Studio Visit
The Campana Brothers, Furniture Designers

This story was originally published on June 9, 2010. Veuve Clicquot’s renovated Hotel du Marc is set to open this fall.

In their most famous works, Fernando and Humberto Campana construct by a process of accumulation, looping yards of sail rope around seat frames or folding velvet tubing in on itself to create amoeba-like sofas. So it’s fitting that visitors to the brothers’ São Paulo studio should find behind its unremarkable metal grate rooms and shelves stacked high with stuff — weird material experiments by the studio’s half-dozen in-house artisans, miniature models and prototypes, artifacts the brothers picked up on their travels, miles of scrap, and dozens and dozens of sketches. In some ways, it all seems an extension of São Paulo itself, a city of 20 million that in the last century has sprawled so far and wide it’s annexed, at last count, five different downtown areas. (The Campanas live and work in Santa Cecília, or as Fernando calls it, “second downtown.”)

The brothers grew up on a small farm in Brotas, 150 miles north of the city, and though much of their inspiration can be found in the streets and small shops that surround the studio, they’ve become increasingly interested in the materials found naturally in Brazil’s rainforests. When we visited the studio this winter, they were busy preparing La Gloriette, a pavilion commissioned by Veuve Clicquot and destined for the garden of the champagne company’s Hotel du Marc guest house in Reims, France, set to re-open next spring after a two-year renovation. When VC approached the pair about creating an architectural addition to the grounds, they began to contemplate a structure built entirely from natural materials. “We’re interested in museums of natural history, strange animals, catalogs of flora, and tropical monsters,” says Humberto. “We thought to give it the form of a flower or plant that doesn’t exist, and the first model we made was just natural fibers. But I think it was a bit too indigenous-looking for Veuve Clicquot.”

The final result mixes the brothers’ original choice of material — the Amazonian vine apuí — with the tangle of wires that has become one of their signatures (in this case, it’s meant to evoke the fizzing of Champagne and the way grapes grow along the vineyard’s fences). “It looks like Art Nouveau a bit, but we call it Nouveau Nouveau,” says Fernando. Construction began in November, and the 1.9-ton structure was shipped in pieces by boat to Milan to debut at the furniture fair there this spring.

La Gloriette began the way most Campanas projects do, in a materials-led exploration on-site in the studio. “We never do a technical drawing,” says Fernando. “We start projects in a raw state, testing the limits of the material. The function and the form of the object come next.” But while some designers probe the limits of rapid prototyping or high-tech plastics, the Campanas’ palette remains resolutely run-of-the-mill: cardboard, rope, carpet scraps, doll parts, bubble wrap, and wood offcuts, with the occasional bamboo or rattan thrown in for good measure. They began working with such readily available items out of necessity early in their career, unable to afford high-tech tooling or factory space. But even as their fame and fortune have grown, the brothers have stuck close to their original ideas, employing seamstresses, weavers, and welders in their workshop and partnering with artisan communities sprinkled throughout the country. “Some of these crafts are dying,” says Humberto. “We want to bring them back in a more contemporary way.”

exterior

The Campanas’ studio is hidden behind an old garage door in the Santa Cecília neighborhood of São Paulo. “Chauffeurs arrive, they think it’s not here, and they don’t drop the clients off!” laughs Fernando. “But we didn’t bother to paint the facade. It’s the best way to live free and at peace in Brazil. You can’t show off. If I go out, I don’t wear jewelry or anything that will attract attention. Usually, people either think I’m a policeman or a robber.”

studio large

When the studio first opened in the early ’90s, Fernando lived here in the main part, which now houses prototypes and editions that have been fabricated on-site and are now ready to be shipped to galleries and collectors. “Ten years ago, we threw away all of the prototypes because we didn’t have the space,” says Humberto. “One day, Dennis Friedman from W, who collects prototypes, started buying all of ours up. I told Fernando, ‘I'll kill you,’ because he’d thrown mine away.”

Chairs

“Now we’re trying to maintain the prototypes because we want to build a small museum and a school for crafts in the countryside near where our mother lives,” says Humberto. Scattered throughout the room are examples of their famed Banquete chairs, inspired by the claw machines often found on the streets of São Paulo and made from an assortment of plush kids’ toys, stitched together to form a cushy seat.

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The studio typically makes 35 in each limited edition, plus artist’s proofs and prototypes. The first Banquetes were made from a menagerie of toys, but more recent iterations have employed a single toy in repeat, like the alligator chair at right. A new chair made from king crabs is called Crab Stew while one with lobsters is called Flamboyán, after a red flowering tree that resembles a pile of crustaceans.

transchair

A prototype from the brothers’ recent Transplastic collection, which Fernando jokingly refers to as “revenge of the wicker.” Behind it is one of the Campanas’ Multidão chairs, made from rag dolls produced by artisans in the northern village of Esperança. Each chair uses about 150 dolls, no two of which are alike. “Some of them have details like a tie but no nose,” says Fernando. “Or they’ll have belts and wristwatches but no eyebrows.”

