Designer Humberto Campana

Furnishing Hope

By Cindy Clarke | Photography by Fernando Laszlo | All photos courtesy of Friedman Benda and Estudio Campana

Meet Humberto Campana, who along with his late brother, Fernando, reimagined the world of contemporary furniture design when they started working together in 1983. Recognized for their signature style of repurposing found materials to make furniture, the Campana brothers are renowned for adapting cast-off objects into ingenious designs and constructions that tell stories about the irrepressible Brazilian spirit through materials purposefully picked, uniquely sculpted and unexpectedly expressive. At once whimsical, fanciful and culturally distinctive, their collaborative work is immortalized in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Pompidou Center and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris; the Museum of Modern Art in São Paulo; and the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany.

Their sofas, cloud puffed, shagged, coiled in carpet trim, furred with pillows, and eminently comfortable, have been described as “a soft embrace.” Their chairs, some plush with stuffed animals, others velvet stuffed, many sheep-skin soft, a favorite corded in colorful red rope, and all snug, cozy nests, connect with memories thoughtfully made. Their tables, meeting places innovatively created from stone, tile, crushed glass, wood, aluminum and cardboard too, are architectural statement pieces that give new meaning to discarded building scraps. A kaleidoscope of lamps, crafted in brass, mirrors, glass, tubing and occasionally twigs, bathe rooms in golden tones and reflective narratives, illuminating the extraordinary vision of the designers. They birthed cabinets, creatively recycled with wood, porcelain, cork and more, to be versatile, sustainable and useful in their new incarnations. They sculpted household items with bubble wrap, charcoal, plastic, tree branches and more, all unlikely items that found their way to the make-do art of the Campana brothers. Their work together spanned the decades in an endless parade of variations that entertained, engaged and energized their fans with unflagging commentary about their life’s experiences and the chaotic culture of Brazil.

Their ideas were inspired by Brazil’s impoverished, always improvising street people, who by necessity are forced to build their lives with whatever is at hand, without having anything much to fall back on. Their lives on the street taught the designing duo to listen to the materials they found, be spontaneous, reinvent the things they see, explore freely, accept imperfections and mistakes, and look at life with a sense of irony or whimsy or nostalgia, feelings very much alive in their furniture designs.

The Campana brothers first burst upon the scene in 1989 with a 20-chair collection they constructed in iron that they called Desconfortáveis (Uncomfortables). They were rough, bristling with aggressive blow-torch cutouts, spiked and jagged edged, a visual retrospective of the feelings they had about living under Brazil’s then oppressive military rule. They debuted their Favela armchair in 1991, a seemingly chaotic compendium of thrown-away wood refashioned into a surprisingly compact well-proportioned chair that spoke volumes about their design inspiration and hope for the future.

Humberto shared that it was influenced by the favelas of Sao Paolo, local working class neighborhoods where the residents cobble their humble homes from any material they can find. The chair is a tribute to the resiliency of those people, the artist told me, rightfully proud of this story-telling seat, one of his favorite pieces. For him, it is a harbinger of hope in many ways, a symbolic rendering of how this part of the population constructs their lives, as well as an inspirational blueprint for future designers in the sense that anyone can produce a piece like this without much technology. Like the Campana’s next chair design, the iconic Vermelha, it is included in collections of museums around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Made of iron, aluminum, and 1,640 feet of cord, the crimson Vermelha chair was informed by the materials and traditions of Brazilian weaving. Thread was intertwined to form the ropes, which were then hand-woven into upholstery. It too holds a special place in Humberto’s heart.

“I always have a great love for my pieces. I have great respect for them because they have sustained me with their beauty,” he said. “My work speaks about all the experiences that I have or see and I try to translate them into objects. I try to do my best to communicate my best through these objects. I try to give them a soul like a human being or an animal because all of our work is very connected to nature. I have been doing this since my very first design. I am always walking around looking for images and places that I can feel connected to. Then I try to portray the experience in my work.”

His home and studio are filled with furniture he and his brother made, creating a world of fantasy and storytelling that are important to his universe. Having recently moved to a larger space, Estudio Campana is a 40-year showcase of all of his designs, and looks remarkably similar to a small working museum. Many of his original pieces, some minimalistic, others complicated, are still being produced today by other companies.

“Nowadays, I see a new generation reviving my earliest works,” he told us with evident pride in his voice. “I was recently in Shanghai and a person told me that my work ‘went where it was never allowed to go” in design and material. It gives artists permission to follow their gut instincts like I do. I love that!”

