The Boys from Brazil

The Boys from Brazil

Any informed design appraisal invariably touches on materials. During much of the 20th century, innovative designs were consistently linked to breakthroughs in material engineering or fabrication. Think of how molded plywood and fiberglass unleashed the Eameses’ imagination or how injection molding allowed Verner Panton to create the first single-form, single-material chair. That designers continue to be obsessed with the newest, coolest materials and processes is evident in the proliferation of firms, such as Material Connexion, that advise designers and industry about new materials, and of international fairs that showcase them, like the Dutch Material Xperience. Then there are the many exhibitions and books extolling the design revolutions brought about by nanotechnology, high-performance textiles, smart materials and so on.

Against this backdrop, the work of the sibling designers Humberto and Fernando Campana stands startlingly apart. They, too, are obsessed with materials and fabrication, but they are radical by being traditional: They employ common, familiar materials — cardboard, rope, fabric and wood scraps, plastic tubes, aluminum wire — in unexpected ways to create works that add up to much, much more than the sum of their parts. The Vermelha chair, their breakout design and still their best seller, which Edra put into production in 1998 and which costs $9,425, is emblematic of their quirky approach. Made of 492 yards of cotton rope woven, knotted and looped around a metal frame, it was inspired by the piles and spools of rope the brothers saw in one of the many shops that line the side streets of São Paulo, where they live and work. In 1993, when they designed the chair, they had already been collaborating for 10 years, originally on sculptures with a functional dimension that gradually evolved into furniture.

"You can find almost everything you need in these places where ordinary Brazilians shop," says Humberto, 55. On a recent walk in their studio’s neighborhood, he pointed to stacks of colorful plastic bins, bunches of brooms, clusters of birdcages and batches of religious parapher- nalia, visibly delighted by the treasure trove of raw materials within arm’s reach. In the eyes of the Campanas, these are not simply cheap goods but the potential bases of colorful patterns, surprising arrangements and compelling constructions that can be combined inexpensively, directly and through low-tech methods to create other useful items.

Alchemy is the term they often use to describe their process of transforming the banal, the discarded and the ignored into objects of beauty and value. In fact, turning discarded goods into something different is common in countries with large impoverished populations. In Brazil you see this sort of spontaneous, survivalist invention everywhere — from a street vendor making a peanut roaster out of an old olive-oil tin to a woman weaving rugs from clothing scraps to a favela dweller fashioning a shower from a garden hose and a child’s wading pool. A word has even emerged to describe this inspired reuse: gambiarra. These acts of improvisation run parallel to the country’s strong tradition of handcrafts, and both are essential to the Campanas’ design mind-set. "We can’t be more high-tech than we are," says Fernando, 47. "It would be impossible for us to design something the way a German or a Japanese designer would. We can only be Brazilian."

To make an early work, the 1999 Tatoo table, produced by Fontana Arte, for example, they arranged plastic drain grills into an attractive grid — an easy way to create a perforated plastic tabletop without complicated tooling. And they are currently experimenting with translucent plastic jugs, stacked and woven together with apuí, a natural fiber extracted from vines that suffocate trees in the Brazilian jungle, to serve as elegant torchères. This is another instance where they have bypassed costly processes like injection molding, simultaneously avoiding the waste associated with new-material creation and reviving craft techniques like wicker braiding.

Taking advantage of Brazil’s large and affordable pool of skilled manual workers, the brothers have installed a workshop on the ground floor of their studio that serves as both a testing ground for new concepts and a minifactory. The latter makes and sells works that are not licensed to their longtime partner Edra or other clients, who include Alessi and Fontana Arte. Under the rubric of Estúdio Campana, a half-dozen artisans sew handmade folkloric Esperança dolls or plush stuffed animals into cartoonish chaises or weave apuí through and around cheap plastic café chairs to create marketable versions of the TransPlastic collection exhibited at London’s Albion Gallery in 2007. (A version of the Albion installation was on show at Design Miami/2008, which honored the brothers with its Designer of the Year award.)

Incredibly, just a decade ago, the Campanas were relatively unknown. They first appeared on the media radar in 1998, when the Museum of Modern Art design curator Paola Antonelli gave them a show with the equally improvisational and affecting German lighting designer Ingo Maurer. At the time, the Campanas’ work seemed especially odd and idiosyncratic. Antonelli even commented on how frequently it was described as "primitive" and "indigenous." Since that watershed show, they’ve gone on to be honored guests and participants at every major design fair, from Milan’s Salone del Mobile to New York’s ICFF, and their work has been featured in some of the world’s most important design museums, from New York’s Cooper-Hewitt to the Victoria & Albert, in London.

Perhaps the most telling sign of their success is the fine-art prices their creations now fetch. (A limited-edition Sonia Diniz chair recently brought $43,000 at auction.) The brothers have proved that down-cycled works need only be rich in concept, wit and elegance to be collectible. And the notion that even the dross of daily life has value has never seemed more captivating than now.

"The Boys from Brazil" originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's April 2009 Table of Contents.