An Ode to the Gambiarra

Epistemologies of Design and What That Means
Across (Creative) Borderlands 

by Luma Guarçoni


I have always been fascinated by this idea of The Designer—who gets to inhabit  that space and who can claim that title for themselves? Why is it used so freely within a specific homogenous group of people adjacent to certain cities, institutions, professions, and classes, yet so strongly withheld from others that exist outside those realities? Sometimes walking the streets of Brasil(*) I believe I cross paths with more designers at heart than I ever will walking the halls of many design institutions around the world. Seeing street vendors' resourcefulness and creativity when they have to organize their moving storefronts or the neighborhood’s inventor’s ingenuity when they could not afford a windshield sunshade brings the word “innovation” to mind much quicker than the slight variation on a century old monogram designer bag.

1. Moving store front I (Guarçoni, 22 Nov 2020, Ilha do Frade) 2. Windshield sunshade (Guarçoni, 15 Nov 2020, Guarapari)

Inspired by the question ‘what is a designer?’ I will be exploring ideas of what I call ‘epistemologies of design’ and what that means across (creative) borderlands. In Chapter 1 I will delineate what the term ‘epistemologies of design’ means, what the dominant epistemology within the field of design currently is (Escobar, 2018), its connection to colonial imposition and globalization (Fry and Kalantidou, 2018) and how it rose to prominence and established what Mignolo calls ‘epistemological totalitarianism’ (2018). In Chapter 2 I will be looking at ontological design (Willis, 2006) in order to interpret ‘Gambiarra’ as a potential counter-narrative to the Anglo+Eurocentric hegemonic approach to design, exploring the socioeconomic context from which it emerges and what the spontaneity of this practice can teach us. Finally in Chapter 3 I will dive into notions of (*)Brasil vs Brazil (Blanc and Tapajós 1978; Karentzos, 2019), present a trend of classically trained artists returning to Gambiarra as a type of ‘creative homecoming’, how that can represent a resistance towards a deeply ingrained colonial mentality and what that signifies within the context of a national creative identity for Brasil. 

Moving store fronts (Guarçoni, 14 Jan 2021, Praia do Morro)

The main goal of this dissertation is to present Gambiarra—a non-western practice of design—as a legitimate and valuable creative process and thus gain insight  into what can be learned when different epistemologies of design are taken into account and respected. I hope this paper will contribute to discussions of decoloniality in the field of design by allowing us to see (non-geographical) (creative) borderlands as fertile grounds for the encounter of different perspectives. Perhaps we can let ourselves go even further and imagine ‘borderland designers’ as creators that would incorporate multiple epistemologies of design within their own practice and possibly show us an alternative path forward.  

“Living in a state of psychic unrest, in a Borderland, is what makes poets write and artists create.” 

—Anzaldúa, 1987, page 73

1Catador I (Guarçoni, 30 Oct 2020, Vitória)  2. Cardboard as potential material (Guarçoni, 27 Dec 2016, Miami)

In order to understand and expand our notions of ‘epistemologies of design’ I will begin by briefly defining the term ‘epistemology’ and then applying it to the context of design. I will borrow ideas proposed by Escobar (2018) in his book “Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds” to outline what the most dominant practice of design currently is. Through Escobar’s work we will analyse how this hegemonic narrative stems from a functionalist, rationalistic, industrial tradition and exists to perpetuate western patriarchal capitalist modernity focused on production and consumption (Escobar, 2018). We will then use Mignolo’s concept of ‘epistemic totalitarianism’ (2018) and Fry and Kalantidou’s ‘epistemic colonialism’ (2014) to explore how this Eurocentric iteration of design has established itself as supreme and suppressed other realities and forms of knowing. Fry and Kalantidou’s “Design on the Borderlands” (2014) also provides an incisive critique of the role of globalization in perpetuating the hegemonic practice of design while simultaneously making explicit the connection between colonial inquisition and the Eurocentric capitalist monopolization of the design field.

Following, we will explore Willis’s definition of ‘ontological design’ (2006)—which  refers to the continuous reciprocal influence we exert over the things we design and that they exert over us—and through those lenses I will introduce the concept of Gambiarra—a creative process built on the act of improvisation and subversion of designed objects in order to better respond to a different set of necessities (Naumann Boufleur, 2013)—as a counter-hegemonic practice. Before moving forward we have to reconcile a conceptual contradiction between Willis’s emphasis on planning being a key aspect of designing and Gambiarra’s penchant for spontaneity and improvisation.

