The Campana Brothers | icon 014 | July/August 2004

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photo: Guy Drayton

words Marcus Fairs

If Humberto and Fernando Campana look a little tense in these photos, it’s because they’ve spent the whole morning arguing. Fernando, the one in the leather jacket, lost his wallet the night before and he’s been stressing about it ever since. It all got too much for his older brother Humberto, who tried to get Fernando to calm down, but to no avail.

“The first thing that came in my mind when I woke up this morning was the wallet and the credit cards,” says Fernando contritely. “I couldn’t block it out; it was the only thing I could think about. Fernando wanted to do something else and he tried to help me but I didn’t listen to him. Then we fought for nothing! It was the most stupid kind of fight.”

It sounds most out of character: the Campana brothers come across as typically laid-back Brazilians with their tanned faces and melodious São Paolo accents. But apparently, brotherly bickering is normal with these two – especially when they travel (the interview took place in Milan during the hectic April furniture fair). “It’s normal; we’re together all the time,” says Humberto.

“Our relationship is based on one trying to convince the other that they are right,” laughs Fernando. “But usually when we fight it’s over a project, when we’re developing something. Sometimes he insists on something, a colour or a material and I insist on another one …”

The brothers make the most unlikely design stars. Their haircuts and preppy dress sense make them look like extras from a South American version of Happy Days. They come from a country that has little in the way of a contemporary design culture and neither of them set out wanting to be designers; Humberto, 51, studied law and Fernando, 42, trained as an architect.

Yet they have somehow become one of the most feted design teams in the world: they have wowed Milan with their favela-chic furniture over the last couple of years; their work featured in the Brazil 40° festival at Selfridges in London last month; and they have a major exhibition opening at London’s Design Museum later this month.
Humberto expresses surprise at their sudden success as Fernando apologetically dashes off to take yet another call from his bank. “We’ve been working for 20 years! But we kept always to our path, you know. We started when minimalism was big, but we didn’t follow trends or anything. But I don’t know why now!”

Their work is a tropical version of the creative salvage movement spearheaded by Ron Arad and Tom Dixon that shook up the UK scene in the 1980s, and takes its inspiration from the “spontaneous architecture” employed by the residents of São Paolo’s slums. The brothers use waste materials such as garden hose, carpet, straw and cardboard to vibrant effect.

“I guess in all the underdeveloped countries, people find solutions that are sometimes very practical,” Fernando explains. “You can do a lot with nothing, and we are inspired by that.”

Humberto says he has spent the last two decades exploring materials and perfecting his seemingly haphazard design language. Yet their work still meets with indifference from Brazilian consumers, while local manufacturers are reluctant to take a risk with them. “The Brazilian market is interested in label,” Fernando says. “If they have an Italian label under the chair, they think it’s worth the price.”

“This kind of thing I heard from other colleagues in other countries,” Humberto adds. “You know, that it is necessary to make something in Italy in order to be respected in
your own country.”

The lack of willing manufacturers forced them to be resourceful. “We could never go to an injection moulding company in Brazil – they would never trust us,” says Fernando. “So we try to translate processes that could be industrialised into things that are already industrialised. Like the garden hose; to weave it and make a plastic screen. We didn’t need more than a simple metal structure and a garden hose to make it.”
“It’s interesting,” says Humberto. “Brazilians complain that we just produce things here in Europe; they’re kind of snobbish. But we recently made a product for Brazilians, with a democratic price. It’s beautiful, it’s very ecological – and it doesn’t sell!”

Their breakthrough came six years ago when Massimo Morozzi, in-house architect at Milanese manufacturer Edra, saw their Vermelha Chair – a simple steel frame upholstered in a chaotic Gordian Knot of red cotton rope – in a book of chair designs. “We first did the chair in 1993,” Fernando recalls. “In five years we had sold just five of the them in Brazil. One per year!”

“I used to make them myself,” adds Humberto.

“Massimo phoned us and said he wanted to produce the chair,” explains Fernando. “We didn’t know how to send him the details so we made a video, showing how to weave it step by step. They loved it! It started such a good relationship between us and them.”

“At last someone is daring to produce our pieces – they’re not so easy to produce,” says Humberto. “Edra brings the handcraft, humanity, emotion to industry. Which is something so different from what’s happening everywhere else. Our work has a very strong image; textures, colours, and the way it’s constructed. We’ve invented ways to make furniture without much technology, but at the same time it looks high-tech.”

This year, Edra launched their Corallo chair – a skeletal orange sofa constructed of thin, twisted steel rods welded together. The design started out over 15 years ago, during Humberto’s brief stint as an artist. “It was one of the first chairs I did,” says Humberto. “It was like a sculpture; people could not sit on it. Recently, Massimo asked us to produce the chair – but to make it much more easy [to manufacture] and comfortable.”

