Contaminating by Example – an interview with Fernando and Humberto Campana

With a massive exhibition covering the past twenty years (up until the very last second, as you’ll see), the Vitra Design Museum is staging a definitive review of the work of Brazilian designers the Campana brothers. Entitled ANTIBODIES – The Works of Fernando & Humberto Campana 1989 – 2009, the show will be on display at the museum in Weil am Rhein from May 16, 2009 to February 28, 2010.

Fragments & Flexed Planes

Fragments & Flexed Planes

You may know the Campana brothers’ individual works but the scale of the exhibition reveals broader themes and preoccupations in their oeuvre. Curator Mathias Schwartz-Clauss, a long-time associate of the brothers’, has uncovered influences and themes which build into a fascinating portrait of their design philosophy and the evolution of their design process. As befit their entry into design via sculpture (Humberto) and architecture (Fernando), the influences of Surrealism, Dadaism and Cubism become readily apparent among the plethora of knots and sticks, organic forms and “shocking” combinations of materials on show (and, indeed, their straddling the worlds of art and design is a key point of the exhibition).

Still, what’s most attractively timely about their work is the concentration on re-used materials.

While there is a “tradition” of reusing and recycling materials in Brazil, the brothers’ use of found materials is as much to do with formal and rigorous design thinking as it is to do with necessity and ecological considerations.

Making full use of the Frank-O.-Gehry-designed building’s unsettling spaces, the exhibition provides a marvellous setting for the Campana brothers’ work. The display also seems deeply personal: the brothers worked closely on it in collaboration with the Vitra Design Museum – to the extent that the “auteur designers”, as Schwartz-Clauss describes them, were finishing off installations specially created for the exhibition up until twenty minutes before the opening press event.

I was very impressed by your show and by the fact that you both seemed to do a lot of work for it, all the bottles, all the collages … Why did you get so involved?

Fernando: The passion that we had for this exhibition …

Fernando Campana

Fernando Campana

Humberto: Yes, because it had been planned [for so long]; we had four years to prepare this exhibition. We saw the care that Mathias took; he went to Brazil twice in order to see our universe. So we started to contaminate each other …

Fernando: We knew that this exhibition would give a better comprehension of our work. Sometimes people think we do just one kind of thing, that we don’t do industrial, or that we just do very handcrafty things … The exhibition gives an overall vision of our work.

I think that was what I really got out of it: to understand the process and the background of your work. Is that also very important to you, that people can actually understand where you come from and which processes you go through?

Fernando: Oh, yes! Since our name is projected all over the world nowadays, it’s good to show that the base is Brazil. It’s not to be nationalistic, not at all, but to show our vision, including the defects of our country, which we don’t hide. We try to show everything, which can potentially be good or bad.

Humberto Campana

Humberto Campana

Famously, you have a video to explain how to make the Vermelha rope chair. Was it important for you from the very beginning to document or to explain?

Humberto: The Vermelha chair video was documented accidentally. I used to make those Vermelha chairs, the rope chairs, myself. When Massimo Morozzi of Edra was interested in manufacturing it, he asked us to send him a project. But how can you send a project of 400 meters of cord rope?

Fernando: Connect-the-dots …?

Explaining the design process behind the Vermelha chair

Explaining the design process behind the Vermelha chair

Humberto: So we sent a video of myself weaving it, step-by-step, explaining how to manufacture it.

Fernando: From that we learned what was “Making Of” … And all the projects from then on we started making pictures of; and this is very important because it attracts you to details that you may forget in the future, how to translate a process to a manufacturer. Since our work is very elaborate, you have to pay a lot of attention to the movements …

Is it also that because you have documented it, you can go back to it again after, say, five years, when you have new ideas about it?

Fernando: Our best documentation is in 3-D, we keep everything as models, or in real-scale. We don’t live only in the bidimensional … We do furniture, so I prefer to see it in real scale. In Brazil we have a facility of working hands; it’s not expensive. So we can invest and finance our own prototyping.

Humber to Campana, with his special installation for the exhibition, made from PET water bottles

Humber to Campana, with his special installation for the exhibition, made from PET water bottles

Materials are very closely associated with everything you do. In each piece, the materials are very specific, very exciting, very interesting. How do you find your materials? Do you start from the material – seeing what it does and then working out something to do with it – or do you start from a project?

Fernando: The material’s going to tell what it wants to be when it grows up. We are inspired by things we see on the streets, not only in Sao Paulo, but in Brazil, in the whole outside world. Like we saw the bottles here and we made a thing that was inspired in Basel, not in Brazil anymore. But materials are always catching our attention.

Humberto: And they help us to project the furniture, I guess they teach us how to be designers. The feeling is there, the DNA, and it’s a great challenge to transform them into another molecular universe.

A lot of recycled or re-used material?

Fernando: This was by accident. In the beginning we didn’t have money to invest in sophisticated tools, or injection-molding chairs, anything like that. So we started going to the market, to the Brico-centers, to places like this, to see what we could pick up and bring with the same character, or characteristics, of a plastic chair. That’s why we made the bubble-wrap chair. We wanted to make a chair, but even though we had money, our textures, our elaborations, were too complicated to make a tool that could bring it all together. So we decided we would make our plastic chairs on our own. So we did the bubble-wrap one, then the garden hose stool … and suddenly, we were recycling or re-using or giving a second life to the materials. We were doing good without knowing that we were doing good – it was by accident, I must confess!

