Take it from the Campana Brothers: this is how you design with a legacy in mind

Amsterdam – For my brother and me, design is intuitive. We are based in São Paulo, a very big city – 20 million inhabitants, chaotic but beautiful. It’s a city that constantly motivates us. For example, we walk around to observe the working stations on the streets, like the ones that sell plush toys. And this is important, because in 2002 we were looking for a way to create an armchair that didn’t use the traditional methods of upholstery. We looked at each other and said, ‘this could be the chairs.’ That’s where the alligator-toy chairs came from.

We decided to create our own animals and tried to find an NGO of seamstresses to produce them in leather. The women of Orientavida are the wives of prisoners. With this collaboration, we produced a collection of armchairs manufactured in our studio in São Paulo. The experience was very successful, and we decided to work again with them. We bought leather from Uruguay and we asked them to produce big cushions that would turn into puffs.

Campana with our director, Robert Thiemann, during his Frame Lab talk

In 2002 I also saw a traditional doll in Paraíba, in the north of Brazil. They are sold in the popular markets, for tourists. We fell in love with them and decided to investigate where and who manufactured them. We found the community, a place called Nova Esperança – it means ‘new hope’ in English, a beautiful name. The collaboration was different: I bought them, brought them to the studio and made chairs, stools, carpets. The chairs started getting published in the media in Brazil. We had no initial intention of helping this community, as we just fell in love with the object. But because of the media coverage, sales increased for them. We realised our work had helped them.

10 years ago Lacoste asked us to create a limited-edition polo. We decided to work with the famous logo. We got in contact with another NGO, in the Rocinha favela in Rio, called Coopa-Roca. The first polo was a collage of 2,200 logos. They signed an agreement to produce other models with our drawings. It was interesting, because we promoted this NGO, and then other designers in Brazil started working with them.

In 2015 we produced truly haute couture leather furniture with an artisan from the northeast of Brazil, in Ceará. That same year we produced embroidered lamps with an NGO of women close to the beautiful Rio São Francisco. That November, a large ore mine collapsed in Minas Gerais. People lost their homes and their jobs, and rivers were lost to the mud. We collaborated with a local brick factory to mix that mud into special bricks  – we designed a hand into them, a metaphor for a helping hand for this area. The proceeds of the sales go to the community through a local NGO.

'We realised our work had helped them,' explained Campana during his Frame Lab talk

So, after these spontaneous collaborations, we realized we needed to formalise our intention to share with others. We officially created the Instituto Campana, whose main mission was provide social and educational programmes. It’s located in my hometown of Brotas, 200 kilometres from São Paulo. The institute rescues popular culture and handicrafts that are in danger of disappearing, and develops social inclusion through education.

Our first project was in 2017, and we started with an organization called Projeto Arrastão. They got a lot of jeans from a local company and didn’t know what to do with them, so we just went in and stimulated them to create objects under our supervision. By doing this, their minds opened and their self-esteem improved. These are people who nobody pays attention to. They live in very violent favelas of São Paulo.

And this is precisely why this is important. Casa da Misericórdia invited me to visit another favela, to work with kids. It is a sad, claustrophobic place, where children are surrounded by very bad examples, from drug dealers to abusers. I asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up. Most of them told me they wanted to be drug dealers. I asked them to design objects, and they came up with bombs, guns, knives – things connected to crime. So I brought them to my studio, where once a month we had workshops to expand their horizons and present new examples of living to them.

And what do I want to be in the future? I wish I could be more involved in this type of projects. When it comes to our work as designers, our true legacy is using design as a tool for social transformation.

Humberto Campana was one of the jury members at this year’s Frame Awards, and presented this talk during our Frame Lab. This is an edited transcript of his presentation; you can see the full talk below.

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