Gloriette model

A model for La Gloriette, to be installed next year in the garden of Veuve Clicquot’s newly renovated Hotel du Marc guesthouse in Reims, France. The pillars are made from apuí, a parasitic vine that suffocates rainforest trees if left uncut, but also makes for an excellent design material due to its shape memory when wet. The canopy, modeled after the Campanas’ Corallo chair for Edra, is made from epoxy and stainless steel.

joao

The apuí base was woven by the same suburban workshop that produces the studio’s wicker collections, while the canopy was welded on-site in seven sections by artisans including João, who has been with the Campanas for more than 20 years. “The welding is very spontaneous,” says Fernando. “It allows our workers to have some creativity. We just say ‘there has to be more mass here’ and he chooses.” Says Humberto: “I wanted it to look beautiful so I kept asking them to put more and more and they were like, ‘Please, consult an engineer!’ I was so enthusiastic about the project I forgot about the functionality.”

Humberto's office

In the back of the studio, the brothers work in neighboring offices, with the rest of the staff’s desks on either side. The offices are sustainably constructed, with thermal and acoustic ceilings made from compressed sugarcane waste.

Fernando's office

“We are 14 people here, and we don’t want to grow bigger than this,” says Fernando.

architecture

The view from Fernando’s office. “I like this neighborhood because there's this mess of architectural examples,” says Fernando. “You see this 1900s house just glued to a ’70s building. This is the beauty of São Paulo. It’s hidden. It’s not like Paris, or Rio, or Rome — cities that are more seductive. São Paulo’s not.”

Humberto sketches

In Humberto’s office, the walls and shelves are lined with experiments, sketches, and inspirational ephemera.

massimo

Shown here is a photo taken with Edra’s art director Massimo Morozzi, whom the brothers consider something of a patron saint for having put more than two-dozen of their products into production. When I point out that Morozzi looks a bit like the Dalai Lama, Humberto laughs. “He’s the shaman of design!”

Faceted mirrors

An experiment with mirrors yielded the faceted piece above. The sideboard is part of the Campanas’ discontinued Célia line for Habitart, who invited the brothers to create a collection using the compressed wood product OSB. Upon visiting the factory where it was made, they found heaps of melaminic paper in the garbage, which they threw in with the OSB during processing to create the line’s wood-chip look. “It was for the Brazilian market, and it was a good price, but they discontinued it. It was a pity,” says Humberto.

rizzoli

A spread from the brothers' new monograph from Rizzoli, Campana Brothers Complete Works (So Far), reveals a bit about Brotas, where the brothers grew up. On the left is the tree house they made to watch birds from and on the right are the waterfalls they often went to for a swim.

mobius

Because the brothers never design on the computer or produce a technical drawing, the shelves lining their offices are stacked with miniature models of their best-known works, like this tiny 1997 Labirinto bookshelf. It's made from bent sheets of naval aluminum and peppered with tiny figures of the Brazilian saints Sao Jorge and Sao Longuinho.

fernando2

This 1:6 scale Favela Chair, on the other hand, is in production with Vitra Miniatures.

design miami

An example of the brothers' Galho Vases, created during 2008’s Design Miami/Basel GlassLab, for which they partnered with the Corning Museum of Glass to produce pieces in an on-site street workshop.

giftfromintern2

A good-luck charm one of their interns brought back from Peru.

idols

A pair of figures Fernando and Humberto picked up on their travels, examples of ceramic tapajônica, a style of pottery from the Amazonian city of Belém.

IMG_0123

At left, a model for the Campanas’ Blow Up collection for Alessi. Originally prototyped in bamboo and epoxy, the first production versions were released in stainless steel. This year, Alessi reverted back to the original, re-introducing the entire collection in the pair’s preferred material.

ladies

Downstairs is the workshop where everything gets prototyped, from their recycled-tire TransNeomatic bowls for Artecnica to the packaging for last year’s Melissa shoes collaboration. Limited editions for the likes of Moss in New York and Albion Gallery in London are created here as well. Seamstresses Dhébora Ribeiro and Júlia Roque were in the midst of sewing a Banquete chair when we visited.

IMG_0195

A recently completed Banquete chair.

sewing machine

The Campanas’ furniture doesn’t come cheap, but the labor that goes into it is intense. It takes one of the studio’s full-time seamstresses two weeks to hand-stitch Multidão’s 150 dolls to a canvas seat. The machine here is used for less intensive tasks.

ecal intern

Emanuel, a Campanas intern on loan from Milan’s Polytechnic University.

edra2

A prototype of the Segreto cabinet, introduced last year by Edra at the Milan Furniture Fair.

sushi chairs

One of the Campanas’ signatures is their constant reinvention of upholstery. Their 2002 Sushi II chair, shown here, is made from compressed and rolled fabric offcuts and carpet scraps picked up from neighboring shops and is inspired by the enormous Japanese community in Brazil, the largest in the world outside Japan. “We eat a lot of Japanese food,” says Fernando. “We have delivery — it’s like the Brazilian version of pizza.”

rope supplies

Sushi-making supplies.

Sushi vase

The Sushi carpet scraps are also used to make the brothers’ Buriti vases.

together

A Vermelha chair in progress. At one time, Vermelha represented the Campanas’ greatest production challenge. Humberto hand-wove and knotted the original prototype from more than 1,600 feet of cotton rope, for a 1993 gallery show in São Paulo. When Massimo Morozzi expressed interest in producing the chair in the late ’90s, the brothers were flummoxed. Finally, after they provided Edra with a step-by-step instructional videotape, the chair went into production in 1998.

apui bookshelf2

After working with the apuí for the Gloriette, the brothers have been experimenting with other forms. “We started to make a chair but then we discovered it would be a beautiful bookshelf,” says Humberto. “But it’s just the beginning of the concept. We need to work harder."