March 1, 2008
The Campana brothers have created an engaging body of work that’s both global and deeply tied to their Brazilian roots.
Massimo Morozzi, creative director of the Italian furniture company Edra, first contacted Humberto and Fernando Campana in 1998, starting a relationship that would bring the little-known Brazilian designers’ work to the world stage. He had seen a photograph of their Vermelha chair—a seat made of 1,640 feet of sailing rope handwoven around a metal frame—and wanted to manufacture it. When he called the brothers at their São Paulo studio, they thought he was joking: in the nearly 15 years they had been creating limited-edition furnishings from found objects and humble local materials, they had accepted that their work was too regional, and too conceptual, to have appeal beyond art galleries. And from a practical point of view, it seemed sheer folly: How could a manufacturer reproduce a chair that was as much about craft as function, one that took great manual dexterity to make?
Morozzi remained undeterred. So the Campanas found a solution: they sent him a video of themselves making the chair, offering a variety of ways for a technician to wrap the rope around its metal frame so that every seat could still be unique. Edra enlisted Giuseppe Altieri, one of its most experienced artisans, to oversee the production. Ten years on, the piece remains a watershed for both the designers and Edra.
The company continues to have great success adapting the brothers’ designs, as a trip to its new showroom and factory, which opened in October in Pisa, proves. Dotting the pathway to the glass-fronted building are the Campanas’ Corralo benches, metal sketches made with a single line of twisted wire, and their Anemone chairs, strands of hollow, translucent PVC tubing dangling off silver frames. Step inside the door and to your right is a bluish-purple version of the Boa, an amorphous sofa made of luxurious tubes of velvet curled up around one another like snakes. There is the Leatherworks series of seats, upholstered with fragments of alligator and reptilian skins sewn in a crazy-quilt style; and finally, on a plinth, their famous Favela armchairs, a jigsaw of wood slats glued and nailed together ad hoc.
“What I find really fascinating about the Campanas’ work is the way it is both very local and very global,” Morozzi says. “I cannot imagine them out of their country, Brazil, but at the same time their pieces express universal values. They’re a perfect combination of intellectualism and craftsmanship.”
Over cups of espresso in a hotel restaurant not far from the showroom, Humberto and Fernando try to explain where their ideas come from, talking about the street life of São Paulo, the ups and downs of living in a country where there is always a political or economic crisis, the train rides they once took with their dad, an agronomic engineer, through the countryside—and their grandparents’ farm, which they still visit. “It taught us a lot, observing how people make a living on a farm,” Humberto says softly. “The improvisation. The way my grandmother made a chicken coop in the backyard. She used some pieces of metal to make a roof. How she recycled everything—she’d pick up tomato cans and make them into cups.”
It is precisely because their pieces are so specific in their origins, drawing upon materials and methods indigenous to Brazil, that the Campanas have struck a chord around the globe. Their work, which transforms throwaway items like bubble wrap and fabric scraps into luxurious, even decadent, forms, rejects the IKEA-ization of design and speaks to a market that craves products with personality and a human touch. Their ability to judiciously choose partners who can remain faithful to their aesthetic, but also help them to translate their ideas into mediums and markets ranging from one-off outdoor installations to plastic shoes, has only added to their renown.
“Since we started the studio in 1983, we wanted to make it a laboratory of ideas,” Fernando says, noting that he started out as an architect, and Humberto as a lawyer. “That’s why we are so small—it is me and Humberto, plus nine other people. This way we can move easily between different possibilities and projects. Sometimes we’re focusing on a prototype; other times we’re trying to make a link between things so the industries understand how they can make it on a larger scale.”
An example of this trickle-down effect is their Zig Zag weaving technique, developed during research exploring different plastic materials. They discovered that wrapping hollow PVC tubes around a metal frame formed an interesting overlapping pattern with numerous gaps. They’ve used the process on a studio series of furniture; applied it to a moderately priced collection of screens, tables, and stools for Edra; and then adapted it for a line of mass-market jelly shoes and handbags for the Brazilian company Melissa. For the latter, they used aluminum wire—more delicate than PVC—in the prototype for the 2005 collection, crisscrossing the filament to form an aerated design that was then molded to fit around a foot. This pattern was refined by Melissa’s designers, rendered in plastic, and used in three styles—a high-heeled, low-heeled, and tennis-style shoe—as well as the circular bag.
According to Humberto, their pieces always begin with a material. “There is a kind of flirtation with the material,” he says. “We try to see its possibilities and its limitations, then we start to work with it.” Once those characteristics are understood, they hash out the design physically, with their hands, rather than on a computer.
“I like the time it takes to construct a piece,” Humberto says. “It’s like therapy. The longer it takes, the more I like it, because the process gives me a kind of mental security. I just concentrate on that idea, and it makes me feel alive.”
“It’s a way to keep him busy,” Fernando jokes. “Whenever he asks me, ‘Is the piece good?’ I always say, ‘No, it’s not good. You must do something more complicated.’” He laughs. “Then he’s busy, and I can go and do other things.”
