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The Boys from Brazil

The Boys from Brazil

Workers assembling Fernando and Umberto Campana's Sushi IV chair (2002) Photo by Stefan Jonot

By Cathy Lang Ho | ARTINFO

October 12, 2009

The Campana brothers have turned down-cycling into design art.

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.

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“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.

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