In the Studio of Martino Gamper


4 December 2013

When you talk to Martino Gamper, you sometimes wonder if he’s winging it.

Trained under Ron Arad at the Royal College of Art, Gamper is a designer whose work is often described as improvisational. But “improvisational” doesn’t quite cover it, even if it’s a description that has been applied to him for years.1 It seems too formal a term to capture how Gamper works – too intentional. Gamper’s design is spontaneous, makes hodgepodge use of found objects and – most importantly – it's disarmingly fun. It’s not so much like he’s improvising, more like he’s designing on the hoof.

Take Tu casa, mi casa for example, Gamper’s current exhibition at the Modern Institute in Glasow, Scotland. The exhibition is a simulated living room created within the gallery’s Aird’s Lane space. The room has been furnished with Moroccan carpets; chairs, side tables and tables; bookshelves and screens; mirrors and lights, all designed by Gamper, the majority specifically for the exhibition. The range of techniques exhibited is vast – carpentry, glass blowing, enamelling, parchment work, joinery, bronze casting, wiring, fusing glass, moulding, wood turning and anodisation. To name a few. It has been, you suspect, a mammoth task.

“We knew about the exhibition for a year and a half,” says Gamper, sitting at the Gio Ponti meeting table that is at the back of his studio in Hackney.2 The inventory for the exhibition lists 69 designs. So when was the actual work for the project done? “I did everything in the last two and a half months.”

Gamper's studio is based in Hackey and is split into a workshop and office. Here, the workshop is shown

It’s not just Gamper’s timescales that foster the impression he’s winging it – it’s the work itself. Even in his more commercial design for brands such as Moroso and Established & Sons, Gamper seems to embody a certain sense of abandon. Symmetry is largely absent from his work and chaotic geometries abound. His Metamorfosi collection for Moroso – a clashing-coloured furniture series that offers up increasingly wild hybrids of existing chairs from within the Moroso stable –3 is typical of his style.

One of Gamper’s most famous and conventional works, the self-produced Arnold Circus Stool, is unusually shaped (a faceted teardrop sold in a rainbow of colours) to lend it an atypical split function of serving as both a conventional stool and reassembling, en masse, into configurations such as circular benches and tables. “I try not to think too much when I make the work,” says Gamper. "It just needs to feel mature as an object.

Gamper sat at the central table in the office area of his studio

But Gamper’s design is deceptive. Although individual elements within his objects appear random and haphazard, they coalesce into coherent and well-thought through wholes. A coffee table that he designed for the Glasgow show has a glass tabletop that sits above a scaffolding-like base of aluminium, beech, walnut, oak and ash tubing. There are no screws, welding or glue that hold together the individual elements and each tube of material is instead slotted into the others through precisely cut grooves. It’s a chaotic aesthetic,4 but one that is only achievable through the formal discipline involved in the piece’s construction.

This sense of dichotomy is present throughout the Glasgow exhibition. Many of the objects displayed – chairs, rugs and lamps – are made from appropriated elements that Gamper has hacked and readdressed in new forms. His Yellowed Chair is an insectoid form in which a traditional plywood seat is contrasted against a new metal frame, the back legs of which look like golf flags, the single front leg recalling a two-prong carving fork. Similarly, the Moroccan Crossings series of rugs are traditional wool weaves that Gamper has embroidered with linear patterns that disrupt the colour and pile of the carpets. Both pieces are collections of clashing elements that Gamper has reconciled into compelling wholes. The objects on show in Tu casa, mi casa may be experimental, but there is a logic to them.

Green piping hanging from the walls of Gamper's studio

“The designs I make are very spontaneous but before I set out I have a sense of what I want to achieve, it’s not all up in the air,” says Gamper. “The whole idea of the exhibition was to create a domestic environment that was very much furnished, rather than a very sleek design show in which you exhibit a single chair. A lot of design shows display work in cold gallery spaces and that’s absolutely not how we want to live with design. It’s a bit counter-productive actually.”

