Campana Brothers, first published in POL Oxygen magazine. TRASH OR TREASURE: Siobhan O’Brien The streets of São Paulo in Brazil are hot and smoggy. Crowded buses grind through the streets spewing black smoke, skyscrapers dissect the horizon, and traffic deafens the ear. The world’s third largest megalopolis – São Paulo, home to 20 million people, makes New York look diminutive. This city, the cultural capital of Brazil, is a crowded mish-mash of urbanity, a tangle of people and their refuse. In a seedy back alley, two brothers are scavenging and picking through the rubbish – cardboard, old billboard signs, timber, string, bubble wrap, tubing, bamboo and such. When they’ve unearthed the bits-and-bobs that fry their bacon, this swarthy skinned pair (who’ve often been mistaken for twins) pile them into the back of their pick-up truck, and join the relentless vein of traffic, which leads back to their studio, in the heart of the city. There, above the door, is a sign which reads: Campana Objetos. It’s in their blood. Their ancestors back in the 16th century, dug the earth of this new country looking for a different type of treasure, gold, emeralds, and other precious stones. These brothers – Humberto (1953-) and Fernando (1961-) Campana – are alchemists creating jewels from rubbish.
These Paulistas, as the São Paolo locals are called, transform the city’s trash into functional domestic art – and they’ve been doing it for 18 years. Today, Campana Objetos is renowned worldwide as one of the most evocative and inspiring ateliers for the design and production of contemporary furniture. Their studio bulges with coloured foam ball chairs, cardboard lamps, screens from bundles of rattan, chairs from coiled garden hoses, and domestic bric-a-brac wrapped in hundreds of metres of cotton cord. According to Fernando: “We have great respect for materials, especially those that are not noticed by ordinary people’s eyes. The very banal ones, our great challenge is to transform them into something that looks very precious. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes not. Our purpose is to investigate materials that are already industrialized for a specific function and incorporate them into our projects. In this way, they start having another kind of visual code.”
The Campanas quirky style has nothing in common with Brazil’s urban, concrete aesthetic. Nor does it comment on the Brazilian bikini, or the startling reality that Brazil is home to the most plastic surgeons per capita in the world. Instead, Humberto and Fernando’s witty creations are a celebration of improvised beauty, makeshift architecture and the ancient qualities of manual arts. While their work is, no doubt, rich in archetypal values of Brazilian culture, it is thoroughly moderne. It is a reaction against the division between the rich and poor, the homogeneity of globalisation and the special character of Sao Paulo. Says Humberto: “You can find any other city inside of Sao Paulo – Hong Kong, Milan, New York, Tokyo, Lagos, Mexico City – but what interests us are the aspects that globalisation has not touched yet. There are very hidden corners of the city where the outsiders live and it is very rich culturally. These people develop special ways to survive. They construct their own houses with materials found in the streets with such interesting solutions – people organize or disorganize on the streets. Sao Paulo is a deconstructed city, extremely modern in some aspects and not in others and that is what we find interesting. And the political reaction we have is the natural reaction of any creator or artisan.” But the Campanas weren’t always immersed in this urban sprawl. The pair grew up in the Brazilian countryside – in a verdant town called Brasilia – whose streets were paved for the first time in 1958. But, Brasilia’s parochial atmosphere was not enough for this adventurous duo. They yearned for the hustle and bustle of São Paulo, 870 kilometres away.
Humberto studied law, while Fernando studied architecture, graduating in 1984. But, neither felt at home with his chosen profession. But Humberto was no ordinary lawyer. After he graduated in 1977, his focus was by his own admission, “scattered for about ten years”. During this time, he became increasingly obsessed with sculpture and manual work, which slowly mutated from a hobby into a serious endeavour. Meanwhile, the more practical Fernando, provided the structure, routine and design know-how for Humberto’s wild imagination. According to Humberto: “Since I graduated I never got into being a lawyer – in fact Fernando, who is much more practical than me, is the one who reads our contracts. Also Fernando’s knowledge of architecture has been very helpful to us in terms of proportions and functionality. But our projects are born first with the materials, then we give them form and function. I believe that a designer needs to have a very profound knowledge about the characteristics of the elements; that he is going to have a relationship with the materials.” So, the nuts-and-bolts of their partnership was set: Humberto would get the feeling for materials and forms (often from dreams, visions or life experiences), and Fernando would nurture and cajole them into reality. As children, their roles weren’t as concrete (in fact they admit to being “not particularly close as children”), but as adults they recognise the yin and yang of their combined force. Says Fernando: “The best thing about working with Humberto is his integrity, but he can also be very stubborn. Since I was a child I built my own toys although my parents gave me electronic ones. I preferred to make airplanes, spaceships, flying saucers, cars made out of bamboo, or old pieces of wood. When I studied architecture I got the technical part of the projects as well as the concepts and history. But since the middle of my studies, I learned that it’s better to work on small scale projects and that is how we started.”
