Humberto Campana talks Brazilian design

São Paulo

1 May 2013

Brazilian designers Fernando and Humberto Campana have spent a career bringing order out of chaos, producing furniture from collages of found objects: rope, shards of wood and stuffed toys. Now, the São Paulo-based brothers are showing a collection of new and old pieces in bronze at David Gill Galleries in London. Here, Humberto discusses his design process and the state of design in Brazil.

The collection, Brazilian Baroque, is typical of the Campanas' work. A series of chairs, sofas, lights and accessories, each piece is built up from solid bronze models of objects - safety razors, lizards and brushes among others - welded together to provide a structure.

In the following interview, Humberto discusses the collection, its Roman origins, the influence of São Paulo on his work and the growth of Brazilian design.

How did Brazilian Baroque come about?
It was a proposal by Galleria O in Rome. My brother and I were invited to be inspired by some very special spaces in Rome. So two years ago we visited the Brazilian embassy on the Piazza Navona in Rome. The idea was to confront the embassy’s beautiful salon, all decorated by Pietro da Cortona, with found objects from Brazil.

How were we pieces produced?
We looked for Roman artisans. Originally, we didn’t know whether the collection would use marble, plaster, or gold leaf, but then we visited a bronzework atelier. This artisan was used to working with repairing ornamental furniture from the 1600s and we thought that it might be fun to play with that: make him work with imperfection rather than striving to restore perfection. So we started to make a collage out of found objects and play with the material. Then we started welding it together like a patchwork.

The pieces are built up from bronze models of things like crocodiles, toothpaste tubes, combs, beads and cherubs. How do you piece all of that together?
Putting those objects together is, for me, logical. I feel safe whenever I do it; I just take an object and know what it will look good next to. I feel it in my belly. I don’t plan anything because that would take years. If you’re caught in the moment, it flows. But the main thing is to bring our universe - Brazil - to our work. Our use of found objects is an homage to our beginnings. We wanted to confront our universe with Rome and to put humble Brazilian objects in conflict with the more luxurious elements of Rome.

Where do you locate yourself culturally? Your studio is in São Paulo but the majority of your work is for European brands.
Three of my grandparents are from Italy. So whenever I go to Italy I start getting back my Italian DNA. But I’m very Brazilian. I get caught between the two. It’s true that we work with very few Brazilian manufacturers; most of our work in Brazil comes directly from our studio and artisans around São Paolo.

Why is that? Are Brazilian manufacturers not established?
Our work is very conceptual and very manual, so we tend to work in studio. But things are changing very fast in Brazil, which is very positive. Manufacturers are getting better and we’re open to them. In general, São Paulo has become much more cosmopolitan since the crisis in 2008. You hear a lot more foreign languages and there are a lot more European and American visitors.

Is the Brazilian design industry growing?
Yes. We now have two very important art fairs - one in São Paulo, one in Rio - and new design galleries are appearing all the time. The design scenery is changing. Young designers are doing very good things focused on Brazilian roots: some inspired by me and Fernando, others by Sergio Rodrigues, the master of Brazilian design. But on the whole, all Brazilian design is very organic. We have a large amount of fibers and natural materials, and very skilled artisans. There are big opportunities with materials in Brazil and there’s a general curiosity. We are a new country and don’t have a large history, so we can afford to pursue the new.

Is that attitude cultivated in São Paulo?
São Paulo is a big laboratory. It’s a city where you need to see its hidden corners, because it’s not beautiful like Rio de Janeiro. You need to get inside it. I like to walk around the city and visit the markets. But it’s not like European cities where you might have one big market selling everything. In São Paulo you get separate neighbourhoods. There’s a wood district; another area for lamps; another for tissue. It’s all very sectorised.

Is design supported by the Brazilian government?
Not so much. Everything is done privately and I like that. Everything is still so political in Brazil, even 20 years after the military dictatorship fell, so I don’t expect anything from the government. Brazilian design is very gallery based and you get a lot of small studios, which means designers have much more freedom to explore and the scope to find their own approach.

Does that suit you?
It’s the reason I’m based in Brazil. You can make things, not knowing whether it will sell, and work in small editions. That’s important, because in the future you might be able to spin something off that research for production. Most of our works were condemned to be one of a kind until Edra [the Italian brand that the Campanas have a long-established relationship with] came along.

So you never create a project with it being manufactured in mind?
That always comes later. We made our Verde rope chair in 1993, but it wasn’t picked up until 1998 when Edra saw it in a book and started to produce it. So we asked an artisan in Sicily to produce that. But how do you explain to someone all the way in Italy how to produce that chair? In the end, me and my brother just filmed me weaving the chair, step by step, and sent that video to Italy. I never expected that chair to be manufactured. I expect all our pieces to be one of a kind.