1. Fruit stand by the side of the road–coming (Guarçoni, 2 Jul 2016, Alto Paraíso) 2. Fruit stand by the side of the road–going (Guarçoni, 2 Jul 2016, Alto Paraíso)

To dive deeper into this argument, we will be referencing two PhD theses from the School of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of São Paulo: Moura Wanderley’s “The Design of the ‘Others’: Creative interactions in contemporary artifact  production” and Naumann Boufleur’s “The Fundaments of the Gambiarra: the utilitarian contemporary improvisation and its socioeconomic context”. Both works pose profound investigations into notions of vernacular design and its production while also offering remarkable perspectives regarding its occurrence within society, its socioeconomic context and its cultural embeddedness.

In the subsequent chapter we build on top of those academic analyses of Gambiarra and turn to more creative explorations into the theme. We will briefly look at the complex power dynamic between the concepts of (*)Brasil vs Brazil through the lyrics of “Querellas do Brasil” by Blanc and Tapajós (1978) and how the practice of Gambiarra fits into that scenario. I will then reference the 2020 film “Gambiarra” by the collectives Brazil 1,99 and Seconds Media for an insight into its omnipresent cultural relevance by drawing from interviews they have conducted on the field as well as the writings they have published alongside it on their social media platforms. In this section I will also be providing other works by ‘classically trained’ artists that have turned to Gambiarra with appreciative eyes such as Cao Guimaraes, the Campana Brothers and myself. Lastly, I will juxtapose Gambiarra with a pivotal historical point in the attempt at developing a creative national identity in Brasil, de Andrade’s 1928 Anthropophagic Manifesto, and argue how Gambiarra might offer us an infinitely more authentic solution to that quest.

Unspecified structure to bridge roof with ladder, scaffold, ropes and pulley (Guarçoni, 2 Apr 2016, Miami)

Throughout the entire research the concepts of ‘non-geographical borderlands’ as presented by Anzaldúa in her book “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza” (1987) and ‘border thinking’ as indicated in Mignolo’s writing of ‘epistemic differential’ (2018) are present in the background. Those two concepts set the terrain in which this investigation into ‘epistemologies of design’ happens. As the dissertation goes on it becomes evident how theories of knowledge are inextricably linked to cultural and socioeconomic contexts and we look to Anzaldúa and Mignolo for guidance to explore how different expressions of design manifest across (creative) borders. This will be made most noticeable in the conclusion when the gap between the exploration of different epistemologies meets the potentiality of a ‘borderland designer’ that can incorporate multiple realities within their identity and their practice; this might allow us to envision a decolonial practice of design that permits multiple worlds to flourish (Escobar, 2018).

“Queremos un mundo donde
quepan muchos mundos  

(We want a world where
many worlds fit)”

—Zapatistas de Chiapa quoted in Escobar, 2018, page 15

To guide this investigation, I will use an auto ethnographic approach to reconcile academic research on the theme and my own experiences. I will do so by utilizing journal entries, poems, personal observations, and actively inserting my perspective in the development of this paper. By taking into account my own personal experience of living and working within two separate realities—between my academic design education and professional experiences in the United States and Europe over  the past decade and my personal roots and recent year-long creative venture in Brasil—I hope to offer contrasting points of view that reflect a plural perception of the discussion at hand and my contributions at navigating through them. As a person who inhabits spaces in the Global South and Global North simultaneously and has a dual identity as a creator, I will speak both as an agent and as a witness to different means of cultural production and design practices.

Author improvising pointy shoe with sock, cardboard and tape 
on set of Comunidad(e) (Guarçoni, Alba, Monestier 30 Apr 2018, NYC)


“She learns to juggle cultures… She has a plural personality, she operates in a pluralistic mode.”

—Anzaldúa, 1987, page 79

This visual essay will use photographic data from my personal archive to exemplify this form of spontaneous design both directly and indirectly. Through illustrating how Gambiarra is a fundamental manifestation of an ‘epistemology of design’ characteristic to the Global South, and specifically Brasil in this case, I will be pointing at how this iteration of creative expression has been excluded from the hegemonic Eurocentric narrative of design and what we stand to gain from legitimizing it as a creative process.

I find it important to note that this paper does not have any pretense of existing  within a pseudo-objective academic place (Sobande, 2018); when regarding different epistemologies and ontologies we must recognize that whatever we deem objective,  even within the scope of an academic/analytical study, will inherently be a biased view of our subject based on the place from which we are speaking from (Arablouei and  Abdelfatah, 2020). I hope to not have that be a flaw but to embrace it and use it as a tool to explore the question posed at the introduction from multiple angles.


