Lost and found

The Campana brothers delight in creating furniture out of discarded materials, but their magpie aesthetic has taken a while to catch on, says Dominic Lutyens

It’s fair to say that Fernando and Humberto Campana’s designs are out on a limb – in a good way. Such is their originality that they are hard to categorise. Their ultra-idiosyncratic Sushi chair of 2002, for example, consists of strips of carpet underlay and tartan fabric in wildly clashing colours spewing out of a plastic base, and looks like nothing else on earth.

Their more recent Favela chair, of 2003 – made from scrap wood resembling chunky matchsticks glued together haphazardly – is relatively more conventional. Yet there’s nothing ordinary about the informality of its ad hoc structure and raw look. And what about last year’s somewhat sinister Prived Oca chandelier, commissioned by Swarovski, as part of its deluxe Crystal Palace collection, comprising ropes of crystals that are so long they brush the floor crowned, incongruously, by a dishevelled haystack-like heap of mud-brown raffia?

All three pieces refer to one of the brothers’ chief inspirations – Brazil’s favelas (shanty towns), ghetto communities where improvised homes are resourcefully constructed from whatever scrap material comes to hand. The Campanas’ use of ‘poor’ and found materials to produce glamorous furniture is their homage to the makeshift construction that characterises favelas, which they value as an indigenous tradition untouched by globalisation.

‘Our main challenge is to transform ordinary materials into “noble” pieces,’ they say. (Of course, some might consider this philosophy suspect, arguing that it aestheticises and romanticises poverty, then repackages it for a bourgeois market.)

And while the Campanas’ work is intriguingly different, it also errs on the side of the kitsch, whimsical, even grotesque. One of their particularly over-the-top pieces is a Jeff Koons-esque chair made of soft toys. This is design people will love or loathe. That said, there are those who will delight in its eccentric individualism, something the São Paolo-based Campanas openly advocate.

‘The designer of the future,’ they say, ‘should use references from his cultural background – traditions, colours, history – so his products have an authenticity that’s not governed by global fashion. We try to make things in our own way, without concerning ourselves with trends or what our contemporaries are making.’

This has been the Campanas’ modus operandi since they joined forces in 1984. There appear to be two reasons for their collaboration. The first is geographical: ‘When we started out, we paid attention to the movements of the time – such as Memphis – but in our studio far from the world’s design community.’ The second is that Humberto studied law, while Fernando, the younger of the two by eight years, studied architecture, and as such they have perhaps been less influenced by design fads than those who’ve formally trained as designers.

The Campanas eventually gravitated towards design because, in his spare time, Humberto had always made sculpture and jewellery. Humberto’s input today, the brothers say, is ‘intuitive’, whereas Fernando’s is ‘rational – about functionality and 3D design’, a product of his architectural training.

If, as the Campanas claim, their work is indifferent to fashion, you could call it anti-design. Even so, this hasn’t confounded or alienated bigshot manufacturers. Quite the opposite. In the late 1990s, Massimo Morozzi, art director of Edra, the Italian company renowned for its flamboyant contemporary furniture, spotted the brothers’ Vermelha chair – a spaghetti-like tangle of red cotton rope on a simple steel base – and put it into production. It was a thoroughly welcome break: although they’d already created a collection of iron chairs in the late 1980s and taken part in the New York design show, From Modernism to Modernity, in 1989, their career in design was proving to be an uphill struggle and they were about to ‘give up’.

‘No one seemed to believe in us: we had lost the will to carry on,’ they recall. Since then, things have looked up considerably: in the past few years, Edra has produced Boa, a floor-level seat made of a knot of velvet-upholstered tubes, reminiscent of intertwining snakes; and the Anemona chair, a steel hoop around which is laced funky, tinted plastic tubing.

The Campanas’ eclecticism is evident in the two pieces’ contrasting styles. Boa is opulent and decadent, while Anemona is industrial and funky. Boa would look fabulous in a boho-chic bar, Anemone in a hip loft apartment. Cappellini has also taken a bite out of the Campanas’ cake, commissioning the Jenette chair (of 2000) – a blond wood seat with what looks like a giant broom’s bristles for a back – and Batuque vase (2001) – five test tube-style vases interlocked to form one. (Looking at the Campanas’ output as a whole, these two designs are odd ones out. Minimalist and well-behaved, they lack the crazy joie de vivre of their Edra pieces.)

