field was consolidated when he helped launch Portugal’s first ever online sales campaign for a car, the Peugeot 206 GTi. The runaway success of the campaign found him back in New York collecting awards, but this time when he returned home and the hangover wore off, the excitement of working in an agency began to wane.
He splintered off to co-found his own agency, View, in January 2000. But when the global recession hit in 2008, clients desire for new work and their budget set for marketing wasn’t what it had been. His company was going through the process of merging into a larger one, he felt like he was undergoing his own transition too. After spending the best part of a decade in design and advertising he was beginning to question if it was really what he wanted to do. All around him were superfluous goods - things he didn’t need and probably didn’t even want. If they broke, he’d simply replace them. He felt responsible for the often-aggressive marketing techniques that create the very problem they are selling the solution too. Now with a wife and children to think of, this wasn’t the legacy he wanted to leave behind.
After phase one as a programmer, phase two as an ad man, he was ready to enter phase three - the artisan.
His company CAPA make expensive handmade luxury goods, ‘protective and caring goods for tools of passion’. Behind his thick-rimmed glasses and pencil moustache, you can see 1000 ideas battling to come to the fore. He tells me that Portugal produced 70,000 new millionaires last year and his company caters for their needs of a ‘new luxury’. People, he believes, are slowly moving away from spending hundreds of euros on a standardised Chanel bag. They want something personal to them and it was their want and his desire for change that gave birth to the business.
Working with leather wasn't his first or most obvious choice though. It began when he bought a case for his beloved Leica camera from their website. For €400 he got a fake leather case that would be outlived by the camera several times over. He sent it back and with little options and a bit of time, decided to make his own. With some online tutorials to kick-start the work, João spent 4 months over the period of a year working with saddlemakers in the small and very English town of Tetbury, learning the intricacies of the craft. One year later he had his own tailor-made case. That night he posted three photographs on Instagram, one of the sketch, one half completed and one finished product and woke up the next morning with more notifications that usual.
There were 14 orders in the comments from eager Leica owners that felt the same way as he did about their options. He was overwhelmed by the response, but how could he possibly reach this demand? He had no tools and his case was the product of one years work. After a day and night of thinking, he responded to the first six requests. He would make them a case but couldn’t tell them when it would be ready - they were all happy to wait.
Just like that, the company was born, and still, every product begins and ends with a conversation with the client. They are paying for the story, the attention to details, the personalized requirements. What they end up with is an item of passion, just like the tools they are designed for.
João is particular about his raw materials. The leather comes from a tannery near Bologna. The process takes around one year, compared to just 15 days for lower quality leather. All of his suppliers are just like him, people that are doing what they do from a place of passion.
His working day usually begins at 9am, breaking for lunch and a midday walk with Balthazaar before finishing up at 6pm. The time in the evening is spent between his family and his research. It is in this research that he separates himself from the flood of other ‘artisanal’ goods arising daily. Modern tools are multipurpose, good at a lot but not great at anything. João prefers to buy the tools specific for an exact purpose, to honour the way in which they had originally been made for the past few hundred years.
Thanks to this research, he holds a special reverence for the bookbinders of the Renaissance period, especially their glue that still holds their rare books together today and works with unique mixtures of basic ingredients - simple household goods like potatoes and eggs.
Already his products have caught the eye of people from all over the world. Chefs in Lisbon looking for a knife bag and conservationists in Mozambique looking for a rifle carrier. These transactions allow producer and client to learn from each other, changing their perspectives through their shared stories. As a unique finish to the product João leaves the final few stitches undone for the client to come in and stitch themselves, giving them an eternal bond with their product.
We spent the morning talking about the past and present, and at lunchtime we went for a walk around the local park with his dog and I asked him about what he thinks the future has in store for him. João was extremely optimistic, lacking any sense of trepidation, especially considering having just left behind a lifestyle that is almost the antithesis of his current one. But the root of his optimism has always been there, it's bound to. If you spend so much of your life solving any problem you are faced with, the future will always be bright - because nothing is impossible.
He extols the virtues of people living holistic lives, leaving behind the 'dual behaviors' required to thrive at home and in the workplace and making them meet in the middle, to coalesce instead of contrast. His studio is a microcosm of this philosophy, pulling on everything he likes and that inspires him. One thing that stands out is the artwork that adorns the walls, from Shepard Fairey to Paulo Nozolino. Old world Americana posters hang freely side by side with pre-eminent Portuguese political artists MaisMenos and Iranian Sara Abbasian. In the background there’s usually rockabilly music playing. If not it’s Johnny Cash or Frank Sinatra, all of these influences go into the finished product.
Above the central space, on the edge of the mezzanine floor, is a quote from William Wordsworth, ‘To Begin, Begin.’ No one could argue that he earned having that mantra as the focal point of the studio. This sign I noticed was hand written, he told me it was by one of the few remaining signwriters in Portugal. They used the same techniques to paint the sign that would have been practiced as long ago as the techniques were for João's leather goods.
In the park, talking about the future, João laughs when he remembers the way that we thought robots would only kill-off the blue collar jobs, but now they are doing the work of lawyers in Japan and that now Mercedez-Benz have had to re-hire staff to cater for their customizing options that require skillsets beyond the capabilities of a robot. It’s all gone full circle for João too, everything ties in with each other. From here it is hard to say whether it is a closed loop system for this computer hacker-turned craftsman, or whether he will reinvent himself once again and enter a new stage in his life. I don’t know and neither does he, but I have a feeling.
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