Fernando Campana, Provocateur of Furniture Design, Is Dead at 61

Fernando Campana, who with his brother Humberto pushed the boundaries of furniture design with evocative and provocative objects crafted from unlikely materials like charcoal, tree branches, Bubble Wrap, smashed Murano glass and even stuffed animals, died on Nov. 16 in São Paulo. He was 61.

The cause of death, in a hospital, was not known, Humberto Campana said.

The Campana brothers became international stars of contemporary design, for decades producing curious and beautiful pieces that were basically furniture, or at least rooted in the idea of furniture — though they also designed jewelry, clothing, housewares, stage sets, interiors and art installations. Their work reflected “the beautiful chaotic subtlety of the Brazilian spirit,” the artist Vik Muniz wrote when he interviewed the pair for Bomb magazine in 2008.

They did not plan to become designers. Fernando had an architecture degree, though he wanted to be an actor or maybe an astronaut, and Humberto, who was eight years older, had studied to be a lawyer. “I think everything was wrong from the very beginning,” Humberto told Mr. Muniz.

But Humberto decided he would rather be a sculptor, and began to make mirror frames and other small objects. By the 1980s, the brothers began designing things together, including a collection of rough iron chairs — bristling with spikes, flames, whorls and jagged edges — that was a response to the end of Brazil’s nearly two-decades-long military dictatorship. They called the collection “Desconfortáveis,” or “Uncomfortables,” and it made them art stars at home.

“It was rustic, aggressive and Brutalist,” Humberto said by phone. “It was like a vomit of all we had suffered.”

The Favela chair, made in the early 1990s, was more hopeful, a frenzied-looking bramble of small slats of wood nailed together and inspired by the ad hoc structures of Brazil’s favelas, or shantytowns.

A bundle of red rope bought at a street stall became their Vermelha chair — vermelha is Portuguese for red — 1,640 feet of rope looped like spaghetti on a metal frame. A street vendor’s haul of stuffed animals inspired one of their best known works: the Banquette chairs, which are nests of plush toys, like the array on a child’s bed.

They continued to find inspiration in their city’s neighborhoods and also in its artisans, whose work they supported with their own. A series of pieces called Transplastic from 2006 made from a woven fiber called Apuí embedded with cheap plastic cafe chairs was produced by a local wicker company that was about to shut down — and in so doing erase the age-old skills and the livelihood of its workers. How the series came about is typical of the brothers’ practice: a commentary that’s both deadly serious and fanciful.

The Vermelha chair, which was conceived when the brothers looked at a tangle of red rope bought at a street stall.Credit…Courtesy of Edra
The Favela chair, which was inspired by the ad-hoc structures made by Brazil’s shantytown dwellers.Credit…Courtesy of Edra

“I had read somewhere that the soil in the Mediterranean is made almost entirely of plastic, that there’s no more organic soil left,” Fernando told Mr. Muniz. “Imagine a plant growing out of plastic. Then we made an ironic game of it. Lounge or parlor chairs were originally made of wicker, for ventilation and lightness, but then the wicker was replaced with metal, then braided plastic string, and, finally, cheap and ugly plastic-injection molding. Our project was a counterattack: wicker overtaking everything like a parasite, and trying to regain its place through prostheses, hybridism, and the joining together of the chairs. These are objects that somehow tell their own story, a mutant evolution.”

The slow roll of their fame outside of Brazil began with a 1993 article in Domus, the Italian design magazine. Toward the end of the decade, Edra, an Italian manufacturer, began producing their pieces for an international market. About the same time, Paola Antonelli, then an associate curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, invited them to New York City to do a show with Ingo Maurer, the German lighting designer; the exhibit would introduce them to the world.

It almost didn’t happen, however, because they never received her initial proposition, which came by fax (remember, this was the ’90s). Three months before the show she phoned them in a panic: “Are you not happy with the exhibition?”

They scrambled.

“They were making gorgeous objects with found things,” Ms. Antonelli said, recalling a riotous first meeting, when they introduced her to their city’s neighborhoods and mélange of cultures. They taught her the proper way to eat mangoes (in a bathing suit in the ocean), how to avoid snakes while walking in the fields (wear rubber boots) and how to swim with cormorants

“They were having a ball with an innocence and an enthusiasm and an energy that was contagious,” she said. “They were celebrating their roots, the making culture of Brazil.”

Among the brothers’ best-known works was a series of chairs stitched with stuffed animals, like the array found on a child’s bed. Atop the “Banquete of All Animals,” as the piece was called, is the photographer Fernando Laszlo’s dog, Badu.Credit…Fernando Laszlo

And its make-do culture, using whatever is at hand, which often led to comical scenes in settings like museums. There was the time they sent their Bubble Wrap chair, packed in a box in Bubble Wrap, to a show in Rio. As they told Wallpaper magazine in 2020, “When we arrived to check on the exhibition, the chair was absolutely destroyed. The crew who received it kept on peeling off the sheets, looking for the chair! Luckily it was an easy fix, as all we had to do was run to the office supplies store and replace the plastic sheets.”

The brothers were symbiotic, finishing each other’s thoughts, if not each other’s sentences. Interviewers often quoted them speaking as one.

“A remarkable ‘they,’” said Murray Moss, the design impresario who for years sold the Campana brothers’ work from his gallery-like store in New York City. “My experience of them as people is they weren’t designing anything, they were jumping off a cliff.”

He described an adventure with the brothers at Venini, the centuries-old glass factory in Murano, Italy, to make a series of exquisite bells, one of many commissions he gave them, though they didn’t decide on what exactly they were going to design until they were inside the factory.

“The factory is groups of men around a fire,” Mr. Moss continued. “The brothers walked in basically wearing bathing suits. They thought it was going to be hot. They didn’t realize they had to protect themselves. Fernando fainted that first day. But then the next day they began to design, which was essentially an improvisation of sketching and yelling: Classic bell shape, go! Add two handles, go! We did 150 bells. I was very proud to be with them.”

Fernando Piva Campana was born on May 19, 1961, in Brotas, a small country town outside of São Paulo, the youngest of three brothers. His father, Alberto, was an agronomic engineer; his mother, Célia (Piva) Campana, was a teacher. Fernando studied architecture at the University Center of Fine Arts of São Paulo. In addition to Humberto, Fernando is survived by another brother, José.

The Campana brothers’ work, which often sells for tens of thousands of dollars, is in the permanent collections of the MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City; 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.

“It was like a marriage without sex,” Humberto said of their long collaboration, which in fact lasted longer than many modern marriages. (Neither brother was married.) “It was a kind of symphony. We started with no plans or any strategies. What connected us was a love and a passion to show our country without clichés but with dignity.

“But we are totally different. Fernando liked to stay far away from the project, drawing alone in his house. Myself, I like the process of doing, of being in the shop. He was very anarchic, nonconformist, he provoked me a little. He wanted to be an astronaut. I want to be Indigenous, to live in the Amazon without shoes. It was a perfect combination. I held him down, and he made me fly.”

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