They are now firmly established on the European circuit. Earlier this year they were selected – with that other fashionable sibling pair, the Bouroullec brothers – to design an ideal house at the Cologne Furniture Fair. In January, they launched their first collection for Alessi – a range of bowls made of chromed steel rods called Blow Up.
“It’s good,” says a delighted Fernando. “They are so happy. We received a letter from Alberto Alessi saying the collection was successful.”

“It’s funny because my interest in design started when I saw objects from Alessi,” says Humberto. “I was always curious, you know; I thought I’d love to do some daring objects like those.”

After graduating in law in 1977, Humberto worked in professional practice in São Paolo for a while, but his heart wasn’t in it, so he jacked it in. “I was a mediocre lawyer; I wanted to work with my hands,” he explains. “I got a studio and I studied sculpture and jewellery.”

Meanwhile Fernando, who was completing his architectural degree, was finding that he preferred working on a smaller scale. “In Brazil, the architecture schools give you a wide range of subjects,” he says. “We had design classes and I used to do better with details, with design,” he says.

In 1984 he went to help his brother in his studio and soon found himself adding pragmatism and business sense to Humberto’s abstract projects. “He was making sculptures and I brought function to them,” says Fernando, whose voice is deep and sensible. “I‘m more rational than Humberto.”

“Fernando has much more the foot on the ground,” agrees Humberto, his words stretched by long vowels and shushy consonants. “Myself, I don’t like bureaucratic things. I’m much more concerned about constructing things. Every day I need to have an idea, to have a project in mind, even if I don’t make it; to have life, to have fun.
I like disorder. Whenever our studio is in disorder, that’s when I’m much more creative.”

“But we have some kind of organisation within this disorder,” laughs Fernando. “I put organisation!”

Their most critically successful piece to date is the Favela Chair, named after the Brazilian word for shanty town, which Edra launched at Milan last year and which became one of the defining products of 2003. Made of hundreds of timber offcuts, it looks as if it was thrown together by slum-dwellers and seemingly has all the rickety permanence of a squatter’s hut.

“It’s a portrait of our country, of our environment,” explains Humberto. “We’ve had a lot of influence from European colonisation, since the Portuguese arrived in Brazil, but I try to focus on the fact that we have a beautiful [indigenous] culture. It can be beautiful without copying. With the Favela chair we try to point out that favelas can be beautiful. If the government leaves the people in their houses and supplies them with water and electricity; this could be beautiful.”

Yet the chair’s appearance is misleading; it is in fact laboriously crafted from precision-cut pieces and costs £1,320. The chair is made by a German community in southern Brazil: “It’s funny because in the beginning I taught them how to make this chair,” says Humberto. “They were much more used to make the things perfect and precise and we make the opposite. I told them we must go to this direction to deconstruction; to make it imprecise and imperfect. They took a long time to understand this process.”

Despite coming from a country with huge environmental and social problems, Humberto admits there is no political dimension to their work. “Yes, you know, we try not to use tropical hardwood in our furniture. We always try to indicate other possibilities to construct furniture without cutting down trees; we use other materials like the garden-hose chair, like this chair with carpets; but we don’t have a political statement in our work, no. We are not concerned about that.”

The Campanas are clearly benefiting from the current explosion of interest in all things Brazilian. This was triggered by the election of the popular working-class president Lula last year, a thriving domestic economy and a creative export boom spanning cinema, music and architecture – although in recent months the economy has stalled and Lula’s popularity has plummeted. Kátia Lund and Fernando Meirelles’ 2003 film City of God glamorised brutal favela life and making a video in Rio is currently de rigueur for everyone from Snoop Dogg and Pharrell Williams to Michael Jackson. Even Oscar Niemeyer’s jungle modernism is back in vogue and Bebel Gilberto has singlehandedly rejuvenated bossa nova.

“We are a very rich culture; Brazil is like a continent,” says Humberto.“But we had 20 years of dictatorship. Now there has been 20 years of democracy so there is a new generation that has been free of the cultural prison of the dictatorship. In the past you know we had very good people – in the movies, the arts – and now we’re restarting all those movements that were hidden during the dictatorship.”

“There are other designers,” Fernando adds. “We opened the doors for new people and showed them that they can do it. We told them, please don’t complain that in Brazil we don’t have industries; you just need to find your own directions.”

The brothers are very much ambassadors of the new Brazil but they are concerned about becoming too identified with faddish Brazil mania. “I’m afraid of this, you know, I’m really afraid,” says Humberto. “I think our work needs to be much more strong than those trends.”

“That’s the most dangerous thing!” agrees Fernando.

“That’s why it’s good to work in Brazil; it keeps us far away.” Humberto says.

“From the contamination of design and the design community!” laughs Fernando.

Zest for Life: The Designs of Fernando and Humberto Campana is at the Design Museum, London, from June 19 to September 12.

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