The Campanas: brothers of invention (Financial Times How to Spend it)

The city of São Paulo is as far removed from the idyllic and romantic high-fashion image of Brazil as you could strive to get. This isn’t Rio. This isn’t Ipanema with its barely dressed permatanned urchins, breaking surf, Christ the Redeemer and disposable Havaianas sandals. This is urban sprawl at its most urban and most sprawling. São Paulo is a decaying concrete jungle full of grey towers, with a sky full of helicopters ferrying businessmen between meetings like a swarm of midges on a particularly balmy evening. Behind a nondescript frontage in an unremarkable pocket of the city, populated largely by a mixture of Jewish émigrés and Chinese retailers, is the Campana Brothers’ studio. There’s no sign to speak of and, if there were, it would be covered by the camouflage of brightly coloured graffiti that adorns so many of these streets. Nonetheless this space, with a full-time team of just 10, is the nerve centre for the most inventive and influential furniture designers in South America.

Campana-Brothers

“This is a laboratory, not a shop,” says Fernando Campana, surrounded by piles of plush Disney toys, an unlikely but integral component of the Campana Brothers’ limited edition Cartoon chairs (pictured left). “I like working here – we’re close to downtown but we are hidden and it’s not a commercial area. We are in the middle of the hurricane of São Paulo but in many ways it’s also like the countryside.”

The mixture of the organic (or, indeed, the countryside) and the urban is at the heart of all things Campana. It’s a beautiful contradiction that is also the essence of a certain kind of Brazilian style that they have pioneered for 25 years: down-at-heel city life jazzed up with festive colours, spirit and an acute sense of nature and all things natural. “Passion” is the word that has been not so much used as worn paper-thin to sum it up. As Michael Hue-Williams of the Albion Gallery and the Campanas’ key European dealer says: “They are brilliant colourists. If I had to choose an artist they are close to, I would say Matisse. At the same time their work is very Brazilian; it has joie de vivre, exuberance and vitality of colour and material.”

Murray Moss, the eponymous proprietor of the directional interior design store Moss in New York City, sees their work as being closer to abstract expressionism: “If life were such that the American artists Jackson Pollock and Alexander Calder had been romantically involved, moved to Brazil and, through a miracle, had produced two love-children, these siblings would have been Humberto and Fernando Campana.”

Among a comprehensive selection of Campana products that Moss sells, from a $149 (about £76) Blow Up metal basket produced by Alessi (pictured on last page) to a one-off Favela Christmas Tree – a stark, conical, overlaid patchwork plywood sculpture – there are the wild and playful Banquete chairs constructed from soft toys; some are Disney icons, others are more anonymous pandas or dolphins. More than any other, it is these furry, unapologetically lurid, price-onapplication collector’s pieces that sum up their style, from inspiration through to construction. “They are an observation of the streets of São Paulo,” explains Humberto Campana. “People sell these plush animals on the sidewalk and I saw one particular shop filled with them, covering every inch of the walls and the entire roof. I thought to myself, why not make a chair without regular upholstery?”

It’s this kind of left-field inspiration that has seen the Campana Brothers taken seriously as artists as much as furniture designers. They were invited to show at MoMA in New York City back in 1998, though The first Campana joint venture was way back in 1983 – at the time an unlikely endeavour for Fernando and Humberto, who had studied architecture and law respectively. Since then the development of their work has run in tandem with a growth in respect for serious limited edition furniture. As Hue-Williams says, “The definitions of ‘art’ and ‘furniture’ are redundant when it comes to their work. The perception of furniture has changed. Why have a great piece of art in your home and not sit on a similarly beautiful piece to look at it?” Humberto sees their pieces as working on both levels: “We make a bridge between the universe of art and the universe of furniture. I make sculpture that can be used, or furniture that can be a statement and art piece.” When the Albion Gallery hosted the Campanas’ TransPlastic show in 2007 (see chair, left, and lights, opposite), it was a huge success. “It was a revelation,” says Hue-Williams. “Everything was sold – and to some of the most serious art collectors in the world.”

