The Brazilian duo Humberto and Fernando Campano, who will take part in next week's Abu Dhabi Art, drive contemporary design in an unorthodox way.
Design duo transforms discarded items
We all know that design today is a global business, but that's never more obvious than when you're talking to the Campana brothers, Humberto and Fernando: the Brazilian duo, based in Sao Paulo, simply never stop moving.
When we meet they have just got off a plane from Milan, where they had presided over the opening of Antibodies, a major retrospective of their work. The travelling exhibition organised by Vitra Design Museum was showing at the prestigious Triennale. "That was very important and sentimental for us," says Humberto, at 57 the older of the two. "It's our heritage - our grandparents were Italian." The following day they are on their way to Buenos Aires to give a lecture and launch their new book Campana Brothers: Complete Works (So Far), published by Rizzoli New York and Albion Gallery London.
After that they'll be coming straight to Abu Dhabi, where they are creating an exceptional installation with two young Emirati designers (see sidebar) and running a workshop during Abu Dhabi Art. Their schedule is exhausting just to think about, let alone live.
Not that the brothers ever seem to tire of their chosen profession. Incredibly prolific, articulate and sunny by nature, they are two of Brazil's most assured ambassadors, as well as two of the 21st century's most intriguing designers.
Their work ranges from Banquete chairs created from a mass of sewn-together soft toys, to open-work shoes and a round bag for the Brazilian rubber company Melissa, and a dome-shaped cupboard covered entirely in raffia that looks more like Cousin Itt from The Addams Family, launched in Milan in April by the avant-garde Italian manufacturer Edra as part of its latest collection. Called Barbarians, the name is perhaps a clue - an acknowledgement of Brazil's only recent arrival on the design scene.
There is a sofa called Boa - two metres of squashy upholstered tubing interwoven into an immense nest - which is one of the most decadent pieces of home furnishing ever. And let's not forget Vermelha, their 1998 breakout chair design, also produced by Edra, made of 449 metres of cotton rope looped, woven and knotted around a metal frame. Twelve years later, it's still a best-seller in spite of its price tag approaching US$10,000.
Not exactly production-line pieces, all of their work relies on Brazil's craft tradition, while playing highly contemporary games with materials and forms.
Neither Humberto nor Fernando, who is now 49, set out to be designers. The older brother grew up under the dictatorship of Castelo Branco and reluctantly but dutifully studied law at a time when it wasn't quite decent for a bourgeois middle son to be an artist. But, after graduation and a short spell in a law firm, he started to make jewellery and baskets.
Fernando studied architecture but found himself hovering around the edges of the art world, helping artists such as Keith Haring and Sandro Chia during an internship at the 1983 Sao Paulo Biennale. (A third brother, whose name rarely comes up, is an economist.)
When Humberto set up a studio in 1984, Fernando joined him. "We're not competitive in any way," says Fernando, "but we argue so much. That's exactly why it works." The younger brings some rationalisation and design edge to the older's more conceptual flights of fancy.
A 1998 exhibition at MoMA turned out to be pivotal to their journey as designers. Paola Antonelli, the curator, decided to show their work alongside that of the unconventional German lighting designer Ingo Maurer, as part of her Projects series of contemporary design shows. She perceived a certain similar poetry in the work of the older German genius (who has made lighting out of a totally unexpected repertoire of ingredients, including broken porcelain and Post-it Notes) and the young and relatively unknown Brazilians, who conjure the poorest of materials into the most luxurious objects. All of the designers' pieces sat comfortably together, and played with preconceived ideas about objects, materials and imagery. The brothers have never looked back.
The Campanas are now known equally for their handmade aesthetic, their attention to materials, and the fact that they gain much inspiration from the endless recycling of products that makes people's lives possible in the Brazilian favelas.
"Our message is about democracy," says Humberto. "We want to show that even with a small studio we can make an income and communicate our way of thinking. We can even work with great Italian companies like Edra and Alessi and still incorporate our way of thinking."
For Alessi, famed for making beautifully crafted pieces in stainless steel, they first created the Blow Up range in 2005 - a series of bowls and baskets made of metal "sticks". This year they persuaded the company to produce the series again in bamboo, the material in which the prototypes were made. To convince Alessi to use something as low-tech as bamboo rods was a major departure, and rather proved the Campanas' point.
The word "alchemy" comes up a lot in a conversation with the brothers. And, indeed, their work is all about magically transforming the discarded, the unloved, the ignored into objects of great desirability. Their Cobogo table is made of the decorative ventilation bricks you see in every Brazilian house, and an early 1999 table for Fontana Arte, called Tatoo, used plastic drain grilles arranged into a rather lovely grid.
These acts of improvisation are as culturally important to the brothers as the concept of wabi sabi (roughly: the beauty of impermanence) might be to a Japanese designer.
"Brazil isn't saturated. It's still new," says Humberto. "There is a great sense of improvisation and flexibility. And we have music with everything - even food sellers do it to a soundtrack."
Their work, then, from the now-famous Favela chair (composed of many pieces of scrap wood to echo the slum cities' architecture) to the shiny Brasilia tables of overlapping, brilliantly coloured glass, is a portrait of their country.
But it's not all about delighting the eye. While they seem to be continually honoured here and there (among the gongs, Designers of the Year at Design Miami in 2008), the Campanas have a sense of responsibility to furthering design in Sao Paulo, if not Brazil at large. A workshop on the ground floor of their Sao Paulo headquarters serves as a laboratory for new ideas, and a place of employment for many locals, who go there to make their fabric Esperanca dolls (contemporary reworkings of traditional folkloric dolls) or chairs using existing cheap plastic frames decorated with exquisitely woven apui vines.
"Working with the hands," says Humberto, "brings the message directly to the conscience." The Campanas' polo shirts for Lacoste, with a logo formed of not one but eight overlapping crocodiles, have created employment for a community of women in the Rio de Janeiro favela of Rocinha. "The message is passion," adds Humberto passionately. "With nothing we can create richness."
Their work might be among the highlights of the contemporary design landscape. Their message, though, is timeless.
Click here to watch a video of the Campanas at work in the factory of the French porcelain company, Bernardaud, for which they designed a collection of pieces called Nazareth.