Each week design doyenne Daniella Ohad talks with an industry-defining legend of interior design
Each week, Daniella Ohad hosts Interior Design: The Legends, a virtual program presented in partnership with Christie’s Education, comprising one-on-one interviews with the world’s most admired interior designers. For the Design Miami/ Forum, Ohad recaps the highlights from each conversation. This week her subject is Estudio Campana.
“While I have been passionately interested in design for most of my adult life, I can’t say that it is a field in which you encounter a lot of humor. So when I first came across the work of the Campana Brothers, it not only made me smile but it was also a real breath of fresh air. Every time I see a new piece by them, it lifts my spirit—I love the energy, fun, humor, fantasy and originality.” —Simon de Pury
To renowned Swiss auctioneer and collector Simon de Pury, the work of the Brazilian design duo Humberto and Fernando Campana, also known as Estudio Campana or the Campana Brothers, is all about fantasy and fun. To interior designer and collector Robert Stilin, he told me, their work is about provocative ideas and cool objects. To me, it is about storytelling, especially exploring the culture, tradition, and daily life in Brazil. The beauty of the Campanas’ work is that each viewer can interpret it in his or her own way—and the number of interpretations is as expansive as their international fan base. But there is one thing about the Campanas on which everyone agrees: They taught us all to think differently about design.
I first met and fell in love with last week’s Interior Design: The Legends guest speaker, Humberto Campana, in 2008, when Estudio Campana was honored with Design Miami’s Designer of the Year Award. It was a groundbreaking moment for the brothers, cementing their place forever in the design pantheon. As part of the award, they presented at the fair an unforgettable installation, massive seating elements composed of entwined rattan and amethysts. The project encapsulated the unique design vision that the duo has been cultivating since their career began in the 1980s—the beautiful marriage of natural forms and fine craftsmanship, which they believe has the power to transform people’s lives and save the planet.
Twelve years later, the Campanas’ voice is stronger than ever. Their work consistently offers a clear and confident point of view informed by heritage and personal experience, demonstrating that design can be as poetic as poetry, as narrative as literature, even when created in the humblest of materials and mundane found objects. They have become the most prominent ambassadors of Brazilian design and remind us that, even in our globalized world, national identity remains a relevant lens for appreciating the arts. You cannot think of contemporary design without considering their contribution.
The Campanas reference life in Brazil in ways both familiar and unexpected. Much of their work is colorful and layered, embracing a casual, unaffected lifestyle. In their hands, local materials are transfigured into enchanting artisanal objects. The skin of the enormous Pirarucu fish, native to the Amazon River, is processed into supple leather. Vernacular building blocks become an upscale retail experience. Stuffed animals sold by street vendors become one of the most collectible design objects of the 21st century.
“Brazilians are proud of their so-called ‘jeitinho brasileiro,’ which means the very creative, usually unorthodox ways that Brazilians resolve problems,” American-Brazilian artist, writer, photographer, and curator Paul Clemence told me when asked about Estudio Campana. “The Campana Brothers take that ‘jeitinho’ to a whole other level, infusing their creations with more magical realist narrative than rigorous function by drawing on their eclectic cultural background and unparalleled curiosity.” Humberto told us during the talk that it was from modernist architect Lina Bo Bardi that he and his brother learned to wholeheartedly embrace local culture, to look within rather than without.
For an Aesop shop in Sao Paulo, the Campanas made heavy use of traditional Brazilian cobogó bricks, a common sight in everyday South American homes since they allow air and light to penetrate into interiors. In the Campanas hands, this inexpensive, rustic material with it raw, reddish pigment looked ideally suited to be the flooring, counters, and furniture of a luxury beauty brand boutique.
The Zunino House project, the duo’s first private residential commission in Brazil, completed in 2016, offered an unusual opportunity for Estudio Campana, since, as Humberto explain, the studio doesn't receive as many interior design commissions as he would like. The clients, an Italian couple, gave the Campanas license to do what they do best—connecting to the local fabric—and the brothers completely transformed the four-story, vertical box-like house into a sensual tropical paradise. Most visibly, they clad the façade with palm fibers typically used in indiginous houses in Brazil. The most remarkable interior feature is the enormous, site-specific wooden bookcase. Covered in leather, it looks like some kind of surrealist plant-life. Surrealism, Humberto noted, is entirely desirable in all of Estudio Campana’s work.
Italy holds a special place in Humberto’s heart, he told us, not only because he comes from Italian lineage but also because of Milan Design Week, an annual event he said he never misses and always finds inspiring. It’s where he goes to see design of the moment and to connect to a younger generation of designers, a pilgrimage he thinks of as “a wake up call” each year. Further, Italy is where the Campanas’ career first blossomed, thanks especially to Marco Romanelli (1958-2021) and Paola Antonelli. Design writer Romanelli, Humberto said, was the first to recognize the potential of a Brazilian perspective to have a major impact on global design culture. Antonelli, meanwhile, Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art, was the first to recognize the brothers’ unique creative approach. After visiting their studio in Sao Paulo in 1998, she gave them their first important exhibition—just as they were considering giving up on a design career! Entitled Project 66, the show presented Estudio Campana alongside German lighting designer Ingo Maurer (1932-2019), who also frequently used found objects in his designs. The brothers' path was forever changed. “Campana Brothers before that exhibition,” Humberto told us, “are entirely different from Campana Brothers after.”
Estudio Campana’s predilection for giving the overlooked a second life is particularly apparent in Detonado, their 2015 furniture collection created for a show co-organized by Friedman Benda and Carpenters Workshop Gallery. These pieces are made in sheets of caning reclaimed from old chairs, patched together with nylon threads and mounted in frames crafted in Freijó wood and brass. The narrative of deconstruction and renewal brings a new interpretation to the legacy of Brazilian modernism.
Over the course of our conversation, Humberto taught us how we should look at Estudio Campana's work and what we can learn from it. Beyond championing local culture, humble materials, and handcraft processes, he showed us that nothing captures an audience’s imagination like authenticity. I recall the words that Robert Stilin shared with me: “I love Humberto both as a creative genius and as a human being. He has such a kind and gentle way about him. He is a real gentleman… At the same time is so passionate about his ideas and dreams. The ideas never end, and his work is always pushing boundaries and provoking thought—while also being fun and cool.” ◆
You can attend live Interior Design: The Legends webinars by registering here.