When was five years old, the wood blocks he played with became a miniature house on the staircase of his parents' Rio de Janeiro residence. He incorporated a pool area and even real sand, which he'd taken home from Leblon Beach, one of Rio's most beautiful. "I used the first three stairs so it would be like a triplex apartment," he says, laughing at the memory. "It was natural for me. I believe I was born an architect."
The pair of Louis XV fauteuils and a circa-1930 Chinese rug in the living room are family heirlooms; the 19th-century chandelier is French, and the Brazilian cocktail tables are from the 1960s.
Which is exactly what he went on to become, establishing a São Paulo–based firm three decades ago. Mansur is known for a design style that nods to the classical, with hints of Asian elements (deep red accents that recall Chinese pageantry are a trademark). That aesthetic is on full display in his recent work on a second apartment, three floors down from the penthouse where he and his wife, Maria Cristina, have lived since they first married.
Mansur beside an 18th-century German portrait in the dining room.
The building, in the heart of Jardim América, a leafy neighborhood in the city center, was constructed in the late 1970s yet looked historical from the start—"It was designed in a Parisian Haussmann neoclassical style," Mansur says—which was its appeal. He appreciated its European charm and small size; the building has eight apartments and two penthouses, very rare in São Paulo. Mansur and his wife had been looking for more space for years, so when an apartment on a lower floor became available, they bought it without hesitation. Now they share both apartments, almost like living in a duplex. "We have two suites for each of us," he explains. "If we want privacy, or if I want to sleep with air-conditioning, watch TV, or just read, I come to the sixth floor."
In the living room of Brazilian architect João Mansur's São Paulo apartment, the chesterfield, one of a pair, is vintage, and a chrome armillary sits on a mirrored pedestal; the writing desk, which is a family heirloom, and the table lamp are both by Maison Jansen, and the lacquered columns were found in London.
While Brazil experienced a burgeoning midcentury modernist movement of its own, Mansur has always responded to the past. He turns to Andrea Palladio's Four Books on Architecture, he says, "for ideas for classical, or even contemporary, projects." And there's the work of David Hicks, whom Mansur describes as "one of the best interior designers of the 20th century. He had the perfect twist of classic and contemporary." But his love for previous centuries began long before he went into business. His earliest memories are of what he calls "ancient Rio"—a place of great glamour and luxury in the 1950s. "When I was born, Rio was a tropical Paris where many people spoke French," he recalls. He grew up in the Cosme Velho neighborhood, surrounded by 18th- and 19th-century villas and embassies; all made a lasting imprint on him: "These places were designed in an Imperial Portuguese architectural style. Their beauty will last forever in my mind."
The living room's French 19th-century mahogany secretary was bought in Rio de Janeiro in the 1970s, and the acrylic wall sculpture above it is by Gustavo Von Ha.
Many of these beautiful buildings no longer exist, but Mansur has found his own way to keep their splendor alive: through his architecture and decorating work. When the first Giorgio Armani store came to Rio in the late 1980s, Mansur was the local architect. Abroad, he's currently transforming a 17th-century building into a small boutique hotel in Porto, Portugal. He has also designed a small private museum there. He's about to start work on a residence in Bal Harbour, Florida. And he's recently opened his own São Paulo shop, in a hip area that he likens to New York's SoHo, called Sentido Cosmopolita (Cosmopolitan Sense), where he sells newly designed decorative objects mixed with antiques he sources from around the world.
The English dining table, bought in Rio de Janeiro in the late 1980s, and chairs, found at a Paris flea market in the '90s, are all 19th century, as is the chandelier by Saint-Louis; the silver-frame mirror is Peruvian, the silver-plate console is Indian, and the circa-1930 rug is Chinese.
Whatever antiques are not on display in the new store have landed in rooms throughout the Mansurs' apartment. A pair of tobacco-color leather chesterfields in the living room were scored while visiting London auction houses; an elaborately inlaid mother-of-pearl commode from Syria was a Paris flea-market find. And when he was just 20, he bought a rare 17th-century Chinese Coromandel lacquer screen from a Brazilian ambassador in Paris that now holds court in the intimate dining room.
The foyer holds lithographs by Henri Matisse and a 19th-century Italian blackamoor sculpture; the walls are upholstered with an English chinoiserie fabric.
It is his use of intense, often surprising colors, however, that truly gives the apartment its vivacious spirit. "I love to play with unexpected combinations," Mansur explains. "They bring personality, originality, and boldness to spaces." He relishes experimenting with colors, even when they might seem to clash—like painting the chair rail moldings in the dining room a deep cherry red, so they become a vivid geometric pattern against the green-apple walls. In the entry foyer, an exuberant hue of emerald green on the trim and richly lacquered doors commingle with a chinoiserie-pattern linen on the walls.
A pair of 19th-century English chairs and a Kartell table in the kitchen.
And the enchanting bird-and-flower motif on a cotton fabric, found in a funky fabric shop in São Paulo that he compares to the ones on Manhattan's Orchard Street, brings the walls of the master bedroom to sunny life. "I often use wallpapers and fabrics upholstered to the walls," he says. "They add drama, atmosphere, and coziness to any room."
A 17th-century Peruvian Cuzco School painting hangs in a guest room; the Chinese painted wardrobe is antique, and the bedside table and bookshelf wallpaper are by Andrew Martin.
And then there's black. Mansur uses it as a neutral here, covering the floors in black sisal upon which he layers antique rugs. That sisal is one of his few concessions to a modern aesthetic. The other? His CD collection. "I love Brazilian music—especially bossa nova," he admits. And much like his own work, he adds, "it's timeless."
In the master bedroom, the 18th-century French gilt mirror is an heirloom, and the sketch of Mansur's wife, Maria Cristina, was drawn at Hermès in Paris in the late 1990s.