GROWING UP BETWEEN Rio de Janeiro and the rural interior of Minas Gerais, a rugged, sprawling state in southeastern Brazil, the architect Mariana Schmidt moved often with her father, an engineer working on the state highway system. Brazil’s second most populous state, Minas Gerais grew during an early 18th-century gold rush that brought in speculators and enslaved people, a forced migration that continued into the next century as agriculture supplanted mining. Though raised in the shadows of Modernism — her grandfather, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, worked in the 1950s on the construction of the exactingly planned Brasília, which would become the national capital in 1960 — Schmidt, 40, was more interested in Minas Gerais’s farmsteads and quilombos, settlements founded by those who escaped slavery before it was abolished in 1888. She loved the warmth of the lime-slaked village houses and the efficiency of the rough-hewn wooden furniture. Life in rural Minas Gerais moved slower than it did in São Paulo, the metropolis where she’s resided since 2005. “The days feel longer. People wake up early, they sleep early, they live according to the light,” she says. “All my references are about that simplicity.”
Since founding her studio, MNMA, in 2016, Schmidt has incorporated the earthiness of those remembered landscapes into homes and interiors around São Paulo. Within a city shaped by its ruthless commitment to the future, that’s a transgressive decision: For the gallery Superfície, completed in 2018 in the Jardim Paulista neighborhood, she disrupted the austerity of a white cube with a single block of honed granite, placed as the bottommost step in a polished concrete stairwell. A year later, for the nearby boutique Haight, Schmidt carved protean alcoves into the walls to create a cavelike shelving system for handbags. Even her company’s name, an abbreviation of the Portuguese word for “minimum,” takes aim at a culture that valorizes maximum scale and complexity, and she tries to privilege instead “the smallest grain of architecture,” she says.
No project distills this approach more clearly than her own two-bedroom apartment in the city’s Higienópolis neighborhood. Here, calculated flaws make every surface feel alive: Polished concrete floors, laced with hairline cracks, glow a luminous gold, tinted by sand from the northeastern state of Bahia. She added the same pigment to the plaster spread across the walls and ceilings, creating pebbled surfaces that catch and refract the shifting daylight.
Schmidt moved to São Paulo, a city defined by concrete and asphalt, after completing a degree in psychology and realizing almost immediately that she had no interest in joining the field. Though she hadn’t spent much of her life thinking about the family building vocation, her adoptive city’s alien beauty ignited her interest in design; within a year, she’d enrolled at the University of São Paulo for a second bachelor’s degree, this one in architecture. But to her, the curriculum focused too much on Brazil’s towering Modernist heritage: “We never talked about natural pigments or building with earth,” she says. “About ancestral architecture or the African diaspora.”
A few years after graduating in 2014, Schmidt traveled to Mozambique and was struck by its resonances with Minas Gerais, which had been so clearly shaped by displaced Africans. In the years since, she’s returned to the continent whenever she can, studying the adobe vaults of Nubia in modern-day Sudan and the elaborate painted clay facades of the Kassena people’s earthen homes in Burkina Faso. As her practice has evolved, she’s increasingly incorporated centuries-old vernacular craft techniques, blending geometric rigor with rustic tactility. In her own home — originally a characterless box — the use of sand, wood and clay seem to “make the time pass more slowly,” she says. “Even concrete needs to breathe.”
SCHMIDT BOUGHT THE fourth-floor apartment in 2020 under unhappy circumstances. It was the height of the pandemic and she had recently ended two long-term relationships, one with a romantic partner, the other with the co-founder of MNMA. “I told the broker, ‘I’m in a bad moment, I want to break everything apart,’” Schmidt says. The agent then brought her to an unprepossessing 1970s apartment block, unusually bland in a neighborhood known for its leafy streets and iconic Modernist towers. “The place was ugly. No one wanted it,” Schmidt recalls. “So I took it and started to work.”
Though nearly 2,700 square feet, the apartment felt cramped, its floor plan fractured by a windowless foyer, a dim living room, three bathrooms, three bedrooms and a dining room-kitchen with attached areas for a live-in housekeeper. Schmidt removed walls, transforming the service quarters into a kitchen and eliminating the foyer completely. She placed her own bedroom and a small office on a street-facing side of the apartment, separating them from the public spaces and a bedroom suite for her 15-year-old daughter, Ana, with a pivoting panel plastered to match the walls.
Meditative and monochromatic in shades of bone and burnished wood, the home is thoughtfully but sparsely decorated with objects Schmidt has collected from Peru, Mexico, Ethiopia and the Amazon, juxtaposed against contemporary artworks and iconic pieces of midcentury furniture. In the dining room, a notched log from Mali — once an exterior staircase for a village home — shares space with a set of six Carlo Hauner dining chairs from the 1950s and a 2020 work by Schmidt’s neighbor the visual artist Mano Penalva that cascades down a nearby wall in layered loops of wooden beads used for, among other things, taxi drivers’ seat covers. In the adjacent living room, the disassembled components of a colonial-era grain mill from Minas Gerais have become a series of wooden totems, concluding at Schmidt’s most prized possession, a wooden chair designed by the Italian-born Brazilian architect and industrial designer Lina Bo Bardi for São Paulo’s SESC Pompéia (an adaptation, completed in 1976, of a pre-existing factory that’s now a cultural center).
From the generations-old grinding stone that Schmidt brought back from Mexico to the delicate paintings of household items (a floor lamp; a chair) on sculpted porcelain tiles received when she exchanged works with the São Paulo-based artist Brisa Noronha, the objects speak to Schmidt’s interest in “ancestry and work,” she says. In celebrating flaws — like the shards of a broken clay vessel spread across her dining room table — Schmidt closes the breach between city and country, between technologies new and old, between artists who are named and those whose names we’ll never know. “Architecture is about life,” she says. Cracks aren’t a sign of decline but of progress.