On my recent trip to Lisbon I visited this hip shop in the Chiado district. A Vida Portuguesa is an old fashioned goods store selling traditional wares (soap, stationery... sardines) in a very stylish way. It has a lovely feel to it with ceiling-high vintage glass cabinets full of items wrapped in beautifully illustrated paper packaging and the most chic display of tinned fish I’ve ever seen. Founder Catarina Portas set up the shop in 2007 when she realised some of the traditional products she grew up with were disappearing. It began almost as a way to save the packaging, but it has become more about building relationships with the producers. It's interesting to see that the grass roots movement of supporting and promoting and celebrating "local" is going on outside the UK as well.
Who are you? Catarina Portas, founder and owner of A Vida Portuguesa (The Portuguese Life).
Where can we find you? Rua Anchieta 11, 1200-657 Lisbon, Portugal www.avidaportuguesa.com; online shop http://loja.avidaportuguesa.com/en/
Describe your store in five words: Old-style, charming, delicious, genuine, Portuguese.
What makes you different? I believe objects can tell extraordinary and revealing stories about a people and its taste, about a society and its context, about a history that is, after all, a common identity. I realized it is also possible to tell the story of a country through its consumption habits. I also love to tell stories and reveal the history behind a brand or a product. And this became a part of our attitude: we believe it is possible to do business with respect for the traded goods, those who buy and those who sell. And we call it “delicate commerce”.
How you decide what makes the cut? A Vida Portuguesa was born out of the will to create an inventory of the brands that survived the passage of time, to highlight the quality of Portuguese manufacturing and to showcase Portugal in a surprising light. Therefore, we mainly choose products that stand out for their quality and charming packaging, including: toiletries, stationery, books, jewellery, food, handicrafts, toys, utilities. We have also started (re)creating exclusive products with some brands and developing our own range.
What were you doing before you did this? I was a journalist, having worked for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV. While doing research for an article I came across many of these products and realized they were vanishing from the market. I loved and used many of them and felt an urge to bring them together, first in gift boxes, and then under the same roof in a shop.
If you were starting again what advice would you give yourself? Always face the future with the eyes set on the past.
What are you most proud of? Mostly, I am proud of the dedicated producers I find all over the country. I consider some of them to be true heroes. They manage old factories that have been around for several generations. These people refuse to give up, even in the most difficult situations, and continue to make things and make them well.
Do you have a favourite thing in the store right now? I have a special fondness for the swallow, a traditional symbol, that we recreated as a sticker. And there is an interesting story behind it too. In 1891, the genius artist Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro shaped a few swallows in ceramics to hang from the ceiling of “Tabacaria Mónaco” (an Art Nouveau tobacco shop) where they have remained to this day. He then got carried away and released them on to tiles and other decorative pieces. And it didn’t take long before the swallows were common in Portuguese homes, both inside and out, becoming a true national icon – the most beautiful and perfect of them all.
What's hot for 2013? We have launched recently a delightful box of chocolates together with the brand Regina, that bring back old style 1930s holiday packaging.
Every Wednesday 'Indie of the week' celebrates the best independent stores around. These places sell interesting and varied collections of design-related things you don't see everywhere else. They may support young or local designers or be great at finding unique things from around the world. By thinking a little more creatively about what they stock they are fighting the bland homogenisation of so much of the high street. And since I'm down with the realities of modern life, online only stores count too, because a beautiful and easy to use website is just as delightful an encounter in cyberspace.
Do you you have a favourite store? I'd love to hear from you.