Only after a design is completed do the brothers go back and document how it’s made; often they deliver finished prototypes to their clients instead of production sketches or AutoCAD files. They feel it’s impossible to explain a concept with just a static technical drawing. “First, because someone will not understand the complexity, the organicness of the design,” Humberto says. And, second, because in the more experimental work, there are new techniques being tested and developed. The TransPlastic series, for instance, features plastic pieces woven into wicker. “We had never done the fusion between these two materials before,” he continues. “We had to make several proofs to refine the idea.”
The brothers espouse what they call the “humanization” of design. This refers not only to their manual mode of production (“Working hands are part of the design,” Fernando says), but also to viewing those who assemble their pieces as more than faceless drones. Fernando explains: “In our studio we have two ladies who make the Banquete chairs”—the seats made out of children’s stuffed animals—“so I told them, ‘Please, with each chair I’d like you to change the animals.’ So each is unique, and for them not boring to do. They start thinking about design more, and not being a machine. And it’s amazing how they translate the ideas and make them better.”
The Campana brothers’ willingness to share creative license and allow others to put their own small stamp on the work is one of the reasons their pieces can be scaled up and down. They set up a studio structure but do not strive for sameness in the finished product—the machine-made exactness associated with industrial design. Rather, their work celebrates imperfection, and by introducing manual labor into the process, and partnering with companies that also value the human touch in their production pieces, they encourage variation and alteration.
The celebrated Favela chair is an extreme example of how they infused a handmade aesthetic into industrial production. According to Leonardo Volpi, a designer who is head of production at Edra, the seat’s small wooden slats are purposely cut with an irregular pattern of different sizes and thicknesses to keep the idea of its random and chaotic assembly. The chair is hand-manufactured by a carpenter who nails and glues the slats onto a base structure, which is the only part of the seat created by machine. It is the only Edra product that is entirely manufactured outside of Italy: the slats are made and assembled in Brazil, using Brazilian wood.
One reason the Campanas began working with Alessi in 2003 on the Blow Up line of bowls and baskets—as well as with Melissa—was so that everyone could afford a piece of their design. In a country as economically stratified as Brazil, this is a sensitive issue since it would be easy to accuse the designers of profiting off a vernacular borrowed from the country’s less fortunate. In December, the New York branch of the Phillips de Pury & Company auction house sold one of the Campanas’ Sushi sofas—made of coiled off-cuts of fabric, felt, and carpet underlay—for a staggering $253,000, and a similarly designed Sonia Diniz chair for $145,000.
Design is a process with a cost, Fernando explains, even if the materials are cheap. “Pieces in our studio—the limited-edition works—are quite expensive because they can take up to a year to be finalized,” he says. But he denies capitalizing on someone else’s hardship, insisting that the Favela chair, which shares its name with the slums that dot Brazil, celebrates the sense of improvisation, of making something out of scraps, that they learned growing up in the country. “Of course we benefit—we earn money when people buy a Favela chair, which has an aesthetic that is similar to a situation in our country,” Fernando says. “But we designed the chair in 1991; only recently has favela become a type of fashionable aesthetic.”
He pauses. “In São Paulo there is a favela that has a community center. We have given them some of our Sushi rolls to work with. Whenever we can, we ask them to make things. And those members start having more value inside the society rather than being just outsiders. But we are not the saviors of the situation.”
As for their future plans, the brothers have been preparing for Campana Brothers Selects, an exhibition that opened last month at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, in New York. For the show, they chose 12 pieces from the institution’s archives, basing them on their own theme—weaving—and created a new work, the Trans…chair, which will be added to the museum’s permanent collection. The seat, the latest installment of their TransPlastic series, features sections of a smooth plastic café chair being engulfed by a larger curvy structure woven out of apuí, a wickerlike fiber found in the Amazon.
“We also made some objects being thrown out from the wicker,” Fernando adds. “A shampoo bottle, a rubber tire—so it’s like the body is expelling out toxins.” He laughs. “In time we want to produce a 100 percent biodegradable plastic chair and one completely made of natural fiber. But this is the midway.”
Other upcoming projects include the refurbishing of a hotel interior in Athens, for which they will use old items from the building and new pieces by young Greek designers, and another Leatherworks piece for Edra, where the fabric, rather than a wooden frame, will provide the chair’s structure. And, as always, they’re investigating new materials—looking into coconut fibers from the Amazon—and seeing how they might incorporate them into their pieces.
With such an international profile, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Campanas might be tempted to live abroad, even for a short time. But now more than ever they have no desire to change their ways. “It’s funny,” Humberto says. “Some people in Brazil think we live in Italy or New York. No, our studio is in a very humble area of São Paulo. These are our roots; we want them nearby. We don’t want to be in a tower of ivory.”
Find out more about this story on the Reference Page: March 2008