“Everything starts with the material,” Humberto explained during our interview. “The material is like a character looking forward to giving birth.” The Campana’s famous plush chairs were born when Humberto happened upon a vendor selling stuffed animals on the street. Humberto viewed them through the dual lens of a child and a visionary artist, turning them into a comforting collage of “stuffies” for a chair that is the truly the stuff of childhood dreams.

“The chair represents a connection to love and affection and gives off good vibes,” he said, something that is very present in his work today. “It reminds us of the teddy bears or rabbits that our parents gave to us as children. They are tokens of affection, fondly remembered.”

“I try to create things that have the connection with spirituality,” he added, saying “I need to give my best to items which will reside in people’s houses. Since the beginning, our work has been created with a deeper, more profound meaning. All of them are handmade, tailored objects infused with emotion, love and spirituality.”

That spirituality has taken on more importance as Humberto moves forward into the future without his brother, best friend and design partner, Fernando, who passed away in 2022.

“He is always present with me. I feel him design with me still,” he said, when I asked if his work is now taking off in a different direction. “My brother always wanted us to make something from aluminum and collected the material a few years before his passing. He found aluminum scraps at a foundry and I didn’t want to use them, telling him they were not good.”

“About six months after he passed, I had a dream about using his aluminum for a new design. My brother pointed out what I should do with it,” he said. And Humberto, guided by his soul and stomach, set out to make the pieces Fernando had long wanted to create.

His new aluminum pieces are “cool,” he told me, explaining that they are constructed strip by strip in a lengthy, intricately complex process that involved meticulously welding them together with different components. “I am much more interested in the process then the final piece,” he laughed.

“I’m very fond of using all kinds of materials,” he said, acknowledging that they add another important layer to his art. His new collection, “On the Road” currently on view at Friedman Benda is an homage to his brother and includes these new unexpected pieces, lighting, mirrors and benches among them, made with aluminum scraps and adobe and inspired by his brother. “It is raw and earthy, and has a deep connection to humanity and nature.”What story does he want to tell next with his designs?

“I just returned from China where I led workshops with young designers who were so enthusiastic to what I was teaching them. My approach, listening to my gut rather than a prescribed course of action, was totally different from what they had experienced before. It was one of the best workshops I ever led,” he told me.

While there, he reignited his interest in working with bamboo, not for his furniture design this time, but rather for a pavilion, a large one.

He spoke of the ongoing reforestation project he had started with his brother, which includes the establishment of a school and Campana Park nature preserve in his hometown of Brotas outside São Paulo. Their parents had gifted them a large piece of land, on which they have already planted 20,000 native trees with plans for a park that will have twelve green pavilions made with cacti, agave and bamboo to host scientific and artistic research.

“We are working with a biologist from the University of Sao Paolo who is creating a laboratory in this place in order to propose new regeneration of our natural landscapes all over Brazil. We are building pavilions with plants and local materials, and we are opening a small museum of our work,” he explained. “Fernando and I used to teach workshops in a lot of places around the world. Then we thought why not do it in our own community? We created this foundation with a mission to make people’s lives better in our own hometown. It is here where we want to propose good ideas and seduce people in a good way with healing places and arts that will connect their soul to this place.”

“I want Campana Park to be a place where people can go in silence to hear the sound of birds and nature. I don’t want it to be an amusement park. I want it to be a place of natural beauty, filled with hope and love. It will be a quiet place for healing the soul, healing nature, and sharing,” he said, telling me at age 71, he wants to give back to nature.

“My life’s work is all about healing. Designing furniture is not just about aesthetics, but also about emotions and culture. Just working with a very poor material then transforming that material into something that is precious inspires hope,” he said.

When he started his design career more than 40 years ago, without any training or direction, he did it on faith alone. He had spent five years as a lawyer in a career he didn’t relate to, before finding his voice and passion in design.

“At the time, I felt like a loser. I could not imagine the life I have been blessed with since.” His brother was instrumental in helping him achieve what he had not thought possible. “He wanted to be an astronaut and I preferred to stay grounded and work with my hands. I started my art career as a sculptor and designed small pieces like mirrors framed by seashells. Fernando was an architect who gave functionality to my sculptures. He was the one who introduced me to the design world.”

Losing his brother has been hard, but their shared memories live on and have opened up new perspectives for him. He ended our conversation with words from a poet he admires, Elizabeth Bishop, wise words about the art of losing that have soothed his soul and immeasurably touched ours.

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master, but it’s in the acceptance of that loss where true freedom is found.” – Elizabeth Bishop, One Art

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