It would be far too easy to dismiss the Campana Brothers’ work as favela chic, a fashion cliché that has trickled down to the christening of louche cocktail bars on both sides of the Atlantic. While some may point to an unease, or perhaps an irony, integral to the reworking of what is essentially the trappings of poverty for the art-collecting classes, the Campanas’ creativity cannot be disputed. “The seemingly haphazard process of putting together furniture out of found materials, born out of necessity in the Brazilian slums, is only one part of the brothers’ design process,” says Ligaya Salazar, a curator in the contemporary team at the Victoria & Albert Museum, which recently gave over its garden to the Campanas to fashion a highly sculptural and conceptual installation consisting of bamboo and their now-iconic wide, circular, strip-layered stools inspired by lily pads. “They spend a long time researching materials, both natural and recycled, to combine them harmoniously. The Vitória Régia stools [available from Albion Gallery, price on request] from their V&A installation were adapted for outdoor use by replacing carpet with moisture-absorbing coconut fibre.” One of the most intriguing aspects of the Campanas’ work is how their often incredible ideas are realised.

Theirs is a hands-on, couture approach, frequently using poor, day-to-day materials in a novel way. When they first started working with the manufacturer Edra 10 years ago, they were unsure how they could delegate the production of such complex and essentially personal work. “When Massimo Morozzi [Edra’s art director] called us to talk about making our Rope Chair, we had never expected to have it produced,” explains Fernando. Their 1993 Vermelha Rope Chair (€4,310, about £3,080) is a relatively simple piece with three legs and a curved and tapered, palm-shaped back, but it’s crafted from an epoxy-coated metal frame with hundreds of metres of cotton-covered rope with an acrylic core woven around it; it looks like it’s been crafted from spaghetti dyed red with food colour or piped gelato. “Massimo wanted a drawing or model, which was impossible. So we created a video showing how we did it. In our studio it used to take one week to make one chair. Edra have got this down to a day and a half. They created a structure inside the factory in which the chair sits centrally and then the guy goes back and forward around it, weaving. He’s very talented.”

Whether produced at the studio as a one-off or by Edra, most of their work remains time-intensive and unique. “When we put an order in for a chair, it takes three months,” says Hue-Williams. “Even though they are limited editions, each one is different in some way. The brothers are very particular about them. One of the brothers, and I won’t say which one, needs to touch every single object produced.” This is one of the key reasons that collectors are so keen on their work right now and why it is so likely to set records at auction in the future.

Another rope chair, Vermelha Azul e Verde (€6,650, about £4,750), like so much of their work, is a kind of organised and honed chaos. It’s the chaos in their work that is the formal translation of that Latin “passion” and it’s very much tied into their personal dynamic. “I try to make a portrait of the chaos, to freeze it,” says Fernando. “It’s integral to the way we work. We are brothers and we are Latin and there are moments when we disagree badly. When that happens we make two different pieces. But we have worked together for 25 years. There have been moments of dispersion but we also holiday at weekends in Rio together, and there are some very beautiful moments. In terms of the way we work, we are not organised. I am more organised than my brother, who is from outer space, but somehow in the chaos there is order.”

Their work with Alessi – the Blow Up collection of homeware (from £42 to £180), each piece of which resembles a snapshot of metal fragments emanating from a central explosion – is one of their most commercial ongoing projects. Rather than a diffusion line – which would have merely given them the opportunity to rip themselves off – it has offered them the chance to work in a totally different way while retaining many of the same accents and direction present in their one-offs and editions. “Alessi asked us to visit their factory to see if we wanted to present them with something new, or from existing work,” says Fernando. “We saw some leftover metal lying around and we thought about creating sculptures made from antennae. They took the idea and loved it, so the Blow Up collection was born.”

