words by Emily King
Martino Gamper makes strangely shaped furniture. Amalgams of odd angles, funny protuberances, unlikely surfaces and idiosyncratic features, his pieces perch uncertainly, as if waiting politely for an introduction to life on earth. At the first presentation of his exhibition “100 Chairs in 100 Days,” held in October 2007, Gamper arranged a collection of chairs over two floors of a large Mid-Victorian house in Londonʹs South Kensington. Each one a three-dimensional collage, pieced together swiftly and spontaneously from a cache of second-hand chairs that encompassed everything from celebrated designs to anonymous constructions, they offer potential sitters a series of unfamiliar experiences. The private view was a sort of matchmaking party. Guests tentatively paired themselves with chairs, staying put if the fit was good, moving on if the balance and comfort were not promising. As the evening wore on, it became obvious that, however awkward the chairs might appear, they are the agents of easy sociability.
Gamperʹs most recent show is a collaboration with the artist Francis Upritchard and the jewelry designer Karl Fritsch at Kate MacGarryʹs gallery in London. Titled “Feierabend,” a German word that refers to the celebratory moment at the end of the working day, the exhibition is a seamless scattering of sculpture, furniture and metalwork. In one tableau, blackened silver screws hold a bent wood shelf that, in turn, supports a small figure made of green clay. In another tableau, the ridges of a roughhewn wooden table are filled with multicoloured modeling material and its surface is strewn with cutlery that appears to have come from a parallel world. The boundaries between works and artists are quite unclear.
This exhibition is the kind of odd, ambiguous context that suits Gamper. Transience is the state he knows best. In the last twelve months, among many other projects, he has furnished a 19th century Italian fortress for Manifesta 7, designed an elegant shoe shop in downtown Milan and helped install a small multimedia project at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. And, more than just making objects, he has cooked dinners (many dinners) for groups of colleagues and friends, serving unorthodox but usually delectable combinations of ingredients from hastily-rigged kitchens in venues ranging from shops and studios to galleries and museums. The spontaneous bricolage of his working method remains consistent, but the circumstance and setting are wildly different every time.
Working across art and design venues, Gamperʹs practice raises questions of discipline. For Gamper himself, it is simply a matter of seizing interesting opportunities and pursuing fruitful paths, but for others it can appear to be shirking designerly responsibility or cashing in on the private wealth-driven, limited editions boom (a phenomenon that might now be on the ebb). Perhaps Gamperʹs unconcern is a product of his Tyrolean roots. Raised in Merano, a town on the very northern border of Italy, he grew up reading street signs in both Italian and German, but speaking South Tyrolean at home. Meanwhile, his mother talked to her parents in Ladino and his neighbors conversed in numerous other extremely local dialects. Gamperʹs sense of identity is strong, but unique. He understands structures and hierarchies, but does not bow to them.
Unsurprisingly then, Gamperʹs story is singular and characterized by spontaneity. After an adolescence apprenticed to Merano-based furniture maker Peter Karbacher, he bought a round-the-world ticket and spent a couple of years jobbing his way across the globe, often paying his way with joinery. Returning home, he applied to art schools and was offered a place in the sculpture course at the Fine Arts Academy in Vienna under the professorship of Michelangelo Pistoletto. Gamperʹs portfolio at that time was a large bag made from an inner tube (a design copied from other world travelers) filled with bits and bobs. In spite of seducing the art faculty with his cavalier style, he did not settle. Within months, he had defected to product design under the leadership of Memphis-founder and fellow South Tyrolian Matteo Thun and by 1994, before finishing his degree, he was employed in Thunʹs studio in Milan working on products, furniture and interiors.
Gamper moved to London in 1997 to study at the Royal College of Art and has lived in the city ever since. At the College, he forged connections across departments, most importantly meeting members of the nascent graphic design collective Åbäke, now his regular collaborators, in the letterpress studio, to which they had all been attracted by the physicality of wooden type and the craft involved in setting it. Gamper has a thorough understanding of design history embedded in the process of construction. He knows that to craft a joint in this way or that is not simply a practical choice, but one laden with meaning. Remaking the furniture of Gio Ponti as a performance at Design Basel in 2007, his gestures were playful, but their ramifications were deeply felt.
Addressing a more mainstream understanding of the discipline, Gamper aspires to make an industrially-produced chair. Cliché though it is, it remains the definitive design problem and, individual though he is, Gamper is not immune to this kind of injunction. Until now, he has been working primarily in contexts created by his curiosity or generated by his extreme sociability, but of course, with his current success, those circumstances are likely to expand and become less familiar. Gamper seems to be poised on a cusp. Tracing his ad hoc course up to this point has been fascinating; watching his trajectory over the next few years promises to be even more so.