Humberto: But we had it clear in our minds that we didn’t want to work with noble wood from the Amazon. Because in the 60s, being a designer in Brazil was synonymous with “let’s use Jacaranda” … and we didn’t want that. We have the heritage of our father who was an agronomic engineer, so from very early on we had a great respect for nature.

Objets Trouvés: incl. the Garden-Hose chair , the Anemone chair, the Tattoo table and the Bubble-Wrap chair

Objets Trouvés: incl. the Garden-Hose chair , the Anemone chair, the Tattoo table and the Bubble-Wrap chair

There is a section of the exhibition called “Objets Trouvés”. Is there an element of happenstance in terms of the colors, the materials and the textures of the garden tubes, or the anti-slip materials in your Sushi furniture, or are they your selection?

Humberto: Some of them we choose … The Sushis are completely by coincidence: we employ the guy in the workshop to make them [in his own way]; but others, like the bubble-wrap chair, there we had the intention to make something very white, that looks industrial, coming from plastic extrusion. We just play with different situations, you know. I guess one of the great positive things about Brazilians is this flexibility, because we have been living in crisis since we were born (laughs), so we are always prepared for the ups and downs, you know, and this gives us mental agility for planning.

Mathias Schwartz-Clauss presents the grouping of works themed under "Clusters"

Mathias Schwartz-Clauss presents the grouping of works themed under “Clusters”

Is “re-using” now a key concern of yours?

Fernando: Yes, we do that more and more, now, but at the beginning it was …

Humberto: … a necessity …

Fernando: … the “wrong”, right path!

Clusters: incl. Harumaki and Sushi chairs

Clusters: incl. Harumaki and Sushi chairs

Do you also think about making your own objects further reusable, so that they’re themselves easier to recycle? Or are you expecting that your furniture will last for a long time?

Fernando: There are pieces of ours in auctions, but by clients, by other people, not through our hands. But I think the pieces have to have a [planned] end in recycling, even though they are not going to be recycled, but at least to show the possibility. For instance, the shoes that we have made for Melissa are plastic. Many people criticize plastic. PVC is not the big bandit. PVC is recyclable forever. To make a colorful shoe, we could not make it 100%; but we got the minimum of recycled-PVC, which is 30%, into those shoes. That was an obligation which we gave to the company. And, also, to give tips for the young girls for how to reuse it, like to make a bracelet, or jewelry. In fact everyone who has a project for Melissa, like Karim Rashid, Zaha Hadid, Patrick Cox, us, should give another option, like make a bracelet or a broach or a vase.

Humberto: This is where design can be political: to ask for the impossible – being recyclable, paying attention to these elements.

Press event at the Vitra Design Museum

Press event at the Vitra Design Museum

There is a big debate now about this: are there too many objects in the world, is there too much design?

Humberto: Well, imagine if all of a sudden we didn’t have any more new movies, new books, or new buildings. Everything would be the same. Human beings need this! It’s part of our DNA.

Fernando: We have, nowadays, of course, to give more sustainability to these things, not to make them just for fun. But more and more, I think, making things recyclable also contributes to the humanization of the production, which is also environmentally correct. When you get people to do something, you reinforce their self-esteem. For instance, the guys who weave the chairs at Edra: they are completely proud of their work, because each one is one of a kind. So this is also another way to treat the environment, like the human being.

The " three-in-one" chair, an early work that prefigures the rope work of the Vermelha chair and the wire work of the Fios table

The ” three-in-one” chair, an early work that prefigures the rope work of the Vermelha chair and the wire work of the Fios table

What’s your design philosophy?

Humberto: Hands on. Investigation …

Fernando: Contamination. To contaminate means you can make other people think in the same way, or make them feel like doing this.

Humberto: Or opening doors for other creators: being an example of not waiting for treasure to come from heaven. A young designer expects all the time to be manufactured, but if it doesn’t happen, why doesn’t he found his own studio and start to manufacture by himself, as we did, twenty-six years ago? It was plenty of experience; we know it all: knocking on doors to sell the product, doing all the logistics, making deliveries … you need to be patient and have a lot of passion to make things happen in your life.

You can lead by example, because you’ve been through all this …

Fernando: Whenever some intern arrives in our studio, they think they are going to be pop stars and I send them to clean the toilet sometimes (laughter). Not to clean the toilet, but to keep the things clean, in order. I still clean the dishes, the things that are in front of me. They have to keep that in mind. And I do that, I reinforce that. It’s not only glamour, or saying: “I’m now here,” they have to learn step-by-step how to deliver … sometimes they go to the suppliers, they buy the things …

Camper store in Barcelona, designed by Fernando and Humberto Campana

Camper store in Barcelona, designed by Fernando and Humberto Campana

In one of your previous interviews, you were saying that you like minimalism, but maybe you don’t always achieve it. Why is that?

Humberto: We cannot be something that we are not. You know, we are part of a different society: Brazil’s Baroque is maximalist … extravagant … We can not be Scandinavian, or German, who have rich traditions of design. Our school is the handcrafts. It’s not Bauhaus. But each one has his own value you know. I admire Konstantin Grcic, Bouroullec, all those designers that work in mass-production.

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