The Campana brothers' latest project, the New Hotel in Athens, is alive with energy and passion. They explain to Christopher Kanal why design is storytelling, and how they combine art and furniture.
Award-winning Brazilian designers the Campana brothers ventured into the unknown with their first hotel project. The eagerly anticipated New Hotel in the Greek capital opened earlier this month. It is an extraordinarily creation that blends art, sculpture and design.
Hotels owner Dakis Joannou, who commissioned the Campanas, is a champion of contemporary design and one of the world's biggest art collectors. In 2005, the designer Karim Rashid used surreal curves and colour to radically revamp one of Joannou's other five hotels in Athens, the Semiramis.
Joannou bought the former Olympic Palace Hotel, built in 1958, near Syntagma Square, in the heart of Athens. Designed by architect Iasonas Rizos, the building is considered one of the city's finest examples of modernist architecture. Joannou decided to restructure the building piece-by-piece without discarding anything and reinvigorate it as the New Hotel.
Enter the Fernando and Humberto Campana, who were approached by Joannou in 2007. "Dakis wanted people to go into the hotel and crack a smile," explain the brothers. "We remember that sentence very well, so in each thing we designed we always had that in mind like an echo."
The Campanas have built their reputation on creating viscerally stunning design products with an explosive "favela" edge. The double act bring a sexy, colourful, sometimes dangerous energy into their work, painstakingly using recycled materials and cast-offs. Many of the creations from their 30-year career, such as the Vermelha armchairs that are made from 500 metres of rope woven together, are design icons. The Campanas have made furniture out of furry toys, such as the Shark and Dolphin chair, and recreated the colourful swirls of California sushi in a plastic carpet and limited edition series of chairs called the Sushi range. At this year's Milan Design Week, they unveiled wildly imaginative furniture designed in collaboration with South African ostrich leather manufacturer Klein Karoo. For the Campanas, material and form come first, followed by function.
The São Paulo-based Campanas never intended to be designers. Humberto, eight years older than his brother, originally studied law, but began to design furniture in the mid-1980s after Fernando completed his architectural degree. Europe and North America first took note of their highly original and energetic designs. Recognition in Brazil took longer. Today they are design superstars at home and abroad. "As brothers and associates, we have a great intimacy," the Campanas reveal, laughing. "We would say it's like a marriage without sex."
"It was a challenge to convince two of the greatest designers of our time to apply themselves in dealing with architecture and space rather than object, and on top of that in a city unfamiliar to them," says Joannou. The Campanas rose to the challenge, drawing heavily on Athenian culture and injecting it with Brazilian joie de vivre. "We tried to use anthropophagic concepts, and eating the local culture and digesting it with our consciousness, our Brazilian heads," they say.
"We never had the experience of working on a scale larger than objects, which scared us at first," explains Humberto. "Dakis gave us total freedom for this project; freedom to dream, a utopia." Fernando adds: "For me it was a big deal, because I graduated in architecture school about thirty years ago and this is my first project after all that time."
The Brazilians brought in architectural students from the University of Thessaly and created a workshop that reinterpreted local materials and culture for the project and remixed it. Students graduated from being industrial designers to "bricoleurs", as defined by Claude Lévi-Strauss, who strived to produce unexpected combinations through re-evaluating craft and using fragments from culture. "The workshop became like a school inside the hotel," says Humberto. Most of the hotel's chairs were designed by the students.
The project brought together the trinity of restoring, recycling and sharing that has been at the heart of the designers' creative approach. "We had the opportunity to apply all our knowledge and all our concepts which we've worked on in the 30 years, and give it a second life by investigating popular local culture, making a portrait of modern Greece and bringing in young people to help us."
The result, from the lighting and furniture to the realisation of space, cleverly creates a contrast between historical Athens and the contemporary hotel. "One of the aspects of our work is about storytelling and each piece of furniture has a different point of view," they say. Chairs and doors salvaged from the old property were reborn as gorgeous artworks. The Campanas and their students scoured the local antiques markets for furniture that was reborn in the hotel as hybrid tables and chairs.
The design of the public areas plays with perceptions of space. The columns in the lobby are covered in narrow strips of wood, already familiar from the Favela chair, while wildly jagged mirrors amplify the space. The mosaic of varying visual and tactile experiences pays tribute to the Campanas multifaceted country of origin. Many parts of the hotel were left untouched to create architectural scars and bandages.
Each of the 79 rooms and suites is a living art installation that guests can immerse themselves in. "We wanted to make a hotel that breathes art and that bears poetry," says Humberto. The Campanas worked within three clearly identified Greek themes for three different room types. The first pays homage to the hunchbacked fictional shadow puppet Karagiozis from Greek folklore. The next uses charms to ward off the evil eye - "We wanted to amplify a beautiful, 'useless' object. 'Useless' because it carries a mystic idea," they say. The final theme features lost postcards that reinterpret old Athens in a contemporary setting.
"The experience was one of the richest experiences in my life," reveals Humberto of the New Hotel project. "We didn't want to make a Campana hotel, only with our things and our furniture. We didn't want an ego-project, without sharing, and sharing was the great beauty of this experience."
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