The Campanas’ profile is about to be upped by news of a Design Museum show later this year of 30 to 40 pieces. Its title, Zest for Life, is taken from Fernando’s lips, who once said ‘Brazil gives us a zest for life’. And various designs can soon be seen at Selfridges, in London, during its Brasil 40º event, held in May.

‘We’re holding the show because the Campanas are two of the most innovative designers today,’ says Design Museum curator Sophie McKinlay. ‘They use poor materials to create something ultra-luxurious. In their hands, even carpet underlay can look beautiful. It’s a mid-career show that will highlight their exuberant aesthetic and immerse you in their world, giving a complete overview of their work, from concept to finished result.’

Initially, the Campanas’ aesthetic sprung not from their desire to celebrate the spirit of Brazil, but from a reaction against clean, precise, strictly functional Western design. As Fernando once put it, slightly contentiously, ‘We realised we were not Germans, so we adopted a strategy of needs, borrowing from Brazil’s street people. That street life taught us to accept imperfections. When we look at Western design, we see a logic in it. But we do things the other way around. We start our designs from the materials that are available.’

Hence their omnivorous, unpredictable taste in materials – felt, plastic, steel, raffia, neoprene, even TV antennae (used to make a screen). This protean, anti-formulaic approach gives their work a visceral quality. There’s nothing cerebral about their child-like experimentation with materials. One of the oddest aspects of this is the way they gaily alternate between using synthetic and natural materials, sometimes juxtaposing them in the same design – take their Mixed Series chairs, which encase bamboo or raffia within slick acrylic frames.

‘We like the shock created by mixing them,’ they say. ‘We think that reflects the way of living in Brazil.’ It’s also an expression of their fascination with the chaotic – otherwise known as ‘spontaneous’ – architecture of the favelas. The Campanas’ almost nationalistic enthusiasm for Brazil – and their desire to evoke the country’s spirit via their furniture – provides the most convincing explanation for their unique aesthetic.

Many a cutting-edge designer in the past decade has shared their love of low-tech manufacturing processes and found beauty in the banal – take El Ultimo Grito’s La Lu lamp, whose shade is cleverly made of the cable supplying its electricity. But none have done so with as much ebullience as the Campanas, whose influences, they say, are exclusively Brazilian: Brazil’s Modernist period (from the 1930s on), architects Oscar Niemeyer, Lina Bo Bardi, Vilanova Artigas and Lucio Costa (responsible for Brasilia’s urban planning), landscape architect Burle Max and bossa nova music.

They shy away, however, from admitting to being inspired by Gilberto Gil, Brazil’s dynamic, right-on, dreadlock-sporting culture minister (and superstar singer) or by Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Brazil’s first left-wing president for decades), who has instructed Gil to democratise culture and bring the arts to the disenfranchised people of the favelas.

When the subject is broached, the Campanas laconically state: ‘We do not like to be involved in politics’ – which is a tad ironic given their work’s political content.

At the Cologne Furniture Fair (aka IMM Cologne) this year, the Campanas designed a two-storey home for its Ideal House project made of interlocking planks of wood at crazy angles, inspired by Brazil’s spontaneous dwellings. They have also participated in a major lighting exhibition showing at São Paolo’s foundation, Fundacao Armando Alvares Penteado. And they are developing new products for Edra as well as working on a shoe collection for a Brazilian footwear company.

In other words, the Campanas are busy. What remains to be seen is how their fresh, original designs will be perceived over the next few months – particularly in London, where they’re about to enjoy more exposure than ever before. With design today showing every sign of becoming more playful and theatrical, the chances are they’ll receive a warm reception.

Zest for Life is at London’s Design Museum from 19 June to 19 September. The Campana brothers’ work can also be seen at Brasil 40º at Selfridges in London, from 5-31 May

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