Hence the logic behind the designs in Tu casa, mi casa. The works are eccentric,5 but it's all in aid of fostering a feeling of a homely, authentic living environment.6 It’s a space of unusual influences – one that owes more to the eclectic cosiness of the Eames House in Los Angeles than it does to conventional white cube galleries. Equally, the furniture contained within the exhibition is far removed from the predilection within contemporary design for a kind of Scandinavian-inflected minimalism. Instead, the pieces steer closer to the warmth, artisanal qualities and decoration of work produced during Britain’s Arts and Crafts movement in the late 19th and early 20th Century. “A lot of the time in design it feels like everything has to make sense and be conceptually quite rigorous, but I quite like a decorative element that is well integrated into an environment,” says Gamper. It’s an appropriate aesthetic, particularly given Glasgow’s status as one of the epicentres for Arts and Crafts.7

The kitchen space in the studio, with a magnetic knife rack attached to the wall

A central tenet of Arts and Crafts was a resistance to machine-made goods and industrial manufacture, with its proponents advocating the need for preservation of the historical intimacy between a craftsman and his materials. This way of working seems to resonate with Gamper. The vast majority of work in Tu casa, mi casa are one-off pieces that Gamper has produced in collaboration with artisans and which aren’t optimised for industry or manufacture. They’re not even editioned pieces. “A one-off piece gives you more freedom,” says Gamper. “You don’t need to worry about constraints. If it works as a piece of furniture, then it’s fine.

“A lot of people use the gallery world as a chance to do limited edition, but I don’t think you learn anything with that because you still have to have the same thinking as the manufacturer. With one-off pieces you don’t have to worry about the restriction of manufacturing and that’s interesting for the freedom it gives you. I can sit back and say, ‘OK, that’s what I’ve done, this part would be interesting to develop further into products.’”

Tooling attached to the walls of the workshop, which are perforated with holes to allow for the attachment of hooks

This sense of work in progress seems to apply to all areas of Gamper’s practice and particularly to his studio space, which is split into two long, narrow rooms – an office and a workshop. The rooms run side by side, with access between the two provided by a door at the office's rear and workshop's fore.

The studio has all the features you would expect of a designer’s space – tools, material stocks, a meeting table – but it is distinguished by the sheets of white chipboard that cover most walls. These boards are drilled with a repeating pattern of small holes to which hooks can be easily attached, creating a rudimentary but effective storage system. Perforated boards are standard components, purchasable from any DIY store, but what is surprising is the sheer quantity that Gamper has used. They're almost tiling.

Thanks to this quantity, whole walls of Gamper's studio have been transformed into hanging space for – amongst other things – note pads; a half mask respirator; leather swatches; Apple cables; a hinged corkscrew; rings of spoons; vices; chairs; portions of chairs; mock-ups of chairs; plastic tubing in two shades of green; aprons; goggles; spirit meters; scissors; welding masks; a recipe for banana bread; knives; and a selection of dried figs.8 As more is accumulated, more can go up. It’s an adaptable system and, in its conception, thoroughly Gamper-esque. It takes an assortment of disparate items and unites them into a working whole. It’s chaotic, but beautiful.

Filing cabinets and the edge of Gamper's hacked Gio Ponti meeting table

“I look for freedom in projects,” says Gamper when describing how he chooses to work. “At a certain point in my career I realised that there was just no point in me trying to compete with everyone out there in the furniture world to design five or ten products. There are already plenty of people doing that. I realised I had to find my own voice as a designer.”

That voice is developed through projects like Tu casa, mi casa, an exhibition more about joyful experimentation than it is providing finished designs in a gallery. “It’s a mistake to think a designer just design chairs, objects or products,” says Gamper. “You also design your own practice and my methodology is part of my voice.” In this sense Gamper's improvisation and eccentricity is all part of a well-thought through philosophy and approach towards design; all part of a move towards finding his voice in a crowded design marketplace. It’s almost as if he’s not winging it at all.