Fans of Kanye West know that he's an intelligent aesthete, as well as a rap genius, and anyone who watched last year's VMA's know that he has some strong opinions. So it should be no surprise that in photos of his LA house (image 1), he has some serious statement furniture, including Frank Gehry's Wiggle Chair (1972) and Joe Colombo's lesser-known Elda armchair (1963). The most stunning piece (for better or worse) in West's home is surely the Banquete chair, the 2002 stuffed animal chair designed by the Brazilian design team, Fernando and Humberto Campana.
The Campana brothers' work is arguably the most challenging, avant-garde furniture design on the market today, incorporating disparate influences like pop culture, Brazilian street life and sculptural forms, and challenging our notions of beauty and taste. So do you love it or hate it? Read on and see what you think.
The Campana brothers have been working together since the mid-1980s. The elder, Humberto, was working as a sculptor, and Fernando had recently completed a degree in architecture when they together turned to furniture design. The men grew up in Sao Paulo, and credit the city with much of their inspiration: "Our designs were born in the street, from the urban kitsch of the popular quarters and contact with nature."
One of their early pieces is the Vermelha chair (image 2), made in 1993 after they bought rope from a street vendor and brought it back to their studio. Composed of a rope coiled and twisted to form padding on a steel frame, the form of the chair appears random, and, to the designers, was a symbol of their homeland: "It is a representation of Brazil in its beautiful chaos and destructiveness."
The Campana chair that Kanye West has in his home (which is now up for sale) is the Banquete from 2003 (image 3), a limited edition series of chairs constructed out of stuffed animals affixed to a metal base. Kitschy, but also comfortable, this chair reveals many of the themes that run through the brothers' work: an interest in found materials, the stuff of everyday life, familiar objects, and ideas of consumerist abundance and excess. It also reveals the character of their work: fun, "exuberant" (per the Moss website), carefully handmade, and deliberately challenging to accepted ideas of taste and beauty.
We can see these themes in nearly all their work, including the Favela chair from 2003 (image 4), which uses a Brazilian wood that was supposedly found in actual favelas in and around Rio de Janeiro. The Favela chair uses this cheap, accessible, cast-off material, building up piece by piece and layer by layer, like the cobbled-together communities it references.
The year before their Favela chair, the Campanas designed their Sushi series (images 5 & 6), which took rolled-up carpet remnants and off-cuts as the form and the padding for several different chairs. Again, the themes are clear: cast-off scraps of material recycled and re-purposed into something functional and sculptural. The reference to sushi seems like, you'll pardon the expression, a red herring, just a cute way of highlighting the process of creating the rolls of material.
Even when the emphasis is not on recycling cast-offs, the Campana brothers still focus on elevating familiar materials or simply celebrating the appearance of chaos, like their "Broken Dreams" lights made of fragments of Venini glass (image 7), their Cobogó tables made of the terracotta tiles used in many Brazilian houses for ventilation (image 8), or TransPlastic, their wicker furniture 'landscapes' embedded with plastic chairs (images 9 & 10). (TransPlastic not only elevates the banal plastic chair to something exceptional, but the wicker is also made of apuì, a vine that strangles and kills trees in the Brazilian rainforests, so the Campanas are at once evoking a rampant and voracious dark side of Nature while also removing the villainous vines from thousands of innocent trees). In each case, their work asks us to look more closely at the everyday, poor or broken objects that surround us.
The Campanas' work is understandably controversial. Subverting beauty and, occasionally, function, is not necessarily the way to win fans. For me, their work goes to the heart of what I find interesting about avant-garde furniture. Unlike fine art that hangs on a wall, furniture is expected to fulfill functions and also to be aesthetically appealing — some of the best paintings are a challenge to the senses, deliberately upsetting (see, for instance, Francis Bacon, Munch's Scream, Picasso's Guernica, etc.). So what does it mean when the artwork that makes us think, that shows us something old in a new light, or that changes how we see the world, is an actual object, even a functional object?
I don't claim to like everything the Campanas make. And sorry, Kanye, Imma let you finish, but Banquete is one of my least favorite of the brothers' pieces (my favorite is probably TransPlastic, or the more recent Barbarians collection — what's yours?). But I find many of their pieces stunning, visually and/or intellectually. And I deeply admire their desire to use the medium of design as opposed to 'fine art' and to constantly innovate with materials, forms and ideas.
What do you think?
Sources: The Campanas' body of work is much larger than what I've represented here. You can go to their official website to see a lot more. There are some good articles and images from their recent collections on Dezeen, and a nice interview with them at Design Museum. A lot of their designs are available at Moss Online, or other modern design sites like Bonluxat.
Images: 1 Kanye West's game room, with the Frank Gehry Wiggle chair (1972) in the background and the Campanas' Banquete chair at left, via rapradar.com; 2 Vermelha chair (1993) via Bonluxat; 3 Banquete chair, via Dezeen; 4 Favela chair, via Moss Online; 5 & 6 Chairs from the Sushi collection, via Dezeen and Moss; 7 Broken Dreams light for Venini, via Dezeen; 8 Tavolo Cobogó, via Dezeen; 9 & 10 TransPlastic collection, via Dezeen.