In 1984, they started experimenting with small domestic objects, such as photo frames and ashtrays.
But the big change in direction came after Humberto’s near fatal boating trip in the Colorado River. Near death experiences have a tendency to speed up the creative processes and that was certainly the case here. A first collection of chairs made from salvaged iron soon followed. Says Humberto: “That rafting trip changed my life, I had an accident with my inflatable boat that flipped into a whirlpool. Before that I was quite confused, without path. After it, I felt like I woke up to life.” According to Humberto, he remembered the spiral designs on the rocks by the river, left by indigenous inhabitants, the Anasazi Indians. The iron chairs were called Positive and Negative based on the positive and negative ends of the spirals. The first Campana exhibition, which showed these chairs at the Museo de Arte de São Paulo in 1989, received mixed reviews. It was not the runaway success the brothers had expected. The Brazilian design community claimed their work was too theoretical and better suited to museums. Eager to shake off this “theoretical” mantle, by 1994 the Campana brothers were on a different tack. The 1994 Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan, was the catalyst for their shift from quirky artists’ furniture to real industrial design. When they returned to Brazil, their aim was to find an international language to express their Brazilian roots. “It was our first contact with very special companies that could be the bridge between our dreams and industrial production,” explains Fernando. By the end of the nineties, their determination started to pay off, and the virtually unknown Brazilian brothers, stepped up from the orchestra pit – to full spotlight – on the world stage of design. The Associação Brasileira da Indústria Móvel (ABIMOVEL) presented them with an award for Inflating Table, a quirky piece made from two reclaimed pizza pans and a tube of vinyl. Then in 1998, the association granted them another award for their quirky Labirinto Bookshelf. Later the same year, the Campana Brothers and the visionary lighting designer, Ingo Maurer, were invited to show together at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Seen as an unusual combination at the time, the joint production pairs the work of two, virtually unknown Brazilian brothers, and the work of a widely influential German designer. “Our show at MoMa, curated by Paola Antonelli was obviously a big step in our career. She was very brave putting together two different processes of making products, technologies, cultures in such a brilliant way. It was interesting to note that each line of production could work together in the same space in a harmonic way. Besides that we have always admired Ingo Maurer’s poetic work,” says Fernando.
The show provoked the question: how can the vastly different cultural traditions of Brazil and Germany provide a single platform for design? German design is, after all, equated with cubes, minimalism and rigidity; whereas, design in Brazil is at that ill-defined, pre-pubescent, pimply stage. However, similarities can be found in both Maurer and the Campanas ability to produce whimsical, humorous work, which questions cultural assumptions about materials and objects. Similarly, both simple produce work, which manipulates and toys with modernist icons, while producing something altogether new. And, more importantly for the Campanas, showing at MoMa, is the equivalent of a major Hollywood screening. Manufacturing group Edra have been producing Campana furniture since 1998, which means their work is now accessible worldwide.
Current pieces from the Edra stable include the vibrant Azul and Vermelha armchairs and the Verde dining chair, finished in iron and manually intertwined cotton cord (about 400 m). And constructed with rolled plastic tubing on stainless steel bases (looking like something from A Clockwork Orange) are the Anemone, Zig-Zag Paravento chairs and Zig-Zag stools. Edra also manufacture the Cone Chair (which the brothers showed at the 1998 MoMa show), a deceptively simplistic piece, constructed from a single polycarbonate sheet, cut with a laser beam on a stainless steel base. And just as deceptive is the sturdy Serie Papel – screens, chairs, tables – from cardboard and leather. So it seems, the Campana Brothers are raising the bar for Brazilian design, into a realm beyond bikini’s and plastic surgery. The sum of Brazil’s parts is akin to a Brazilian samba. A clanging, banging rhythmic, multi-cultural mass. It is arguably the party nation of the world. Known for coffee, the samba, the bosanova, very good soccer players and skimpy clothing – it now becoming known for a style of furniture made from the leftovers from a party, the night before.