Even in these mass-produced metal pieces there is an acute sense of the designers’ presence, although it is in their use of natural materials in their more personal projects that this comes to the fore. “We are excited by natural fibres,” explains Humberto. “We are rich in rubber and rattan and other materials in Brazil. My back yard as a child was the countryside. We have a big tradition of handicraft in this country, so why not make use of it?” “A few years ago industrialisation was the main thing in designers’ minds,” adds Fernando. “Now it is closer to handicraft and a human vision of production. What was against us in the past is now in our favour. More and more people want this style, a reaction against the repetition of production or the robotised.”

The vogue for all things that smack of the green and the environmentally aware has seen the Campanas’ star ascend ever higher, and there are currently few designers who have been championed more by the fashion community.

When the Spanish shoe company Camper invited them to design a number of its stores, the Campanas treated the project more as art installation than shop fitting. At the recently opened Old Bond Street store in London (pictured above), the shelving resembles industrial wooden pallets while the walls are covered with posters that have been artfully layered and ripped to create concentric circles, revealing further ripped posters beneath. “The layers bring a new colour and a new shape,” explains Humberto. The installation speaks in a distinctively Campana kind of language. Beloved as it is by the fashion world, the brothers’ work naturally lends itself to crossover products and they have already designed a clothing collection for a Brazilian store called Firmano. Meanwhile, they continue to create a range of affordable shoes for the “jelly sandal” company Melissa in their domestic market, and a small collection of jewellery for H Stern. Both lines have helped cement their reputation at home and given them an outlet that their expensive and bespoke pieces deny them.

But, whether it’s a pair of shoes or a £100,000-piece from Albion in London, all the Campanas’ work is infused with that sense of colour that has made them famous. Items in the Sushi range (see bench on opening spread), in particular, are a Pantone riot inspired by such diverse influences as California, the dragon rolls on sushi restaurant menus and the thrifty, home-woven rugs that many working-class Brazilians make from rejected textiles for their living rooms. “We were experimenting with several materials, including pieces of carpet,” recalls Humberto. “I was very inspired by those rugs; the people don’t have money to buy carpets but they make something so beautiful. The mixture of colour is amazing.” Every year the Campanas’ studio produces a limited edition of Sushi chairs (from Albion, price on request), each constructed with different textiles, rolled and scored into tight concentric circles to create extreme colour combinations. They are sensational, in a very literal way: the Campanas’ sense of colour makes you think of taste as much as it inspires you to touch and stroke.

While the Campana palate is wide, it is oranges, reds and greens that make up the most favoured combinations. As a child Humberto fantasised about painting his face bright orange, as the native Indians of the Brazilian rainforest do. “That’s what I wanted to be when I grew up,” he remembers. “I wanted to be an Indian. I always try to put that colour, as well as gold, into the work. It’s a sense of childhood and play.”

That sense of play is what the Campanas are all about. Just looking at one of their Disney chairs is enough to make you smile, as well as give you the urge to touch. You look at it and you can’t help but want to sit on it, just to see what it’s like and how it feels. “I am actually quite shy,” says Humberto. “I try to seduce people with my furniture. My work is a kind of therapy. There is a lot of communication going on in the creative process and I can express myself without speaking. I try to communicate this sense of humour and emotion in the furniture, to make a dialogue with the observer: Can you sit on the furniture or merely look at it? I like to play games.”

The games are now spreading into different areas or “different universes”, as they say. They recently created plates in the unlikely mixture of marble and rattan for an exhibition in Istanbul. In the past the brothers have said their dream projects were to create a garden and an aeroplane. Their V&A project in 2007, along with another private garden design in São Paulo at the same time, fulfilled the first goal. And the second? “The plane hasn’t happened quite yet,” says Fernando with a laugh. “It’s not been commissioned. But if it did happen I think we’d like to create it in glass, so you can see everything around and below you and have the sensation that you are floating in air. Yes – transparent. That would be good.”

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