The initial objective of this paper was to explore the notion of ‘epistemologies of design’ in order to better understand how design is practiced differently across cultural and socioeconomic contexts and, consequently, gain insight into what can be learned when multiple epistemologies are taken into account and respected. It sought to advocate for the Gambiarra as a legitimate and valuable creative process; to recognize non-western practices of design that take place in the margins of capitalism (Naumann Boufleur, 2013) as counter-narratives to the Anglo+Eurocentric hegemony in the design field; and to understand these practices as forms of resistance to current neocolonial thought and a fundamental tool in the process of decoloniality.

Gambiarra light at the seamstress (Guarçoni, 14 Oct 2020, Guarapari)

Though in the last chapter I positioned Gambiarra as a genuine expression of a national creative identity in Brasil, in this conclusion I would like us to reframe that analysis through the lenses of Anzaldúa’s ‘non-geographical borderlands’ (1987) and Mignolo’s ‘border thinking’ and ‘epistemic differentials’ (2018).  

“The epistemic differential between regional knowledges taken for the totality and regional knowledges disavowed by stakeholders of the totality of knowledge, makes the question of epistemic totalitarianism visible and border(-dwelling and -thinking) epistemologies unavoidable and necessary”

—Mignolo, 2018, page 208 

Both Anzaldua (1987) and Escobar (2018) speak of dualities as a notion of the West—binaries imposed during colonization to establish power and dominance—and embrace ideas of non-dualist realities as a rich tradition on non-western cultures—ways of being, thinking and doing that appreciate the complexity of our existence. Mignolo helps us understand non-dualist ontologies as characteristic of border-dwellers (2018) and since, according to Anzaldúa, borderlands are not physical spaces but more so a state of being we can then extrapolate beyond the tangible and towards the idea of creative borderlands.

“A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition.”

—Anzaldúa, 1987, page 3 
Author’s hands after studio – acrylics, artist tape, paint (Guarçoni, 15 Apr 2017, Brooklyn)

In those creative borderlands we might find a different type of designer, a ‘borderland designer’, an individual who embodies the cultural collision that Anzaldúa argues so fertile for creative production (1987). They incorporate multiple design epistemologies simultaneously within their own practice and open the path to a design field that is growing towards decoloniality. Mignolo claims that border-thinking and border-epistemologies emerge on colonial subjects when they realize the extent to which their epistemologies have been suppressed and that the moment this realization sets in is also the moment they start to become ‘decolonial subjects’ (2018). It is in this  way that it becomes fundamental to not try to fit western definitions but to create our own terminology and designations for creative endeavors.  

Sobande stated that “becoming comfortable with the label of ‘academic’ is an ongoing process for me” (2018) and that resonated deeply with the discomfort I feel when having to call myself a designer despite studying and working in the field for over a decade. After this investigation I have come to the conclusion that maybe the problem isn't how we feel about those terms but the parameters in which those terms are presented to us in the context of the ‘epistemic totalitarianism’ promoted by the Eurocentric hegemonic narrative predominant in western institutions (Mignolo, 2018).

1. Jeitinho in the beach (Guarçoni, 1 Feb 2021, Guarapari 2. Jeitinho in the beach  II(Guarçoni, 29 Jan 2021, Guarapari)

“Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate, while I still have to speak English or Spanish when I would rather speak Spanglish (...) my tongue will be illegitimate.”

—Anzaldúa, 1987, page 59

Lorde stated, “the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house” (1985, pp 2) and I argue that neither will design practices rooted in Eurocentric capitalist colonial values dismantle the hegemonic narrative that have repressed other epistemologies for so long. Therefore, an investigation into design epistemologies proves necessary to envision a pluriversality of ontologies—“a world where many worlds fit” (Escobar, 2018).


About the Artist

Luma Guarçoni is a Brazilian fashion designer and researcher currently based in Vitória, Brasil. She started her fashion education over a decade ago at Design and Architecture Senior High in Miami, Florida and since she has lived in Milan, Paris, London and New York working for brands such as Marni, Acne Studios, Hood by Air and others while also pursuing her degree in fashion design and marketing at Central Saint Martins in London. Throughout her work Luma explores questions of identity by investigating the dynamics between culture and the body as a place of political and social expression. She is currently developing her graduate collection centered on the potential of the integration of traditional Brazilian artisanal techniques into the context of high luxury and, consequently, how the fashion industry and its large production chain could be reimagined as a tool for social progress. Simultaneously Luma is studying notions of epistemologies of design rooted in the Global South, more specifically Brasil, as counter narratives to hegemonic methods of creative production propagated by the Global North. Through this line of thought she now presents the concept of Gambiarra and ties it to the fields of decoloniality and border thinking.

Key words: Gambiarra, border thinking, decoloniality