With a career spanning more than 36 years in industrial design, the Brazilian brothers, Humberto and Fernando Campana, have joined the ranks of the most renowned creative personalities in Latin America. Some of their pieces are part of the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The design duo has also collaborated with prestigious luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Lacoste, and H. Stern, and have worked on various major projects, including the complete renovations of the Cafe d’Horloge at the Musée d’Orsay, in Paris.
But let’s take a look at the professional development of these remarkable Brazilian artists to better understand their creative universe, heavily influenced by Sao Paulo’s effervescent art and cultural scene, which characterized this great metropolis during the 1980s.
Humberto and Fernando began working together in 1983 when they opened their first studio. Their debut solo exhibition took place six years later at the Nucleon 8 Gallery in Sao Paulo. The display, called Desconfortáveis (Uncomfortable), presented a collection of iron chairs, a reflection on the nature of distress and discomfort. This was the first sign that, in the work of the Campanas, the relationship between observer and object would not be, in any way, conventional.
The exhibition was well received by art critics who highlighted the innovative spirit of the proposal. However, it did not have the desired impact. It was not until 1991 when an article published in the architecture magazine Domus praising the work of the Brazilian duo caught the attention of many European design firms. Soon the Campanas began collaborating with them, and their designs became internationally known.
One of those companies, the Italian firm Edra, was responsible for the production and distribution of one of their most iconic pieces, the Vermelha chair (1993), which now forms part of MoMA’s permanent collection.
“The Vermelha chair is a tribute to chaos, a portrait of Brazil, which is a melting pot of cultures and races,” says Humberto Campana. “I try to express that idea in a kind of chair that is chaotic in its own construction.”
This chair, built with 500 yards of red rope, loosely rolled and hand-braided around a steel structure, was one of the most celebrated designs of Projects 66, the exhibition organized by MoMA in 1998, which included several items by the Brazilian brothers. The show was the ultimate accolade that finally placed the Campanas among the best designers of their time. A clear indicator of the exhibit’s success was the acquisition of other works—Cone chair (1997), Ottoman (1998) and Coral chair (2004)–by the Museum.
Since early on their careers, their work differed from what was being done in the world of industrial design. By choosing rough and recycled materials to manufacture their pieces—string, bits of PVC, cardboard, fabric swatches, fibrous trees, construction debris and wood chips—they were consciously moving away from the sophisticated aesthetic of European designs.
“We use existing industrial materials that have been forgotten by consumers, and adapt them to our projects,” they explain. “This is a fine and dangerous line that can transform the design into something cheesy or folksy. There has to be a balance to avoid pitfalls.”
The Campana brothers introduced a personal artistic proposal as they brought together technological manufacturing and handcrafted production, giving unique character to each piece. In this revolutionary way, the Brazilian tandem stormed the aristocratic world of contemporary design.
Another prominent feature of their work is the introduction of elements representative of the Brazilian identity, which are always present in their work. “The Streets of Sao Paulo are a kind of laboratory for our designs. Whenever we need inspiration we draw on the chaos and beauty of the city where we live,” says Humberto.
For example, the Favela chair (1991), made with recycled wood pieces, haphazardly joined, is inspired in the way the Sao Paulo favelas are built, or the Multidão chair (2002), made with cotton dolls, typical of the Brazilian northeast, a reference to the massive migration of people from the Northeast to the wealthier Southeast.
“Brazil is our greatest source of inspiration. Everything inspires us, from the people and the way they organize their lives to the geographic diversity, race, and culture in our environment,” conclude the Campana brothers. “Our objects, especially, carry emotions, so they become a creative and vibrant activity, simple and human.” ■